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The hustlers' din outside my office reminds me who I'm here to serve

Prime Cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi during an interview with the Standard Group on December  21, 2023. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

As the top government diplomat, Prime Cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi assures that President William Ruto's trips abroad are strategic in terms of trade and investment.

He tells Jacob Ng'etich that Kenya is on the right economic trajectory and is only a matter of time before all the hard work that the Kenya Kwanza administration is putting in starts to bear fruits.

President William Ruto has been making trips across the world. How do they benefit Kenya? 

The President is the country’s top diplomat. His trips outside the country are meant to market the country to the rest of the world. In just one year, President Ruto has put Kenya on a high pedestal diplomatically, and over 30 heads of states and government have visited Kenya. This indicates that Kenya has become a critical partner.

What are the immediate and long-term benefits of these visits?

When the President travels to these countries, he uses the opportunity to build partnerships so that down the line we will benefit as a country. Kenya has just signed the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the European Union. The deal will give duty-free access on a quota basis to the 27 countries in Europe. It is an unlimited market. That is a serious legacy to the farmer and producer in this country. This diplomatic onslaught has brought a huge market. It is now our duty as Executive and the media to tell people about the huge multiplier effect on jobs and employment.

There seems to be a deliberate attempt to woo the West. Why is the President trying to have roots in the West?

The President has taken a balanced approach in his global diplomat charm offensive. Not even one region has been left behind. From working with United States to China, Europe to Russia, and a strong engagement with Africa. We are also working closely with China. The President has invited the Japanese PM, the Singapore president was here, and just the other day Ruto was in India where he bagged several deals. Through the visit, Indian EXIM Bank will make Kenya its headquarters in the continent. They have increased their line of credit. The EU is a major trading block which we cannot ignore and he must court them.

Why do you think the President picked you for the Foreign Affairs docket? When you walked into the ministry, what did you find and what is your plan?

The person to answer that is the President because I take any assignments given to me seriously. President Ruto has been looking more into how Kenya can increase jobs and direct foreign investments. I have also served in the Finance ministry in the past where I steered the economy over five years. So the synergy of Head of State, Finance and myself will help the country.

For my plan, together with resourceful individuals with a reservoir of knowledge at the ministry, we want to be more aggressive on the economy. We want to make Kenya a multilateral center in the continent. Many organisations are coming to Kenya. Add to this the global regional offices of IMF, World Bank and Unep and we will become a continental hub.

Kenya Kwanza government has been criticised for the way it has been handling foreign policy based on comments by some Cabinet Secretaries. Do you have rules on who should talk on matters foreign policy?

It is my responsibility, other than the President, to be the spokesperson for the country in foreign affairs matters. Sometimes there could be challenges, though. I have communicated with my colleagues that we need to be sensitive in the way we communicate so that we maintain a robust relationship with our neighbors and any other country. We need to be cautious and know this is a sensitive space, particularly when you are making comparative analysis with different countries.

President Ruto has been rooting for Kenyans to go work abroad. How will this meet our economic needs as a country?

It should be noted that diaspora remittances have overtaken any other exports that the country has been making. Their remittances are helping the economy through investments they make in the country and in their families. We would like to turn the labour of our hardworking Kenyans into a serious investment and earn billions in foreign exchange. Through the efforts of the President, we are likely to have hundreds of thousand of skilled Kenyans working across the globe as part of solving unemployment. We are working and negotiating to send our engineers and doctors abroad. We can export labour, like the Philippines and India whose economies have significant contributions from their sons and daughters in the diaspora.

Have we addressed issues on the welfare of Kenyan workers in the Gulf States? We have repeatedly heard stories of Kenyans suffering there.

We have held several talks with the Saudi administration and one of the big things to happen is our plan to sign an economic agreement partnership with Saudi. This will create job opportunities for more Kenyans to work there.

Are you concerned by the recent announcement that come January, Kenya will become a visa-free country? How will we weed out bad visitors?

I laud the President for his bold move. Free movement of people is important for trade, investment, and culture. Kenya signed the Africa Free Trade Area (AfTA) accord. What would be the point of such a deal when you still have restrictions barring nationals from member countries from visiting? Why should we make it difficult for Africans to trade? We began with EAC, and we are saying let’s broaden further. Currently, we attract 1.4 million tourists into the country and reports indicate that with the visa-free policy by 2027, we can grow the number to 4.5 million. Therefore, forget about the $50 that we would get as visa charges and look at what is the spin-off to the country. We will have created jobs in the tourism value chain, from hotels to tour guides and other trades that survive on the sector.

The Seychelles is a top-notch destination; it is a small country but attracts millions of tourists because of being visa-free. Secondly, some countries like South Africa immediately reciprocated and the flow of people between the two countries is amazing. Rwanda, too. Angola is also trying to reciprocate. The import of the President’s visa-free policy is that it is us who need the visitors. It is a gradual process and we are not doing it with the expectations of tit-for-tat.

On the matter of security, there is an advanced system where you get information about the visitors. As they come in, we also take their records. We want to keep away the undesirable elements. But worth noting is that it is also a fallacy that when you have a visa regime, then you are safe. The security aspects are beyond the visa matter. The Garissa University or Dusit Hotel attack and some of the terror attacks took place when we were in the visa regime.

There have been talks that you and Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua are not in good terms politically. What are your differences?

I have an excellent working relationship with the Deputy President. It is not true that we differ politically, it is a rumour. Ignore it.

As one of the leaders who served as Finance minister earlier, how would you describe the current economic situation? Kenyans are complaining of the rising cost of living. How would you rate KK administration’s efforts?

 If you look at Kenya as a patient, for sometime, we have been assuming that we are okay. But after diagnosis when we took over leadership, we realised that it was as not healthy as thought and we told ourselves that we need to be cautious lest the situation deteriorates.

Today, the key drivers have been put in place and now we are setting our trajectory upwards. One of the painful decisions was moving away from fuel subsidy, because the hemorrhage to the economy was big.

A classic example. The previous regime was shoring up the economy artificially. They did not warn Kenya that prices were going up because they had an election to win. So they propped up the Shillings against the dollar. Everything was artificial and was meant to paint a glossy picture.

When we came in, the big question was do we make convenient or right decisions. Today we are out of debt danger, we are navigating the matter safely and, eventually, Kenyans will be wondering why they were complaining and panicking because we will have a robust and strong economy. This will be good and everyone will smile and say “sorry we panicked unnecessarily”.

Why did you plan to send police for the Haiti Mission and not the military?

If you remember well, the United Nations made a resolution and wanted those who can help in handling the criminal elements in Haiti, following a request by the country’s Prime Minister. They requested more of policing work. In the past, we have had other requests for the military in East Timor, Ecowas, Namibia, Sierra Leone. We have those credentials for discipline.

The other day, we almost had a diplomatic tiff with DRC following a presser by M23 adherents in the country. How is the matter now?

We have addressed the matter that Kenya is not involved in internal matters of any country in the region. Because of the democratic space in the country and the region, every other international media houses have domiciled their regional officers in Nairobi. Can you imagine if you have to get government clearance to address a presser? How do you manage? Therefore, as a government we should not be vilified more so by our people.

We should not gag our media. We subscribe to highest tenets of democracy and therefore we will keep the high ideals and ensure our media is free. But we maintain a friendly relationship with any country but we are not about to be told this or that.

What are you doing to ensure that you become the kingpin in the Western region where you also have National Assembly Speaker Moses Wetang’ula as a key leader in the region?

My main agenda is to support the president in delivering on the PLAN and transform the country. I would like to see the president improve the lives of Kenyans and have a walkover in his reelection. So that the county can have a smooth 10 years. That is my main agenda.

Do you feel out of place headquartered at Railways meters away from the matatu terminus? Does the noise disturb your working environment?

Like I said during my vetting in Parliament, the noise coming from the hustle and bustle of the hustlers around railways area near my office is music to me. They remain a constant reminder that those are the people I need to wake up in the morning to serve. Every day I listen to the voices, I get energised to serve better.

Again, I feel privileged to work in a building that is among the few gazetted by the museum as a national monument. It is in this very room that Queen Elizabeth bade farewell to the country as she made her way to be crowned Queen after her father passed on. She was in this room on transit. This is a heritage house.

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