Tricky balance: Why 'maandamano' is Ruto's leadership test moment

President William Ruto. [Edward Kiplimo, Standard]

It's been a couple of weeks, but we are already tired of "maandamano". That's one view. The other is that "maandamano" is getting warmed up and next week goes to the next level, whatever that is. So this week, I polled my WhatsApp colleagues - yes, our group of terribly smart devolution professionals - on Azimio's four "non-negotiables".

We were deep into a hot debate, supported by un-politically correct (as opposed to politically incorrect) Internet memes and clips, on the future of Kenyans and Africans. One particular Rift Valley clip triggered the discourse.

For clarity, here's what the four Azimio demands are about. First, an immediate reduction in the cost of living. Second, "open the servers". Third, a halt to ongoing IEBC recruitment. Four, respect for multi-party democracy.

In simpler English, this is what the demands sound like. First, the restoration of food and fuel subsidies, although a case is also being made for smarter inflation targeting. Second, the idea that the 2022 presidential election can be recounted, if not redone. Third, the umpteenth revision to selection rules for IEBC commissioners that were first laid out by the team who lost. Fourth, a call to stop Azimio defections and cut down on the transactional nature of our established politics that I refer to as our vote for "hire purchase" politicians.

Yes, there are other points made by the Azimio side of our permanent political divide. Skewed bias in appointments. General government incompetence. Presidential illegitimacy. But, notably, these were not the points discussed when the Americans reportedly paid us a kind visit.

So, what did the WhatsApp group say? Number two (servers) is not on the table. Number one (cost of living) is non-negotiable in the sense that one does not negotiate the cost of living. The general view about number three is the bed was made, and recent amendments simply tucked in the sheets and blanket. On number four, we reminded ourselves that, even though politics and policing have the same etymology as policy, we simply refute good manners for the public good.

In short, at the level of "what" before "whom", there is nothing to discuss, negotiate, or agree on. Or as one person added, how does one negotiate with a government they refuse to recognize?

But let's turn this around. Is there a "what" that's possible, and "whom" that can deliver it? I repeat myself, but let's go through my perpetual thought experiment on Kenya as a project.

We seem to love to rethink Kenya every 10 years. Without getting into the oathing of 1969 or the Jomo transition of 1978, it is easy, from an electoral perspective (because elections are our clear and present issue) to think of the "mlolongo" (queue voting) of 1988 before we get to the IPPG and minimum reforms of 1997. More recently, we will recall the 10 long-term issues we called Agenda Four that emerged from our 2007/8 pogrom, as well as the nine themes and issues that created the 2018 "handshake". We get the issues, but we don't bother to fix them.

If we follow this pattern, then 2027 is our next point of debate. More interestingly from a generation of experience, the debate happens as a beginning not the end of transitional term one. As if earlier presidential terms cause so much pain for Kenyans that political deals are needed for transitions. Let's call this our unholy pathology and victimization psychology.

But here's the truth. On Agenda Four, we got ourselves a new constitution and, to be fair, have done some useful judiciary reform and parliament is procedurally, if not morally, better. But we haven't quite done the reform needed across four bugbears - electoral, public service, police and land reform. We continue to play games with our youth unemployment and inequality questions as Kenya's population grows. Jomo started with nine million and left 15 million Kenyans. Moi acceded to multi-partyism when we were 24 million. Kibaki started at 32 and ended at 41 million. Uhuru left us with a census that said 47 million in 2019 but is probably five-six million more today.

And we are nowhere closer to integrating as a nation and addressing our corruption proclivities.

Basically, if there's an agenda on the table, this is it. But this is the "what" agenda we prefer to ignore in our obsession with "whom" without understanding the "why" and "how" from the "what". This is how a progressive BBI agenda that effectively resurfaced our Agenda Four issues secured worldwide acclaim on the "whom" of the handshake rather than the "what" we needed.

Let's put it simply. The emerging view is the four Azimio issues do not fly. But a correct focus on long-term issues might. The "why" is clear given our ambitions. The "how" is what electoral contests are all about, because they help us to decide the "what" before the "whom".

This brings us to the "whom" in our current state of "maandamano". Here is my personal take.

The 2022 election is done and dusted. Dr William Ruto is the President of the Republic of Kenya (PORK). What has been surprising is his ambivalence towards the whole question of protests, when his deputy and other acolytes have been far more noisy, aggressive and divisive. An interesting question that we asked ourselves is whether policing resources to stop banditry in the North Rift had been reassigned to dealing with protests as an interpretation of urban banditry. To repeat, the police look like the same old violent thugs in our current moment. They are modernized in the hardware of tools and equipment, but native in the software of their action.

Is this a harsh assessment? Yes. And it is deliberate. Because this moment is one of leadership. There is a way to transform a noisy electoral discussion into a constructive national debate. It doesn't need foreign diplomacy or local churches to curate a debate that is about us; you and me. Neither does it need bureaucrats - every single theme that BBI proposed reflected a failure to perform across the independent Chapter 15 institutions and offices we put in our constitution.

Leadership is where it begins and ends. Azimio has demonstrated that they can shut down anything up to a third of the economy in next to no time. A perimeter strategy that closes down Nairobi as a quarter of this economy cannot be dismissed in the language that Kenya Kwanza offers. The official suggestions we hear about stamping down on civil liberties through new rules of protest are nonsense. Kenya no longer has native citizens; we are Kenyans, not natives.

We have a leadership moment. Raila has offered us his and while there is a sense of incoherence in his asks, there is a correct view in his demand for electoral justice as a systemic answer to the politics we are forced to endure. Now Ruto, who comes across as a guy genuinely interested in transforming Kenya, as is Raila - including those Agenda Four issues - needs to show up.

There is a settlement coming. It is not a "handshake", but something towards a process for our long-term issues. I will say it again. We need to match Ruto's multiple ideas with Raila as an idea. But here's the trick. Ruto needs to take charge. In case he doesn't get it, he is the President. It is to him that all Kenyans are looking for a level of performance that takes us to the next level.

In my view, it is not Ruto as the econocrat. We've had one before, plus three securocrats. This "maandamano" tests the governance and rule of law - governator - credentials we sorely need. To be absolutely clear, Dr Ruto asked for the job, and this is President Ruto's leadership moment.