Ruto's ride to climate summit in an electric car was symbolic

President William Ruto rides the first Kenyan electric vehicle, Autopax, AirEv YETU, during the Africa Climate Summit. [PCS, Standard]

In 1975, The O'Jays, an American R&B group, released a sensational album named Survival with the song 'Give the people what they want'.

Without going into the details of the song, the title alone can serve as a political cord that binds politicians and the people they lead.

If we get the cue right away, we will understand why President William Ruto drove an electric car to attend the inaugural ceremony of the 2023 Africa Climate Summit in Nairobi.

For those who have interacted with the politics of climate change, there is always a question whether climate change appropriates politics or politics uses climate change.

Undoubtedly, climate change affects our politics today more than before. As we divert resources meant for development to deal with the effects of climate change, resources become scarce and competition for rare resources surges.

As the government demands more resources to cushion itself from economic shocks, it overborrows, overtaxes citizens, institutionalises cartels, and corruption becomes rampant. That is why the politics of climate change should not be confused with politicking for climate change. Let us explore further on giving the people what they want.

In May 2017, Barack Obama, retired president of the United States, flew to Milan for a climate change conference using a private jet and later was escorted to the venue of the event in a 14-car convoy. Obama's critics argued that the event was the best site for Obama to walk his talk. However, beginning 2009, Obama advocated not for a car ban, but for the automobile industry to make vehicles that are fuel efficient and require less gas.

On October 3, 2023, President Ruto drove to the Africa Climate Summit (ACS23) in the first Kenyan electric car, Autopax, AirEv YETU. Many applauded his decision, while critics called it an unsustainable political stunt. First, to tame our expectations of the government's effort to cure climate change, I will call Dr Ruto’s act political symbolism.

It was purely ceremonial. Call it a political stunt, display or show off, but the truth is that the gesture boosted the mood of lovers of electric vehicles and advocates of eco-friendly cars. On the other hand, considering that Obama was 'stoned' for living his everyday presidential life during the 2017 Milan climate change summit, Ruto would have been stoned if his protocol team managed the event like a national holiday.

In 2009, the then-minister for Finance Uhuru Kenyatta, drove an 1800cc Volkswagen Passat in a populist display of austerity measures to read the budget. He proposed that all official cars by State officers should be scaled down to a Passat and Mercedes Benz in his budget. Since then, whenever the budget is being read, the Cabinet Secretary of Finance usually drives to Parliament in a similar car.

The Passat is like the legendary briefcase that Finance Cabinet secretaries carry during budget day. So, when I saw the president driving in an electric car during the opening of the summit, whose theme was to explore climate change adaptation, resilience and solution strategies for Africa and the World, I was not surprised.

If the climate summit were to be held in Kenya often, the electric car would become like the Volkswagen Passat during budget reading and Kenya’s iconic budget briefcase. Is it then a sign of hypocrisy that drives politics? On the one hand, it indeed is, but on the other, it is what people demand to see. Does it add any value to the campaign on climate change? Yes, it does—politically speaking. It was a solidarity act of the president with climate change advocates. Unfortunately, such political stunts end immediately journalists fold their camera tripods and retire to process the big news.

-Dr Ndonye is a senior lecturer, Department of Mass Communication, Kabarak University