During the inaugural Jamhuri Day celebrations in 1963, Kenya marked a significant milestone as it transitioned from British occupation to becoming a republic. Jomo Kenyatta, revered as the father of the nation, made a solemn promise to combat three formidable adversaries – poverty, disease and ignorance.
Fast forward to the present day, as President William Ruto takes centre stage today at Uhuru Gardens in Nairobi to lead the nation in marking the 60th Jamhuri Day celebrations, he faces a nation seeking empathy amidst what has undeniably been one of the most challenging years in recent Kenyan history.
President Ruto's ascent to power last year, at the age of 55, symbolised a generational shift in Kenya's political landscape, but he finds himself grappling with the same enduring issues as his predecessors, with his first year in power turning out to be a baptism by fire, as he confronts a multitude of pressing challenges.
"The economy was dying. We have huge debts. Agriculture was at its worst. Insecurity was on the rise. Those we competed with should wait. They should give us the chance to fix the country where they destroyed," said the president last month.
"We are on a clean page. I commit that we will be faithful to transforming all sectors of our economy. Everyone will, however, have to play their role to build a nation that fits all of us," he said.
Elected on a “Bottom-Up Economic Transformation Plan” that was meant to jumpstart the economy by putting money in the pockets of small-scale traders commonly referred to as hustlers, the president made significant policy changes immediately after being sworn in.
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On the first weeks in office, he ended Credit Bureau Referencing, slashed fertiliser prices, introduced the Hustler Fund, gave the police financial autonomy, ordered a review of the Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC) and reverted the clearance of cargo back to the port of Mombasa.
He also launched his pet low-cost housing project, ended fuel and unga subsidies, swore six judges that had been shunned by the previous administration, ordered a restructuring of the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF) and ordered an end to extra-judicial killings.
Today, the impacts of these policies, which have shaped Ruto’s first year in office, have been significant.
Fertiliser subsidies, plus sufficient rainfall, have helped to push down the cost of food and inflation to some extent. In October, Kenya’s inflation rate was 6.9 percent after hovering above 7 percent for the better part of last year.
The low-cost housing project too has made thousands of apartments to spring up in urban centres across the country thereby creating employment for the hustlers and business opportunities for manufacturers and suppliers of construction materials.
The Hustler Fund has so far disbursed Sh39.7 billion to 21.8 million people and mobilised Sh2 billion in savings.
Yet despite some of these positive changes, the cost of living remains a huge problem for most households. The raft of new taxes and levies introduced by Kenya Kwanza over the past one year have made life even more difficult for Kenyans than it was last year.
“Resolving Kenya’s economic hardships has proved a hard nut to crack. Just over a year since he was sworn in, Ruto is no nearer to turning the Kenyan ship around,” wrote Westen Shihalo, a Senior Research Fellow, Institute for PanAfrican Thought and Conversation (IPATC), University of Johannesburg in his analysis of Ruto’s first year in office.
Over the past year, the shilling has lost 30 percent of its value against the dollar, petrol prices have increased 22 percent, electricity by 50 percent and household staples like sugar and beans by 61 percent and 30 percent respectively, further eroding the purchasing power of Kenyans.
In his first State of the Nation address, President Ruto, who has always maintained that some of the painful decisions he has made like increasing taxes are meant to save the economy, admitted that putting the country back on the right track will not be an easy job.
Kenya’s economy is currently saddled a Sh10 trillion debt, most of it from foreign lenders and accrued during tenure of the then President Uhuru Kenyatta for the funding of infrastructure. Data from the Treasury and the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) place Kenya’s debt stock at Ksh10.189 trillion ($69.3 billion) at the end of June 2023 in contrast to Ksh8.579 trillion ($58.4 billion) in June last year.
Various analysts have projected a potential debt repayment crunch in 2024 when the first instalment of the Sh304 billion Eurobond debt repayment falls due in June, putting more pressure on Kenya’s forex exchange reserves.
With an impeding debt repayment crisis next year amid a high cost of living, the Kenyan economy is not out of the woods yet and Kenyans will be hoping that President Ruto in his Jamhuri Day address to the nation provides a clear pathway on how to get out of the current turbulence.
Like his predecessors Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel Moi, Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta, Ruto's speech will most likely be a long way from not offering solutions on how to end poverty.