Sometimes in January 1930s, President Herbert Hoover found himself in an unfamiliar position: He was about to lose his job. Unsure of what the future might hold, he found himself in the middle of desperate times – the Great Depression. The New York Stock Exchange bubble had burst violently on October 24, 1929, a day that came to be known as Black Thursday. The stock market would eventually fall almost 90 per cent from its 1929 peak. The crash wiped out nominal wealth, both corporate and private, sending the US economy into a tailspin. Ripples from the crash spread across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe, triggering wider financial crises. In 1931, the economic calamity hit all continents in full force.
Consequently, the calamity reached Kenya, causing sudden fall in value of commodities. Export articles such as hides, skins and ghee products fell overnight in Karachuonyo within 10 hours after the collapse in Wall Street New York. It has been said that when ‘American economy gets a flu, small countries like Kenya catch pneumonia’. True to this credo, Kenya was under the depression. Settlers moved from the highlands where farming was becoming less profitable and settled in Sotik, Kehancha and Kamagambo to prospect for gold. In Bungoma, desperate cultivators would exhibit recalcitrance attitude towards soil conservation measures due to the influence of anticolonial sentiments propagated by Dini Ya Musambwa, thus worsening the effects of depression.
While paying attention to the most recent political, economic and ecological crises the country has been facing, it made me think of personalities who used the crises as springboard for their political successes in the past. One who sticks out in my mind is Franklin D Roosevelt (FDR). FDR was able to successfully lead a nation through some of the most tense and unstable circumstances encountered in years. Roosevelt campaigned on the failures of the Hoover administration. He promised recovery with a "New Deal" for the American people. In the middle of these problems, Hoover seemed heartless because of his ineffective policies. The Great Depression deepened during his presidency. Unemployment increased from 1.6 million to 14 million. Wages in many industries fell far below the poverty level. Crops rotted in the ground while people starved.
Hoover’s election campaign and speeches increased his unpopularity. People did not believe his promise that, “Prosperity is just around the corner” He offered no new policies. One protester’s banner summed up public opinion, “In Hoover we trusted and now we are busted”. He was cool and remote. One commentator said, “If you put a rose in Hoover’s hand it would wilt.” He certainly had none of the warmth and charm of his presidential opponent, Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt, thus, took advantage of the American crises and promised a New Deal, which was a series of promises based on programmes supporting farmers, the unemployed, youth and the elderly during the crisis.
Like Roosevelt, William Ruto knowingly or unknowingly has taken advantage of the Covids-19 crises and economic despondency as political capital to launch a campaign credo that has gone well with depressive conditions most common persons find themselves in. Like Roosevelt, Ruto seems to offer a deal and promising hope that will emancipate the likes of mama mboga from future effects of these pangs. This crisis has so far become a springboard for Ruto’s political successes. Roosevelt campaigned for American presidency against the backdrop of the Great Depression, with the promise to uplift “the forgotten man at the bottom of the pyramid”, which he planned to deliver via legislative initiatives that he called the ‘New Deal’. He was well received by hard-hit and fed-up Americans. He went ahead to defeat Hoover and to be elected president for a record four terms.
Like Hoover, President Uhuru Kenyatta finds himself tied to the overpowering grip of legal tyranny and party mutiny. Tamed by the Judiciary and frustrated by his frenzied and overly ambitious deputy, he thus finds himself powerless.
Like Roosevelt, Ruto is increasingly creating a fictional persona to recast himself as liberator by focusing on embellished ‘record of work’ to convince many that he is their leader of choice. This he has done carefully using choreographed speeches and recasting his public image as a driver of Kenyan politics. It is a fact that he has made many believe that indeed Kenya is in the midst of an extreme economic and political crisis that has inspired widespread feelings of disaffection. This condition, he has argued, has been caused by the ‘power elite’.
Ruto, like Roosevelt, has had an equally remarkable opportunity thrown his way by the Covid-19 and economic adversities. Will he be able to leverage the rampant economic difficulties and to weave an emancipatory narrative convincing enough to steal the thunder from his boss Uhuru and Raila Odinga? Can Ruto whip up Kenyans’ emotions highly enough to make them do a protest vote against the status quo? The answer to all these questions hinges on his ability to successfully attach a workable ideology to his ‘hustler’ politics.