Kenya Kwanza's ever-changing narratives bad for economy, livelihoods

President William Ruto (right), his deputy Rigathi Gachagua and Prime CS Musalia Mudavadi (centre) during a cabinet retreat at Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club, Laikipia, in January 2023. [PCS]

As the Kenya Kwanza administration attempts to settle into its second of five years in office, national hope is turning to impatient despair and growing anguish.

Millions of beleaguered Kenyans are struggling with an unmanageable cost of living in a country where more jobs are lost than created while politicians, bureaucrats and other loudspeakers talk and live large and struggle with short-term answers. As Galbraith’s lovely adage pithily puts it, “In the long term, we are all dead”.

It doesn’t help that there’s no “full stop” to the endless promises thrown at Kenyans, many of which arguably fail basic fact-checking tests, do not seem to have undergone feasibility, viability, sustainability or acceptability assessments, or represent the recycling of work done in the past.

Of course, we have gone back to an old story of import substitution. Except that it’s different importers. Oil and Palm oil is a new one, but maize is our policy proxy. GMOs. Zambia. Fertilizer. Emergency imports. Emergency yellow maize imports. No more imports.

The only policy announcement left is we start “making” (not growing) maize, even ugali, using 3-D printing! But, we are getting ahead of ourselves. This is about seven short stories on Kenya Kwanza’s first year in government.

Indeed, these short stories might point us towards a better second year for CSs and PSs.

As The Economist magazine recalled in a September 2023 article, “(Dr) Ruto was elected on a promise to champion the poor”. This takes us to 2022 when wheelbarrows were all the rage and “bottom-up” was Kenya Kwanza’s sales pitch to recover and transform the economy.

County economic forums were flowing, and a manifesto version on the UDA website (subsequently disowned and deleted) offered a vision of “a peaceful and prosperous country where the poor will be empowered to get more money and land from the rich, who have been enjoying financial freedom since independence”.

The mission? “To realize the full potential of a hustler nation through a Marxist reorganization of society, taking from the rich and giving to the poor”.

We subsequently got a more polite manifesto version titled “The Plan”. But this didn’t stop the wild “hatupangwingwi” (we shall not be organized) promises that lit up a “Pied Piper” campaign. This short story captures every public promise made until the sword and bible were put down.

As a collection of short stories, not a novel, we are free to jump backwards and forwards in time.

So let’s go back to 2021 when Kenya, like the rest of the world, was struggling to recover the economy from a debilitating Covid pandemic that had taken our lives, decimated our livelihoods, reversed our impressive poverty reduction path and disrupted our living and lifestyles.

This is the short story where Bretton Woods rocks into Kenya with massive financial support, led by the IMF. Yes, the same IMF we are reminded of only comes in as a “receiver-manager”.

President William Ruto. [File, Standard]

The self-same IMF that was intellectually constrained to uniquely dual-define our fiscal deficit as “with or without” the Standard Gauge Railway as early as 2014/15, but was happy at the same time to offer a clean bill of health on the value of receipts into public coffers from Eurobond I.

It is not news that the fiscal consolidation (i.e. raising money to pay your debts – like Eurobond 1 and the SGR) inflicting public pain through tax hikes and subsidy removals was envisaged as early as two years ago. This is the short story about how the Jubilee administration fobbed off these IMF “recommendations” and basically gave a “hospital pass” to whoever would succeed them.

One important point that we tend to miss is that the IMF came in – as they always do - because we were already in trouble; not that we find ourselves in trouble today because the IMF came in.

Let’s jump forward to the next story, back on the 2022 campaign trail. “The Plan” has been launched. In its 170-plus promises and commitments, it claims superiority over rival election manifestos by insisting there’s a plan in there, not a laundry list of promises. It offers fine language on “prioritization and sequencing” based on six outcome targets (including reducing the cost of living) built around five pillars and 17-19 enablers (depending on how you read it). It defines “bottom-up” as an inclusive, job-creating model that will “…(make) Kenya not just a middle-income economy (of) GDP averages, but a middle-class society in every sense of the word…”

But there’s a disturbing caveat we miss. The Plan calls it Kenya’s perfect economic storm. First, external shocks reflect global economic developments. Second, our homemade fiscal distress.

Third, our long-term structural imbalance in the real economy (think dynasties, crony capitalism, cartels vs hustlers). None of this featured on a campaign trail full of “feel good” promises, but it is instructive that this “perfect storm” prefaces many economic policy documents – from planning to budgets, guidelines to statements – that Kenya Kwanza has issued since assuming office.

Don’t be disappointed that this short story isn’t complete, there’s more later in the book. Let’s instead go backwards again into the next short story. This one could be a mini-thriller. We might call it “The Dilapidated Inheritance that Was or Wasn’t”. There are two sides to this story.

The first is the fact that the “perfect storm” was known in advance, the dilapidation was expected.

But there’s a second, murkier side that remains unanswered. Did we have wanton and shameless “last mile” looting during the transition from Jubilee to Kenya Kwanza? What are the facts about costly maize and fuel subsidies? Hell, what’s the truth about, you guessed it, Telkom? Don’t be surprised if this story has a surprise pro-villain ending, in typical James Hadley Chase-style. Leaders are now in office, so we come back to the present with our fifth short story.

This is a story about hubris on one hand, and blame games on the other. If you thought the first story had all the promises, you will gasp at the fact, as said earlier, that they are still flowing. As are “rear view mirror” blame games, from dynasties to cartels to non-shareholders to maandamano.

Yet recent data shows the economy grew faster in this year’s maandamano second quarter than last year’s equivalent pre-election quarter, and tax collections this year are up, if not on target.

OK, no worries, let’s move on and blame El Nino and global events forgotten during campaigns. What might we now do with the billions set aside for El Nino, including boats and rafts in Nairobi?

DP Rigathi Gachagua. [File, Standard]

The interesting twist in this story is promises rely on the outside but the blame game is domestic-facing, at least for local consumers of our leaders’ political gobbledygook. The point is it’s time for rhetoric to end. Kenya Kwanza must not just report to work, but actually sit in the office. By this stage, you see that these short stories are interconnected like a 527-piece jigsaw puzzle.

Which is why the next short story will throw us out of the loop. This is the story about building a campaign war chest for the 2027 election. Because it is forward-looking in perspective, this story will be speculative. Where is this new tax and continuing debt agenda going? Is it also true that the hitherto connections-based market for acquiring public positions is now fully liberalized?

 This is a story about the five-year “eating cycle” that pervades our synchronized electoral and political business cycles. The story might help us better understand why terms like state capture and budgeted corruption are off the table, and we are back to officially bleating at the graft beast.

Our seventh short story offers an unusual twist. It returns to the earlier one about The Plan as an ambitious agenda. Actually, it’s much more than that, even though it looks like wild policy experimentation today. This is primarily Kenya Kwanza’s missing narrative on what the picture of tomorrow might look like if the idea is to uproot today’s uncomfortable status quo.

Mostly, this upheaval is not a five-year effort, but a massive national productivity undertaking which shows real results after seven years, and transformation after 15 at the most optimistic.

And while this short story may or may not be about term limits, it tells us that real change takes time. Anybody saying that Kenya begins to turn around in anything less than five years is lying.

The final part of the book might offer a useful epilogue. None of this change or transformation happens if the public sector is not reformed and public servants are not incentivized. The last time this magic combo happened was former President Kibaki’s first five-year term to 2007.

So there it is. Seven short stories (one story for each day of the week) on Kenya Kwanza’s first economic year as the second takes shape. Electoral Promises. Jubilee and IMF. The Plan. Jubilee and Transition. Kenya Kwanza Hubris. 2027 Electoral War Chest. Bottom-Up as a Long Game.

It doesn’t fix our pain but the wise tell us “to understand something is to be liberated from it”.