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Could Ruto lead charge in Africa to rescue much delayed SDGs?

President William Ruto. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

The past fortnight has offered us a fascinating lens on Dr William Ruto’s burgeoning presidency. First, the widespread regional and global interest and support he has received.

Second, the heavy weight of domestic expectation on his shoulders, among those who voted for him and those who didn’t, to offer a quick, fresh fix to the challenges that Kenyans experience today, not yesterday or tomorrow. Third, the public interest that his maiden international sojourn as President elicited.

Clearly, President Ruto gets this truly digital age where all news is done in nano-bytes every nano-second of the day. Truth be told, this was already evident in how his (and Kenya Kwanza’s) electoral campaign turned to social media platforms as the antidote to mainstream media.

Beyond arguments we heard during the election about biased media coverage, it increasingly looks like the latter is now scrambling behind the former. Today, you don’t need to read the paper or watch TV to know what Dr Ruto is up to, officially at least. It’s only two weeks, but signs are encouraging.

As we await the “doing” part, it is possible to see that Dr Ruto has made quick use of this opening fortnight to frame the outlines of his domestic and foreign agenda for Kenya. Why framing? First, the domestic agenda – much of which was outlined in the Kenya Kwanza campaign manifesto – must now align with the reality on the ground.

While the state of the economy is probably more visible in an everyday sense, his team will be working through the real data that explains its true state, as well as the state of our fiscus (including debt). Second, because “foreign policy begins where domestic policy ends”, as former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once quipped.

There has already been plenty of useful conversation on President Ruto’s domestic agenda since his inauguration on September 13, as well as the initial actions that have already been executed. Without rehashing these conversations, the feedback has been mostly positive, ranging from cautious optimism to wild exuberance. His appointments will take us to the next steps in this path.

What is more surprising is that many seem unaware that the Kenya Kwanza manifesto offered a foreign policy agenda which it termed as “creative and robust” built around four pillars. Let’s quickly revisit these pillars.

First, economic and commercial diplomacy to create market opportunities for Kenyan citizens, business and investors, particularly but not exclusively, across Africa’s regional economic communities and the continent at large.

Second, positive influence using Kenya’s role as an anchor state to offer voice in local, regional, continental and global affairs, while leading or cooperating on efforts to advance peace and stability across the region.

Diaspora engagement

Third, deeper diaspora engagement to not simply unlock the potential of Kenyans living overseas in terms of economic participation and investment locally, but also in contributing towards the development of policy. One begins to see that there is a strong domestic flavour to the agenda. The fourth pillar speaks to a global citizenship for Kenya that is international in scope, Pan-Africanist in stance, and open to mutually beneficial relationships from the world’s four corners.

This might sound general, but remember Kissinger’s words. It sounds more than our cautious diplomatic posturing around territorial integrity, peaceful co-existence, international cooperation and non-alignment, and different from more recent five template of themes of peace, economics, diaspora, environment and culture. Yes, this promised foreign policy will evolve with realism.

Which brings us to President Ruto’s address in the past week at the 77th session of United Nations General Assembly (UNGA 77). To be clear, his address was not a statement on Kenya’s policy stance (though it offered pointers), but a contribution towards the agreed theme for the session. Recall too that most global media attention at the session was laser-focused on the war in Ukraine.

Here are two quick observations before we get to its content. It isn’t often that you get an African leader’s UN address (other than the Mugabe rants of yore) gaining coverage in the global press. It isn’t often that you find so much domestic interest, or trust, in what a leader says overseas. Even the heated teleprompter debate on Kenyans on Twitter (KoT) - that some have dismissed - signal a shared interest in his doing well in his presidential debut on the “bazungu” (western) stage.

“Well” in an African sense is anything from “he didn’t stumble” to “he did OK” to “he was good” to “excellent”. If these were the boxes, he ticked them all. His oratory has always been powerful, mostly in “ad-lib” settings such as campaigns.

He showed that it can also be solid in major formal settings. He also sounded more genuine than the dry spiel we have been brought up on. One senses that his delivery will get more powerful, and punchier, over the course of his presidency.

Punchier is probably where content comes in. Listening to or watching the address, you could hear what President Ruto was saying, but it was more difficult to follow the flow of his messaging. And this is probably because his messages touched on so many things, as illustrated below.

Planet in crisis

Acknowledging the challenges of today around ongoing regional conflicts, the Covid-19 pandemic (and recovery therefrom), the triple planetary crisis (climate change, nature and biodiversity loss and pollution and waste), food insecurity and the rising cost of living, he began by pointing us to the two-lane highway of the global economy that the pandemic has cruelly exposed.

Dr Ruto then offered Kenya’s support for efforts to build the “Pan-Africanisation of multilateralism and a just and inclusive system of global governance”. Within this thinking is a reversal of the inequality and injustice that festers today in what he termed “exclusionist nationalism” and the international community’s inability (or unwillingness?) to guarantee fundamental rights “including the safety and dignity of the world’s vulnerable majority”.

By the time the President got to his “Building Back Better, from the Bottom-Up” proposal to the assembly, we were only five or six minutes into his half hour address, with enough working material for a thousand concept notes, research proposals and political and development actions. That’s before reminding his global audience that the “last time that Africa was the focal point of strong and effective multilateral consensus was during the Berlin Conferences of 1884-1885”.

In between, Dr Ruto called for greater political will and international cooperation to support the world’s vulnerable majority in dealing with interlocking climate, food security and (largely resource-driven) conflict challenges not simply in financing, but technical and technology, terms.

It is impossible in this column to also touch on the points he offered on agriculture, the blue economy or ICT as well as addressable challenges ranging from debt to UN security council reform. However, beginning with the President’s call for a new paradigm in multilateralism (and global governance), there was more than enough in that address to get everybody thinking.

Particularly interesting for me was his specific references to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) No. 2 (on food security) and 6 (on water and sanitation). I am convinced that Kenya, Africa, the world must do much more on the 5Ps – People, Planet, Peace, Prosperity and Partnerships - that underpin the 17 SDGs. In the President’s words, one notes that he covered each of these pillars, obviously with his own flow.

Here is a radical position. To my mind, the SDGs – whose technical development was co-chaired by a Kenyan, Foreign Affairs PS Ambassador Macharia Kamau in his stint as our Permanent Representative at the UN – don’t have much more than paper presence and perfunctory political attention in domestic agendas, especially in Africa. On the flip side, the international community has no real incentive to actualize the SDGs outside the UN building in New York (and its different headquarters), especially with the developed world now struggling with its own domestic economic challenges.  Yes, this is harsh, but it offers a final thought from President Ruto’s address.

Hustler agenda

There is an attractiveness to the global SDGs agenda that lends itself to Dr Ruto’s fine-tuning of his domestic and foreign, agendas. First, the interfaces between its five themes (the 5Ps) offer thinking that balances, say, the Hustler agenda of the people with the planet (and its resources) in a way that speaks to peace (emerging from less resource conflict, and better justice) for prosperity through home-grown partnerships at all levels. Isn’t out future economics circular, not linear?

Second, the 17 actual SDGs are outcome-based commitments around real goal statements with tangible indicators and targets. Not to belabour this point, but in its own Vision 2030 perspective, an SDG framing is as close as it gets to the commitments to people our Constitution offers.

Even though, unlike the school menu the previous Millennium Development Goals offered, the SDGs present a buffet of choices.

Simply, could the SDGs – whose development had Kenyan leadership – be the bridge between Kenya’s domestic and foreign policy agendas, and business case for Africa’s global repositioning? Situation Vacant: An African SDGs President. Any takers? That’s my unusual conclusion.