Ruto's one-year flops and small victories make for testing 2024

President William Ruto speaks ahead of Christmas at his home in Uasin Gishu County. [PCS]

President William Ruto’s first full year in office was a mixed bag of fortunes with his outright wins weighed down by the terrible losses and the downs of his time.

But if the year was his baptism of fire, 2024 will test the limits of his resolve, mettle, commitment and leadership.

He did not excel in 2023, but he succeeded in keeping Kenyans' hopes alive despite the harsh economic times, cutting the image of a tough bargainer in international politics and striking political dialogue with his erstwhile political enemy, opposition leader Raila Odinga.

He generally kept the country safe, pushed reforms in agriculture and managed to keep the economy afloat despite huge public debt and pending bills.

But these scores dimmed in light of skyrocketing fuel prices, heavy taxation, weakened shilling, high cost of living and widespread corruption, inefficiency in public management, negative ethnicity, and diminishing rule of law.

Next year, the President must sustain and expand his wins while also struggling with the sticking points of his nascent rule.

Managing politics

The crafting of the National Dialogue Committee in July was a political masterstroke which brought huge relief to both sides of the political divide.

By agreeing to the dialogue, Ruto bought himself more time to deal with the issues which triggered the protests, while also consolidating his political side to fight back. The dialogue also brought relief to businesses and staved off the continued loss of lives through the senseless killing of young people who took part in the riots.

At a political level, the dialogue afforded Ruto the opportunity to foster divisions in the Opposition, to his own advantage. In the wake of the talks, a new political outfit advocating for Central Kenya interests- Kamwene- was born of the larger Azimio coalition.

With the report now out, the ball shifts back to President Ruto to spread the benefits of the dialogue throughout the year. He must do so while also avoiding the promise of heightened political activity promised by the report, which would most certainly benefit the opposition.

Already, Raila has threatened to call for the resumption of the protests. Back to his Kenya Kwanza coalition, the President will need to work harder to soothe the political boil amongst his coalition members, before it erupts into something else.

International stature

For the better part of the year, Ruto pushed a hard bargain in international politics, whether in climate financing, the world financial system, over-reliance on the dollar, or international trade.

At the inaugural Africa Climate Summit, Ruto led his African comrades in adopting a declaration which called on the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases to keep their promises. He also rallied them into committing to process Africa’s minerals in the continent and pitching for reform of the world financial system which forces African countries to pay more than others, to borrow money.

In regional politics, he pitched for peace in DR Congo and Sudan, sometimes in crude, undiplomatic terms. While some view his hardline stance on regional security as careless, others saw him as a decisive regional leader.

Next year will see the international stature he carved for himself put to the test. The consequences of deploying police officers to Haiti - whether good or bad - will be unravelled.

His campaign against reliance on the dollar will also come into focus when the African Union considers the adoption of the pan-African payment and settlement system in February.

Ruto’s latest announcement that nobody on earth will need a visa to visit Kenya from tomorrow will also come up for the test.

Wobbling housing plan

This year, President Ruto stubbornly stuck to some aspects of his manifesto even as the political weather disfavored the same. He implemented the Hustler Fund after dropping the expensive fuel subsidies and stuck to his housing plan even as Kenyans talked themselves sore against it.

The housing agenda was particularly controversial as it morphed from a voluntary fund into a mandatory tax, adding to the pain of the very hustlers he sought to give jobs. When the matter ended up in court, the tax was dismissed on among other grounds discriminating against the salaried Kenyans.

“We know what we must do but we can’t gather the courage to do it. This time round whatever it takes, we are going to implement it,” Ruto said while opening the second annual Kenya Diaspora Investment Conference earlier in the month.

On the eve of Christmas, Ruto reiterated the plan was on course, and that his government would simply correct the anomalies, which includes expanding the tax bracket beyond the salaried.

The court allowed the government to continue collecting the tax until January 10 when the case will be mentioned. Already, Ruto’s attempt to regularise the anomalies through the Housing Bill, 2023, hit a snag after the court stopped planned public participation pending a hearing on January 17.

It is easy to see that the matter has now been sucked into a legal imbroglio which may be difficult to untangle. All in all, we will soon know whether the President’s pet project will, in street terms, “drink water”.

Agriculture reforms

For successive years, critical sectors of Kenya’s economy were swamped in a recurring mess occasioned by the failure to see through important reform measures.
The sugar sub-sector was collapsing under the weight of cartelism as was tea and coffee. Using a mix of soft and hard tackles, the President set in motion a chain of events which opened up these sectors to potential growth if they were pursued to the very end.

In the coffee sub-sector for instance, reforms around the Nairobi Coffee Exchange initially proved a tough nut to crack, but at the close of the year, there was something to smile about.

“After six months of hard work and unwavering commitment, today I received the first set of good news from NCE. Our coffee product has attracted big interest across the globe with some 32 companies now participating in the NCE. Our farmers are the biggest beneficiaries as good prices continue to be recorded,” Cooperatives CS Simon Chelugui tweeted on December 20.

At the close of the year, the price for premium coffee (AA) at NCE had risen from Sh13,500 per bag to Sh52,500 courtesy of the various interventions made in the sector earlier in the year.

In the year 2024, Ruto’s administration must sustain these small victories but also devolve them so that the farmer in the village takes home the benefits.

Consolidating security gains

A change of tack and a mix of new strategies succeeded in pushing the dreaded Al Shabab terror group to the periphery of Kenya’s borders with Somalia. Intelligence-led operations, aided by a highly specialised unit, went to the heart and soul of the terror group.

Although attacks persisted in the border counties, Ruto’s first year in office focused more on re-imagining Kenya's security needs, repurposing the units to meet the needs, and battling bandits.

He brought new leadership at the top security institutions, including the Kenya Defence Forces, the National Police Service, and the National Intelligence Service. Key reforms include the implementation of the recommendations of the David Maraga task force on terms of service for NPS in 2024.

Corruption and bad governance

In 2023, corruption continued to eat into the best of efforts to deliver for the Kenya Kwanza administration. In the course of the year, corruption cases crumbled like a house of cards. It was almost like there was never corruption in the first place.

In the Arror-Kimwarer Dam case, the last of the high-profile suspects escaped the noose. In an interview with local media on Christmas Eve, the President did not seem surprised at the turn of events.

“The case was a fraud. It was being used politically. I have said we do not want political cases,” he said.

But the Anti-Corruption Court did not think so. While Senior Principal Magistrate Eunice Nyutu said there was no evidence to prove the accused persons flouted procurement laws and defrauded the public, she accused the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions of bungling the case.

"I find that there is a need to check the unfortunate and reckless habit of the ODPP commencing proceedings which they have no intention of pursuing to its logical conclusion …  this appears to be a carefully choreographed prosecution-led acquittal," said Nyutu.

Towards Christmas, the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission finally pounced on a big fish, former Tourism minister Najib Balala, provoking Cartoonist Victor Ndula to make an illustration showing the EACC bulldog finally locating its “lost and finally found” teeth in a closet.

While Ruto pushed for harmonised digitization and pay for government services to reduce exposure to corrupt practices, a great deal of opaqueness continued to afflict government tendering processes, recruitment, police operations, and big government projects such as housing projects.

In 2024, President Ruto will find that he will need to do more than give assurances to tame corruption in his government.

Numerous blows in court

When he was sworn into office, Ruto promised to uphold the rule of law. He appointed the judges whom the previous regime had refused to appoint, increased the budgetary allocation for the Judiciary, and openly vouched for its independence.

But as he started to feel the pinch of an emboldened Judiciary, Ruto started to look outside the law to resolve stand-offs. He cajoled, threatened and dared. His “mambo ni matatu” declaration attracted the ire of the Law Society of Kenya even as the President clarified its import.

In the housing tax stand-off, Ruto publicly reprimanded Busia Senator Okoiti Omtatah, the man who dealt it a fatal blow in court. “He directly isolated us as petitioners, and said since he was given the ceremonial sword upon being sworn in, he would not use it to chop vegetables but slash the crooks who were frustrating the government agenda,” said Omtatah.

Other indicators of the diminishing rule of law demonstrated themselves in the manner police dealt with demonstrators earlier in the year, the state-sanctioned raid on Kenyatta’s farm, the Executive’s high-handedness in national matters, and the bastardisation of institutions at the preference of personal whims and directives.

Debts and borrowing appetite

During campaigns, Ruto went for the jugular of the Uhuru administration’s huge borrowing. He promised to manage the public debt efficiently. But over the last year, borrowing has increased. Ruto has negotiated new financing with international lending institutions, justifying it as necessary to save the country.

In November, the World Bank conditionally committed itself to a $12 billion financial package in the next three years. Around the same period, the International Monetary Fund offered Kenya $682 million, boosting the then-prevailing lending system by $938 million.

For the better part of 2023, Kenya grappled with acute liquidity challenges, and the beckoning maturity of $2 billion Eurobond note maturity in June next year is not going to help matters. However, the financing from IMF, WB and other institutions is expected to allow Kenya to honor its obligations without running down its hard currency reserves.

Earlier this week, Kenya made a Sh10.8 billion in interest payment with respect to the Eurobond, ditching an earlier plan for a buyback of the bond. Treasury CS Njuguna Ndung’u has insisted Kenya will honour all its obligations.

Ndung’u’s assurance notwithstanding, the payment of such substantial sums in one go will not be an easy walk in the park for a struggling economy.