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A tale of Kenya: Leaders display opulence, locals struggle with bills

Youth protest against Finance Bill 2024 along a street in Nairobi on June 23, 2024. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

As young Kenyans choked on tear gas last Tuesday, a luxury jet remained parked at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

Hours after President William Ruto disembarked from a Kenya Airways (KQ) Dreamliner to the reception of government functionaries, the said aircraft would jet in from Paris, France.

The aircraft, an Embraer ERJ-135 (Legacy 600), operated by India-based luxury and medevac firm, VSR Ventures, had been everywhere Dr Ruto went during his most recent foreign trip.

It left Nairobi for Apulia, Italy, on Thursday, June 13 - the same day Ruto departed for the Italian city. Just like Ruto, the jet flew out to Zurich on Friday.  On Sunday evening, Ruto flew out to Paris, France. So did the private jet.

Ruto did not indicate where he had boarded the KQ flight, which was ostensibly meant to calm growing criticism over his expensive travel choices. The KQ plane was a Boeing 787-800 (Dreamliner).

Two Dreamliners landed at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport Monday morning. The first, which touched down at 5.44 am, flew in from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport.

The second, landing at 6.25 am, left Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport on Sunday, 9.35 pm local time, for the eight-and-a-half flight to Nairobi. Its arrival in Nairobi matches the timing of the photos of Ruto’s arrival aboard the scheduled KQ commercial flight.

The president, who has not posted departure photos since a damning expose by The Standard over a Sh200 million charter flight which he said was funded by “friends”, has not refuted media reports that he flew the said private jet. State House did not respond to our inquiries on the matter.

But few Kenyans would be surprised if, indeed, he chartered a luxury jet to Europe. Known for his taste for the finer things, the Head of State was recently in a spot for the Sh200 million charter flight to the United States.

Such is the image that Ruto, and, by extension, his government, has come to represent. Theirs is often a portrait of opulence, which has, to a great extent, contributed to the ongoing nationwide youth revolt.

The image on the flip side is that of desolation. High unemployment rates among the youth, estimated at 67 per cent by the Federation of Kenya Employers, are driving many into desperation.

That portrait of near despair was painted on streets countrywide this past week, as young men and women braved whatever the police threw at them to make their voices heard.

They rejected the Finance Bill, 2024, many said, just as much as they were alarmed by their worsening financial situation, incubated by the endemic corruption that no regime seems to fix.

“I have lost two wives because I cannot afford diapers,” a protester confronted a police officer who had just brutalised him during Thursday’s peaceful demos. Ruto’s allies seem insulated from the unemployment claiming more members among Kenya’s youths. The president has shown great resolve in securing his friends, most of whom lost in the 2022 General Election, some soft landing.

For them, jobs are in plenty. In the wake of a ruling declaring the chief administrative secretary position unconstitutional, the Head of State rushed a law through Parliament that created the controversial position that would come with an annual bill of at least Sh450 million to the taxpayer.

And as Ruto squeezes the overburdened mwananchi for more through what many have termed “punitive taxes”, his administration does not come out as cash-strapped.

“The president, his MPs (clearly those are his not ours) and his bloggers have been painting a picture of a government in dire need of money. But that same government is living luxuriously,” observed blogger Pauline Njoroge, who pointed out the expensive renovations at State House.

“A government in dire need of money would be conducting itself very differently. The austerity measures Ruto promised after becoming president would be in full effect, but that turned out to be one of his many false promises,” she added.  

Ruto’s 64 foreign trips, and countless domestic ones, have undoubtedly contributed significant to the heavy travel cost burden on Kenyans. On the other hand, Kenyans, desperate to flee the country for greener pastures, face delays in passport issuance and have visas denied, sometimes due to corruption.

“The president cannot cheat Kenyans into funding his extravagant lifestyle. Even when the government says there is no money to fund critical programmes, such as budget cuts the Treasury CS proposed as a blackmail to MPs, Ruto still finds money to waste on luxuries such as private jets and needless renovations. The young people are watching and they have decided enough is enough,” said Nairobi Senator Edwin Sifuna.

In many ways, the government has exposed its affinity for unnecessary expenditure, raising questions over misplaced priorities. As Kanu chairperson Gideon Moi stated Thursday, experts have often warned that Kenya faces expenditure, not revenue challenges.

“Increasing taxes in an attempt to address the budget deficit places an unnecessary burden on Kenyans,” he said of the Finance Bill, 2024. 

The president’s justification for more taxes is that the country needs to rid itself of its debt dependence. But his government has come under fire for its high affinity for the more expensive loans. 

His revenue targets, criticised by Auditor General Anne Gathungu and the World Bank as unrealistic, only set the country up for more borrowing.

Similarly, the State bleeds billions to corruption, as graft suspects are suspiciously left off the hook. Former President Uhuru Kenyatta estimated the money lost to corruption to be Sh2 billion daily. 

“My biggest concern is that there is absolutely zero political will by the government to tackle corruption,” Wangai Wang’ethe, a leadership and governance consultant, observed during an interview on Citizen TV on Friday morning. “How do you justify... a governor implicated in corruption, who had an out-of-court settlement with the Office of Director of Public Prosecution of 30 per cent of the money that was lost?”

Related to that, allies of the president appear to be growing wealthier as Kenyans struggle to put food on their tables. The politicians spend weekends churning out millions in donations.

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