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Why ‘hustlers’ have no faith in the system

By Ken Opalo | October 3rd 2020

In his quest to create a cross-ethnic political movement through class-based mobilisation, Deputy President William Ruto has found willing supporters among so-called “hustlers.” The figures are in his favour. According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), there are about 2,765,100 formal sector jobs in Kenya. Out of those, less than 83,000 make more than Sh100,000 a month.

For perspective, Kenya’s total labour force amounts to about 17 million people. Therefore, the vast majority of Kenyan workers fit the colloquial definition of “hustlers.”

This is the source of the potency of Dr Ruto’s message. By framing the 2022 presidential election (and the potential referendum before then) as a battle between dynasties and hustlers, he and his allies have activated a base of supporters for whom economic considerations outweigh the traditional ethnicity-based politics.

A growing constituency of young people, especially men, view Ruto’s relief handouts as a sign of responsiveness. Notably, many of these young people have not seen fruits of the infrastructure investments and associated growth rates recorded over the last several years.

To counter this narrative, Ruto’s detractors, especially allies of President Uhuru Kenyatta and former Premier Raila Odinga, have also claimed to be hustlers or castigated Ruto for stoking class warfare. Many of these complaints sound like a capitulation to Ruto’s core claim – that the country’s establishment has for too long neglected the plight of working Kenyans (forget that Ruto himself is the Deputy President, and has been part of that establishment since his Kanu youth winger days in the early 1990s). This narrative is powerful, and the establishment elite will neglect it at their own peril.

From a neutral standpoint, the “hustler vs dynasties” framing might be what we need to the keep the establishment honest. It is likely that we shall be subjected to a referendum ahead of the 2022 elections.

The initial proposals coming out of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) seem to suggest it is purely an elite pact, with little for wananchi. However, after the last couple of months, it would be foolish for the BBI process to not signal concern for wananchi. Kenyans want a stronger devolved system of government, an economic system that delivers mass employment, higher representation of women in our politics, and an end to grand corruption in the public sector. Should the BBI process produce nothing but jobs for old men, the resulting referendum will most certainly go against it. Kenyans are a lot smarter about how our politics works than they were a decade ago.

The emerging contours of class politics also raise important questions about how we organise our economy. As several economists have been pointing out over the last seven years, annual economic growth alone is not enough. It matters where that growth is coming from.

The challenge for our political and economic elites is how to make sure that economic growth creates dependable jobs. However, given our current trajectory, we are unlikely to realise this dream. The government appears to view its role as simply a broker. We have spent or plan to spend hundreds of billions of shillings on projects implemented by foreigners with little trickling down to the domestic economy. Why is it that after nearly 60 years of independence, we still do not have a civil engineering firm capable of building a road from Nairobi to Mau Summit?

These are questions we must answer honestly if we are to stave off destructive populist politics. Otherwise our continued growth without development will only exacerbate inequalities and force ever more “hustlers” to (justifiably) lose faith in the system and its establishment.

-The writer is a professor at Georgetown University

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