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Of presidents and false promises: Will Ruto stay the course in quest to grow economy?

President William Ruto shakes hands with Nominated MP Bishop Jackson Kosgei during an interdenominational prayer at Kericho Green Stadium in Kericho. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

The sun was burning furiously. As its rays cut through the azure blue sky, the earth below shook and cracked. The shrubs and vegetation had been burned into golden brown. The air was still and stifling. A trail of dust appeared in the horizon, following on the tail of a speeding government land rover. Terrified by the approaching sound, a warthog leaped from behind the bushes; a family of Dik Dik scattered and ran helter-skelter. The driver slowed down near a bend. Another land rover had blocked his way. As he lowered his window to inquire, a group of men, armed with assault rifles, jumped from the stationary vehicle and opened fire.  

After the sound of gunfire had died down, a powerful wind blew, spewing dust on the blood-soaked vehicle as if mourning the deaths. A Cambridge trained young administrator, Daudi Dabasso Wabera, the District Commissioner Isiolo, had just been murdered for being a mediator in a country that was approaching its independence. This was on June 28, 1963.

The bullets rained from the Shifta (Somali) bandits who were fighting for secession of the North Frontier District (NFD). Kenya was a breath away from internal self-rule when Wabera was murdered in cold blood. With a few months to full independence in December 1963, the Somalis in Mandera, Wajir, and Garissa demanded to be part of the Somalia Republic. They didn’t want anything to do with a new Kenya. The government of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta told those who wanted to leave to do so as individuals. The secessionists formed a guerrilla army, the Shifta and enlisted the support of Boranas from Isiolo and Marsabit.

Daudi Wabera, a loyal civil servant, had been picked to spearhead the delicate mission of convincing his fellow Boranas to abandon the secessionists. Before his murder, the 37-year-old Wabera had been in a meeting with Borana elders at Modogashe. He was accompanied in the peace mission by Senior Chief Haji Dida, a respected community elder. The volley of bullets killed the gallant administrator and his companions on the spot.

The Shiftas traumatised the new Kenyan administration. They gave Jomo Kenyatta’s shaky police force and wobbly military a rough time.

Promises by the Kenyatta’s

Despite the struggles with the Shifta, Kenya was economically an equal to the Asian tigers, who even visited Kenya and Ivory Cost to study their fast-growing economies.

In his inaugural speech, Jomo Kenyatta promised an eager and expectant nation that his administration would eradicate three key enemies of the people; poverty, disease and illiteracy.

He started well, then greed set in. He appointed key members of his community to powerful Cabinet positions. Powerful leaders from Kiambu, Kenyatta’s home district took charge of the country’s affairs. Corruption set in. Land grabbing became an entrenched culture. Those who protested were assassinated or sent into the gallows.

Then history repeated itself in an interesting way. Jomo Kenyatta’s son, Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta, became president 35 years after his father’s demise. In April 2013, Uhuru became the fourth President of the Republic of Kenya. Uhuru and his deputy William Ruto took over power with an indictment of the International Criminal Court (ICC), hanging over their heads. The two promised to enhance the economic growth initiated by the Mwai Kibaki administration. They galloped into State House on high-speed horses carrying promises of a young and vibrant leadership propelled by information technology, research and science. They promised to equip every school going child with a laptop. They said they would improve the life of the youth by building sports stadia. From their youthful mouths, flowed promises of hope, milk and honey.   

On September 21, 2013, the Somali curse that traumatised his father visited Uhuru. Four masked gunmen of Somali origin attacked an upmarket Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi. For days the gunmen, lay siege killing 71 people. The extremist Islamic group A Shabaab claimed responsibility for the terror attack and hostage taking. They were protesting Kenya’s deployment of its military to Somalia.

Uhuru eventually settled in office. His administration was rapidly swallowed by corruption. The laptops turned into a sour scandal. The stadia remained a pipe dream. His father’s national enemies of; illiteracy, poverty and disease stalked his administration. He ventured into massive borrowing, throwing Kenya into debt that will take decades to clear. His cronies dipped their fingers in almost every public coffer. He became the first head of state to declare publicly that he was unable to tame corruption. He told a shocked and bewildered nation that more than Sh2 billion is lost through corruption every day in Kenya.

When the Covid-19 pandemic swept through the world, hundreds of Kenyans gasping for air, died due to lack of oxygen. Money for drugs and oxygen machines had entered the stomachs of a few powerful families. Billions of shillings meant to fighting the Corona virus disappeared.

 Kibaki’s turn

Mwai Kibaki, Kenya’s third president didn’t have a Somali question to deal with. However, he was sworn in while on a wheelchair. He had survived a nasty road accident. His government came in with a promise of uniting Kenyans and liberating them from economic ruin. Kibaki had been propelled into office by several leaders who were with him in opposition. His Democratic Party had affiliated with several other opposition parties to form the National Alliance of Rainbow Coalition (NARC). He signed a memorandum of understanding with other coalitions detailing a power sharing formular.

However, soon after being sworn- in Kibaki turned his back against those on whose shoulders he had climbed to jump into State House. His government was soon hit with corruption. The Kiambu mafia reared its head again, further entrenching tribalism. A people who had been said to be the most optimistic in the world at the time he took over power, soon became disillusioned. By the time he was running for election for a second term in 2007, ethnic jingoism was high among the political class leaving the taxpayer unhappy and dissatisfied - Kenya plunged into bloody post-election violence tainting any economic gain his administration had recorded.   

Tribalism and corruption remain the biggest obstacles to unity and growth in Kenya. Moi had ruled Kenya with an iron hand for 24 years before Kibaki took over. In August 1978, Moi stepped into the shoes of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta whose brutal reign had choked Kenyans. Within days, Moi had set free all political prisoners. He appointed Mwai Kibaki as his Vice President. He plunged into a countrywide campaign of popularizing himself. He galvanised and mobilised the nation in environmental protection and conservation. He planted trees and erected gabions to arrest soil erosion. He launched a countrywide war against drugs and alcoholism. Moi even introduced a free primary school milk programme to encourage children to stay in school.  

Many Kenyans had however not listened keenly to his inaugural speech. He told Kenyans that he would follow in the footsteps of his predecessor. He launched the Nyayo philosophy of; peace, love and unity. It only occurred to all that when he said he would fuata Nyayo za Mzee Kenyatta, he meant filling all powerful government positions with cronies and men from his ethnic group.

Of Eli and Ruto’s Takeover

Uhuru’s departure from office reminded me of a childhood incident in my village of Musikangu in Bunyore. An incident that resonates with a culture of destruction of national resources.

It was a beautiful sunny day. We had all gathered around the table for our first Christmas lunch in years. Christmas was the day we imbibed and enjoyed delicacies. It was the day each child would get a piece of chicken and a slice of chapati. It was a day to cherish and remember.

Just as my mother started praying for the meal, Eli, one of our troublesome neighbours joined us. He looked restless. He moved close to where my father was. He had in his hand a small sack. I kept an eye on him. I had never trusted this man who disappeared from home for years claiming to have been involved in the Mau Mau war, while in reality, he had abandoned his family to enjoy life in the city.

Before we could say Amen, Eli opened his sack and quickly poured soil on to the food; the chicken, meat, rice and stewed fish. He then made a dash. Unfortunately for him, my father, a tall muscular man, had been eyeing him too. He met Papa’s cross punch that sent him sprawling. Papa dragged him outside and gave him a thorough beating.

The mood in the house suddenly turned from celebratory to mourning. My mother and sister burst into tears. All the hours they had spent making the food had gone to waste. Our Christmas had just ended in tears. One jealous, evil and foolish man, destroyed our most precious day.

I remembered the story of Eli when I engaged a friend who is close to President William Ruto. He said the Kenya Kwanza administration found the economy in ruins with its kitchen in shambles.

Kibaki had prepared Kenyans for a good feast with the economy promising a delicious meal for all. He streamlined the public service by introducing performance contracting. He raised tax collection and used the taxes to grow the economy. External borrowing reduced drastically. Kenyans were happy that at last they could use their own sweat to grow the economy. When Uhuru took over, the table was set. All he needed to do was to ensure continued growth. However, like Eli, he poured soil on all the goodness Kibaki had prepared. He destroyed the Christmas mood for an entire nation.

“But wasn’t Ruto part of the destruction?” I asked my friend, “No bro we all know how limited his powers and influence was”

During his presidential campaign, Ruto, while riding on the hustler narrative, mobilised minds and emotions of the restless, jobless youth and women. He made a series of promises on things he would do once he ascends to power.

After taking oath of office, he quickly swore into office the six Court of Appeal judges that Uhuru had rejected. He lowered the prize of fertilisers and restored operations of the Port of Mombasa to the citizens of Mombasa. He then focused his attention on fuliza, ensuring the interest charged to millions of users is lowered by 50 per cent. He ordered that millions of Kenyans be removed from the Credit Reference Bureau (CRB) listing.

These interventions coming in under 30 days of taking power have received a major applause from his supporters who have said he is taking care of the hustler’s interests.

However, some of his supporters argue that most of the meals he would have shared with Kenyans were soiled. He has to start cooking afresh for a Christmas luncheon. As he approaches his first 100 days in office, the world is keenly watching how he navigates the contours of economic upheaval.