Ruto's high-flying diplomacy masks realities of splurging, Haiti dilemma

President William Ruto gives a toast during a State Dinner at the White House in Washington, DC, on May 23, 2024. [AFP]

As expected, president Ruto showcased his oratory gifts once more at the global stage during his State visit to the United States this week. It is without a doubt that he is a gifted politician; probably an intriguing character and good actor in the world’s geo-economic politics.

While there have been some insinuations by the Kenya Kwanza supporters that the president is the first Kenyan leader to be accorded such an honor, data from the office of the historian, department of state of the US indicates President Moi and Kibaki was accorded such honors.

For president Moi, the state visit was on February 19th -22nd 1980 while Kibaki’s was on October 5th -7th 2003. President Kenyatta was never accorded such a visit despite hosting President Obama in July 2015.

Not surprising, the president’s speeches in various forums have crystalized into his three pet subjects of climate change, debt crisis for the global south and Africa’s version of democracy. However, it would be the controversial engagement of Kenya into the Haiti’s domestic conflicts that will make it into the annal books of history from his visit.

The legality and how the  mission to Haiti aligns with Kenya’s foreign interest remains a mystery. In the coming days and years, political scientists will ponder whether the president’s policy choices on this matter were about national or private interest.

However, for the purpose of this article, my curiosity is drawn into the president’s policy contradictions while in foreign capitals with lived reality at the domestic front. Four key points stand out on this.

The Contradictions

The first glaring policy gaffe starts right from the president’s choice on his means of travel to the US. It is inconceivable how he could blow an estimated over Sh200 million for a single trip while he imposes oppressive taxes back at home.

The memories of President Kibaki being assisted by Kenya Airways crew to buckle his seatbelt on a commercial flight for a similar trip back in 2003 are still fresh in our minds.

This raises serious questions on the true return on investment for the too many executive voyages in foreign capitals. This column has consistently demonstrated the contrasts of cutting down budgets for strategic interventions like the school feeding program, while at the same time loosening the belt for an already bloated budget for the presidency.

For instance, the presidency blew its entire budget for 2022/23 fiscal year in under seven months, necessitating supplementary re-allocation for the remainder of the year. Supplementary budget proceedings in parliament last week revealed that State house had already surpassed its budget allocation for 2023/24 by more than Sh200 million, barely into the third quarter of the fiscal year.

How then does the poor taxpayer reconcile with this seemingly wanton executive extravagance? Where does the president find the moral authority to demand painful taxes?

While it is humanly to want to showcase Kenya’s power at the international stage, but shouldn’t this be based on lived reality back home? How does one open a begging bowl for debt relief while traveling on such a luxurious jet?

The second key point is of the country’s democratic gains submitted at the Jimmy Carter Library in Atlanta. While it is true that the country has made huge strides in her democratic space, it must not be lost to the eyes of the world how Uhuru Kenyatta and Ruto administrations have attempted to undermine key institutions of democracy and governance.

A clear case in point here is the handling of the leadership of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). It is tragic how the president fails to see the Constitutional crisis risk he continues to expose the country to by failing to decisively conclude on the question of IEBC commissioners.

Recent events in the country and elsewhere have proved beyond reasonable doubt that life can fly away within fleeting seconds for anyone, regardless of their position or power.

Besides, there are already thousands of folks in a number of constituencies and wards that have been denied of their right of representation because of the leadership limbo at IEBC.

One can only image what constitutional darkness may befall the nation should such a vacancy arise in higher offices in the land. Doesn’t this alone make the president extolling’s of our democratic gains hollow?

The third key point here is the debt crisis narrative. For starters, a country’s debt distress is an internal problem and cannot be construed to be a making of other nations. No one forces any country to borrow excessively or tinker with national development indicators to attain certain economic statuses.

The Jubilee administration did the rebasing of the economy back in 2016 to obtain a re-classification into middle income status. While this may have served their untamed greed for debt, the policy thinking then failed to take into account the implications on other key macroeconomic drivers.

For example, as a middle income economy, we are automatically locked out of key global interventions that target Least Developed Countries (LDCs). Debt relief is not an option for us given our current economic status. The rules of engagement on trade negotiations have also been revised for us at the international stage.

Sovereign interests

This has been evident from the key trade agreements in the region like the one with European Union, where we had to leave behind the rest of the East Africa Community Member states. As I have consistently postulated here, every country engages other nations based on national interest.

It thus becomes a solemn duty of her leaders to protect and advance this interests. That is why it is highly acknowledged that the founding Singaporean Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, delayed his country’s economic re-classification long enough for Singapore to continue to enjoy beneficial debt and trade terms under then existing global treaties. Here, it seems the mouse jumped the cat!

Finally, the president visit may have inadvertently exposed intricate geo-political interest surrounding the Haiti Mission. While I claim no expertise on international security matters, many questions emerged from the joint press meeting of the president and his host, President Joe Biden.

The US is a country that advocates for the rule of law both at home and elsewhere as the world’s super power. Kenya’s engagement in the Haiti mission has been successfully challenged under Kenyan courts, but this did not seem to be a problem for the two men during the press conference.

Does this mean there are different rules of engagement in the case of Haiti? And if they were there, whose interests do this different rules of operanti serve?

Curiously, President Ruto did imply that he made this decision as the President of Kenya. What is left for conjecture then is whether his decision reflects the will of the people who elected him into office.

For instance, are Kenyans ready to bear the grieve for any Boots on the grounds in Haiti that are likely going to be lost? This risk is very real given Haiti’s long history of conflicts. What strategic interest is there for Kenya for our sons and daughters to pay such a penultimate price if and when it becomes so?

Is it about the promised dollars or individual greed for power? A cab driver this week asked me: How can Kenyan police officers accustomed to collecting bribes from anything and everything be trusted to execute such a deadly mission from hardcore gangs?