Forget the norm, this is what we expect President to address today

President William Ruto makes a State of the Nation address to Parliament on September 29, 2022. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

In one of those statistical titbits that you get on X (formerly Twitter), it is unsurprising that Kenya is one of four African countries (with Nigeria, South Africa and Ghana) featuring in the top 10 globally on average daily time spent on social media. 

But KoX is often on another level when it comes to sharp comments. To a recent enquiry about which development projects the Kenya Kwanza administration has initiated in the past year (with details required on specific projects and location), one quick answer was “mikakati, mipangilio, tutafanya, tutaweka, tunapanga, tumesema, ninawapanga, tutawapanga, tutaweza and the coup de grace, tunaelewana jameni?” 

Think of this as one perspective that will preface President William Ruto’s State of the Nation address to Parliament and the people today. In truth, this view represents Kenyans’ lived experience of drowning in thunderstorms of economic pain amid endless showers of leadership promises. 

Kenya Kwanza has not helped itself here with its bombastic rhetoric in the past year oscillating like a pendulum between blaming the past and promising the future without actually looking like they are either able or willing to fix the present. And that’s before we get to the whole question of Vasco da Gama-like foreign travel by the Presidency and other senior officials.

It is important to remember here that today is 457 days since the 2022 General Election, 422 days after inauguration, 378 days after Cabinet Secretaries were sworn in and 1,370 days to the next poll.

Today’s will be President Ruto’s first State of the Nation address (Sona) under Article 132 (1)(b) and (c) of the Constitution (his September 2022 address to open the 13th Parliament fell under Article 132 (1) (a) of the Constitution). 

From a big-picture viewpoint, this follows former President Uhuru Kenyatta’s 8th and final Sona delivered in 2021. We should probably expect an address that speaks to actions his Kenya Kwanza administration has undertaken, including fertiliser subsidies, Hustler Fund, affordable housing, universal health coverage, digitised government services, county industrial and aggregation parks and “deals” for overseas jobs for Kenyans. We might also hear something about next Monday’s tree-growing, not a tree-planting, public holiday.

Business as usual

If this is the case, then what we will have is a “business as usual” national address. In other words, building on past norms, we will essentially get a Head of Government progress report rather than a Head of State progress and status statement.

To be clear, unlike Madaraka Day’s commemoration of Kenya’s internal self-governance, Mashujaa Day’s celebration of our national heroes, and Jamhuri Day’s memorialisation of the independent Kenyan republic, Sona is an accountability statement to Article 1 to tell Kenyans on the state of our Article 10 national values and principles, international obligations under Article 2 (5) and national security under Article 240. 

In these stricter terms, what should Sona look like? To repeat, start with a view of Sona as a status check on “who and where we are” building on reporting “what we did or have done”. Who and where we are is important; this is a report about the nation, not the government.

In this light, the report on Article 10’s national values and principles looks at who and where we are along four dimensions. On our democracy, who and where we are on patriotism, national unity, sharing and devolution of power, the rule of law, democracy and participation of the people. 

On our humanity, who and where we are on human dignity, equity, social justice, inclusiveness, equality, human rights, non-discrimination and protection of the marginalised. 

On governance, who and where we are on good governance, integrity, transparency and accountability, and finally, on development, who and where we are on sustainable development.  

This may sound rather esoteric, but it is these national values and principles that are the roots of the Kenyan nation while the constitution as a whole is the roof that protects and empowers us all. 

And it is fair to observe that multiple post-constitutional attempts to embed – through policy and practice - these values and principles into our daily public and private lives have pretty much come to nought. This is where the Head of State truly speaks to the State of the Nation.

The same mindset would go into reporting on our international obligations under Article 2(5) as well as the state of national security under Article 240.

On the latter, this reporting needs to move from the current narrow lens which focuses on general crime, terrorism, corruption, drug trafficking, cybersecurity, organized crime, illicit brews, border security, poaching and the like to a wider human security lens that look at who and where we are on food, health, environmental, economic, political, community and personal security. In simpler language, beyond crimes to security; from basic “freedom from fear and danger” to “freedom from fear and want”.

The important point to repeat here is that Sona sits above, say, your typical governmental Budget or Economic Policy or inspiring National Day Address.  Fortunately, too, the constitution requires that Sona must be documented through submissions by the President to Parliament covering each of these reporting areas.  These submissions should be publicly available.

Don’t these specific requirements limit what the President must tell Parliament and the people? Not particularly. The key point here is that the reporting must speak to the status of who and where we are – as the nation - even if this is to build on what has been done or will be done.

Indeed, with a little imagination, we should expect, in addressing Kenyans' more immediate questions of the day, for Sona to go beyond constitutional demands into 3/4 “sub-states of the nation” status addresses. The first and most obvious might cover the “State of our Economy”.

We are lucky that Kenya Kwanza has offered Kenyans six outcome targets on how we must measure them on the economy: lowered cost of living, no hunger, more jobs, expanded tax base (not tax rates, or tax menu), increased foreign exchange reserves and inclusive economic growth.

This is probably a great time to understand how “the economy has been stabilised” (where we are/where Kenya is and Kenyans are) without necessarily getting yet another lecture on mikakati na mipangilio (what government has decided or planned). But we could get more imaginative.

What about a “State of our Politics” sub-report that offers clear and unequivocal support for the outcomes that the ongoing National Dialogue will deliver, and what this means for our politics? Or a “State of our Governance” sub-report that speaks to our current sub-optimal state of governance, including the state capture, budgeted corruption and other ongoing malfeasance?

If we really wanted to extend the thinking, then Sona becomes our “State of Society” assessment, because, at the end of the day, it is this that points us towards the future. Of course, a State of Society sub-report wouldn’t hurt as well, this being a report for the people, not a report by the government. Which brings us all back to our expectations for today.

A status address and report on who and where we are – on national values and principles, compliance with international obligations and national security as human security. A further status check, with greater imagination, on our economy, politics, governance and society at large. Basically, a Head of State report on the State of the Nation, not a Head of Government report.