President WIlliam Ruto addressing the nation from State House, Nairobi.

| File I Nation Media Group

Kenya is going down, our leaders should now stop wagging the dog

Kenya’s recent participation in the 28th Conference of the Parties(COP) 28 on climate change agenda in Dubai on November 30 to December 2 has thrust to the fore the tension between the high cost of its international engagement and skyrocketing cost of living.

President William Ruto’s huge airmiles have lifted his global profile, but at home Kenya is going down. The public is fuming over multiple reports that Kenya’s delegation to the Dubai climate talks was 763-strong.

Although the government has denied these reports, a statement by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) detailing the list of participants ranked Kenya 12th with the most delegates out of 195 world nations.

Kenya is courting an old strategy known as ‘wagging the dog,’ derived from the saying that “a dog is smarter than its tail, but if the tail were smarter, then it would wag the dog.” The ‘wagging the dog’ strategy has produced two images of Kenya and its leadership.

William Ruto’s first Kenya is international and Lockean, casting a false image of a happy, peaceful and prosperous nation. Ruto’s profile is soaring on Kenya’s long held reputation as an economic powerhouse and a pillar of stability in a tumultuous region.

On the Pan-African front, he has called on the prime movers of the international financial system to deal more equitably with African countries and tried to broker peace in Sudan and the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

He is emerging as the blue-eyed boy of the West and its closest ally in Africa.

As a climate champion, the Kenyan leader hosted the Africa Climate Summit (ACS) on September 4-6. Time magazine named him as one of the world’s 100 most influential climate leaders.

He has invited world leaders to Kenya. Among these is the British Monarch, King Charles III, and Queen Camilla, who made a four-day state visit to Kenya between October 31 and November 3.

But the Kenyan public is ill-at ease with the president’s huge airmiles and ballooning costs. Since September 13, 2022, Ruto has made 41 foreign trips to 38 countries often accompanied by large delegations. His travel budget has increased by over 40 per cent between July 2022 and June 2023.

In response to a fuming public, Ruto announced a cut in travel spending and the size of delegations. His spin-doctors state that Kenya is reaping big from these foreign trips. In the Dubai COP28 summit, Kenya reportedly secured 4.5 billion US dollars (Sh680 billion) in deals to support green industrialization in the country.

The President’s pledge to send 1,000 Kenyan police officers to Haiti to combat gangs has also stoked the ire of sections of the public. Kenya’s High Court temporarily blocked the deployment in October, and is expected to deliver a final ruling in late January.

William Ruto’s second Kenya is local and Hobbesian, casting the image of a poor African nation going down and where life has increasingly become brute, nasty and short. Kenya’s annual average inflation rates have risen to 8 per cent. Its currency is on a free-fall, having lost about 25 per cent of its value against the dollar in the past year.

Kenya faces ever-rising food, fuel and transport prices — the highest in Africa. The government has responded by raising existing taxes and imposing new ones. Unemployment is at its highest since the “lost decades” of the 1980s and 1990s.

At least 70,000 jobs have been lost in the private sector. The number of Kenyans earning more than Sh100,000 monthly grew by the slowest pace in at least five years, pointing to a tough business environment that depressed earnings, investments, and job creation.

Sadly, corruption at high echelons of government is spiraling. A recent parliamentary report said that corruption cases had increased by 64 per cent between May 2022 and August 2023.

During the 2022 campaigns, Ruto, one of Kenya’s wealthiest businessmen, won the hearts and minds of voters by reminding everyone and sundry that he grew up poor, attended school barefoot, slept hungry and hawked chicken to eke a living.

He campaigned on a platform to improve the economy for the millions of poor striving Kenyans he likes to call “hustlers.” But the ‘hustler’ mantra has lost its Midas touch.

Many hustlers will not afford their children’s school fees at all levels come January 2024. The cost of water, electricity, rent and business licenses have all doubled.

The public is fuming, and the tide is turning. Antony Ikonya Mwaniki, a former Member of Country Assembly (MCA), has become emblematic of the ensuing age of rebellion. On December 7, 2021, he tweeted that “the best president for this country will be William Samoei Ruto”.

In an ironic twist, a recent article by New York Times (29/11/2023), Ikonya is quoted saying that: “I am a very disappointed person. We are all suffering.” His generation is chanting “Muosho Moja” (one wash), a generational war cry ahead of the 2027 elections.

Discernibly, the mindset of the regime’s pundits is unlikely to prevent the country from going down. The logic of ‘Rutonomics’ is to replace debt with taxes. High taxes, the regime argues, are “ethical, responsible, prudent, and …necessary” to raise funds and limit borrowing. But the truth is, no country has ever developed on taxes.

For now, Kenya’s highly liberal judiciary appears like the last frontier of hope against draconian anti-democratic drift. The High Court declared unconstitutional the government plan to charge taxpayers 1.5 per cent of their monthly incomes to build affordable housing.

A separate plan to promote universal health care was also suspended by the court. Again, on December 5, the court suspended the sale of strategic state firms, which have been a focus of protests and demand for a referendum before the auctioning of parastatals. Ultimately, the country is going down, Kenya and its leaders should stop wagging the dog.

- Professor Peter Kagwanja former Government Adviser (2008-2013), and currently Chief Executive at the Africa Institute (API), Adjunct Professor at the University of Nairobi and the National Defence University—Kenya (NDU).