William Ruto's generous media interviews a double-edged sword for his legacy

President William Ruto addresses journalists on myriad issues affecting the country at State House Nairobi on May 14 2023. [PCS]

In what appears to be a deliberate plan for a quarterly joint media engagement, President William Ruto offered another lengthy media interview to the nation this past Sunday evening. In many ways, this engagement on the part of the president is strengthening our democratic principles of openness and accountability from the highest office in the land.

Unlike his immediate predecessor who in all fairness appeared completely aloof to the goings on in his administration, President Ruto comes out as a really hands on type of a leader. Reflecting on the sum total of the issues canvassed during the interview, three things are crystal clear: One, there is no doubt that the good, the bad and the ugly that we are witnessing of his administration is either sanctioned directly or is done with the full knowledge of his office; two, there is no unifying government wide economic policy, but rather the country is being managed according to the whims of its supreme leader; and three, the president comes out as a screwed character, whipping emotions when it is convenient while completely ignoring the cries of his subjects on where it pains most.

The positives

For anyone who has objectively listened to the earlier joint media engagements, this was much healthier and productive. The journalism was great by relying on factual data, president’s own public statements and incisive questions that captured the public mood on sensitive questions. On his part, the president was better prepared compared to his earlier appearance, though incoherent on his overall vision for the country.

Second, on not less than one occasion, the president admitted culpability and failures of government on critical matters of public interest like the Shakahola horror. In addition, he committed to take decisive action on the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (KEMSA) scandal. This was executed hours after the interview. It has since been followed action on the mess in handling contraband sugar by the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBs).

The public apologies demonstrate humility of his part as a leader. The decisive action on these early corruption scandals in his administration may signal a commitment to fight graft.  However, it remains unclear why he seems very cagey in dealing with scandals from the previous administration that he still complains as the source of the mess he is dealing with. Further, it remains a question for open debate as to why he’s flooding his administration with people with active integrity questions.

Third is the fact that the president appears adequately informed of the practical challenges facing the education and health sectors that are dear to hustlers. For instance, he easily described the challenge with health workers across the counties. On the question of the Junior Secondary Schools he looked well aware of it.

What really was troubling was the way he quickly claimed to have sorted these issues. Eight months into his administration, the Competency Based Curriculum (CBC) has trapped over one million pupils in Junior Secondary Schools without teachers. With the cash crunch the government is facing, there is no way we are going to get enough competent teachers into these schools anytime soon.

This is a generation the government is knowingly denying the right to quality education. The poor parents can do nothing if they cannot afford to move their children into schools offering international curriculums. On the challenge of health workers, the president refuses to admit the fact that while primary healthcare was fully devolved, the Kenyatta regime left the money in the national government. He seems happy to continue with that injustice on such a critical devolved function. It must not be a coincidence or surprise then on the levels of stealing at the Ministry of Health. It is a scramble for the money that duly should have been sent to the counties.

The Monster

Unfortunately, the foul smell arising from the president’s fumbling on critical questions of the night crowds out the good. Here, I am persuaded to use a popular slag on social media drawn from the Bible in Luke 19: 1-10 of a man called Zacchaeus. From this story, as Jesus travelled to the city of Jericho, he encountered this wealthy tax collector and ordered him to climb down from a Sycamore fig tree in which he had climbed to see him.

Figuratively, the president seems to imagine he is a leader of a wealthy nation like Singapore, South Korea or France. The fact that he has constituted a cabinet of millionaires and billionaires as per their declared wealth during their vetting does to not make the nation a rich one. He conveniently forgets he heads a country with an estimated 8.9 million Kenyans living in extreme poverty as at August 2022, when he won the presidency as per www.statistica.com data.

This folks live of less than sh.260 (US$1.9) a day. That is why it sounds completely insensitive when he keeps on talking about taking only Sh300 or Sh1,000 per month from those privileged to have a job in the tax changes proposed in Finance Bill 2023. For successive years since 2018, close to 75 per cent of the three million salaried workers earn less than Sh50,000 a month as per official statistics. Kenya Revenue Authority data consistently estimates less than 3 per cent of those in formal employment earn at least Sh100,000. These are the folks who continue to bear the burden of all manner of programmes the political elites fancy.

This insinuation that Kenyans are less taxed compared to other nations was quite unfortunate. The president mixes ability of government to collect due taxes and individual tax burden for the tax payer. As a faithful tax payer, my tax burden is clearly reflected on my pay slip each month. Any coin I make after Sh43,000, the government takes away 30 per cent. Any spending that I do with what’s left, the government keeps VAT and all manner of levies. That surely is not 14 per cent, unless we are talking of another Cherera mathematics here.

However, it is on the proposed increment of VAT on Petrol and Petroleum products and 3 per cent affordable housing levy that exposes the lack of clarity of this administration. First, it cannot be true that the estimated Sh50 billion from hiking the levy will be ring-fenced for building of roads or retiring infrastructure linked debt as the president alleges. The reprieve from reducing Railway Development Levy and Import Declaration Levy by one per cent each cannot justify such an insenstive tax given the pre-existing cost of living environment.

The futility of rationalising the 3 per cent affordable housing levy was clearly manifest. How the whole thing was reduced into Kenya Kwanza’s innovative idea to create thousands of ‘Kazi za Mijengo’ jobs still jades my mind. Unless and until the administration explains this: If private contractors are constructing these houses under Public Private Partnership arrangement, on what basis do we collect employees and employers money to buyout those houses? After being allocated public land for free and given tax exemptions, how then does the government underwrite the entire risk for private contractors? Who are these private contractors and how are they selected to begin with?

The housing sub-sector in Kenya has been private sector and household driven for over six decades, how does the government imagine it can sort this when it cannot even build a few classrooms for Junior Secondary Schools?

Sorry Mr. President, act decisively on budgeted corruption, official theft and seal leakage of exisitng taxes in your adminitrsation –you’ll have all the money to bequeath us an African version of South Korea!