Sweet talk and empty promises will not put food on our tables

2022 Madaraka Day celebrations at Uhuru Gardens Ruto

President William Ruto inspects a guard of honour mounted by the Kenya Defence Forces during Mashujaa Day celebrations at Uhuru Gardens on October 20, 2022. The President pledged to create thousands of jobs and lower the cost of living. It was good music to ears that were used to dirges. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

‘Hustle’ is a popular TV show in the UK premised on a group of con artists who specialise in ‘long cons’. Once the con artists have a plan, they employ a ‘convincer’ to rope in their prey, and then hit them with the sting and take them for a sizeable amount of cash.

They ensure that their victims will not come after them either because they would have to admit to conducting some illegal business, or because the team has convinced them it will be impossible to do so.

On August 9, 2022, the people of Kenya, as it seems now, fell for a similar trick, when a local band of hustlers somehow convinced the majority to vote them into power. The hustlers – just like the TV con artists – promised to end the people’s suffering “within days”. It was a well-orchestrated campaign that showed the poor, wide-eyed Kenyans the end of their suffering and gave them a glimpse of Valhalla.

It was a simple message repeated so many times that it stuck in the suffering psyches. Schools were going to be free; small businesses were going to thrive because capital for their economic ventures would be provided free by the government – no interest charged. Boda-boda riders were going to be treated as kings.

It was the most radiant of pictures, painted in rosy hues and alluring tints, too enticing to ignore. It worked marvellously. The public fell for it like the walls of Jericho, and the resulting boom sounded like a revolution to the downtrodden society. They exercised their rights to vote with the ultimate aim of making important changes to the skewed economics of the nation.

Hope was in the air

Promises had been poured out in bucketfuls; assurances had been dished out with short and rigid timelines; vows and declarations had been made, delivered in attractive and convincing language, very sweet talk. The lead actor, William Ruto, pledged to create thousands of jobs and lower the cost of living. It was good music to ears that were used to dirges. 

To apolitical observers, this is fast turning out to be a long con. Prices of basic food items like maize flour, sugar, bread and milk, have gone up sharply this year, making it difficult for millions of Kenyans to afford three meals a day; it is actually a luxury for many families to get three square meals a day. 

According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, food accounts for about 36 per cent of total spending in poorer households. The economy is in shambles, household income has dropped, and yet the government continues to suffocate the people with a barrage of tax rises.

The Finance Bill 2023 has a series of controversial proposals aimed at raising revenues, most of them at the direction of the International Monetary Fund. It seeks to increase VAT on petroleum products from eight per cent to 16 per cent, which will pile more pressure on families because energy and transport costs determine the cost of goods and services.

The three per cent deduction on the salaries of all tax-paying Kenyans to fund an affordable housing programme remains a thorny issue. Social media influencers and content providers – a majority of whom voted for this government – face a 15 per cent tax. The hustler dream is rapidly becoming a nightmare.

The healthy colour of the campaign is slowly turning pale; assurances, reassurances and promises are still being made to the people but they are now met with fear and doubt. But empty bellies cannot be soothed by sweet talk. It is time for dirges, not love songs; gnashing of teeth, not merry-making. Fear of the future haunts the people. The poor Kenyan has sold his birth right to a smooth criminal.

We cannot overly blame the IMF for our predicament. We must lay our problems at the feet of our government, which is justifying the hard times and shifting blame when it ought to work for the betterment of all in both the short and the long term. We have reached the stretch where mere promises cannot work; where heaping the blame on past administrations won’t help.

We have reached a junction where this government must steer us in a different direction, with new ideas and real leadership, and put us back on the path of hope.