Let Ruto be ruthless with cartels

President William Ruto

President William Ruto addressing Kenyans after he took the oath of office at Kasarani international Stadium on September 13, 2022.

Photo credit: Jeff Angote | Nation Media Group

I never, for a moment, doubted that William Ruto would be the fifth President of Kenya. Signs of his decisive victory—bar shenanigans from his predecessor—were everywhere. Betting against Dr Ruto was simply a fool’s errand, as many have regrettably come to learn.

The man has never lost a battle in his entire political career. When he first arrived on the political scene in 1997, he did so in style: He trounced Reuben Chesire, one of President Daniel arap Moi’s long-standing allies, in a defeat that sent shock waves across the country. He would then go on overcoming obstacles, overpowering opponents and scaling the political ladder.

I penned several pieces explaining why President Uhuru Kenyatta and his candidate, Raila Odinga, could not possibly imperil Dr Ruto’s political aspirations.

As with millions of fellow Kenyans, I couldn’t be happier with a Ruto presidency. He has the markings of a great leader. His background and humble beginnings, centred around the Church, and reliance on the government and public institutions for education, healthcare, recreational and later employment, would no doubt inform his efforts at reforming and shaping the public and civil service sectors.

The terror and era of rent-seeking cartels that had hijacked the government is over. President Ruto has signalled, rather powerfully, his intention to keep the promises he made to the Kenyan people.

Financial autonomy

In his first five days in office, he initiated the process that would free the port from cartels and liberate its operations. He also moved to swear in judges whose promotion had been set aside by the previous regime on frivolous grounds and gave the National Police Service financial autonomy and accountability.  He also terminated costly and inefficient fuel subsidies that had diverted immense public resources to a small number of individuals.

These are big, bold and praiseworthy achievements—undertaken well before the Cabinet is constituted. But the President also faces significant challenges, given financial impropriety and blatant diversion of public funds that has been afoot since early 2018.

Not only are state coffers nearly empty but the outgoing President also left behind staggering bills of more than Sh500 billion! The country’s sovereign debt has also grown out of shape with repayments expected to consume the lion’s share of the tax revenue. Unless efforts to mobilise resources domestically are scaled up, there won’t be sufficient funds to support economic recovery and offer families relief against the rising cost of living.

The Kenya Kwanza manifesto—“The Plan”—sets out a great vision and outlines practical pathways for addressing many of our socioeconomic challenges. More importantly, the President has stressed that dealing with state capture, dismantling cartels, fighting corruption and sealing tax evasion loopholes  are key in realising development finance as well as liberating and putting the country on a sustainable path of growth and development.

He should go further and put in motion a mechanism for recovering stolen assets, including billions of taxpayers’ funds that are held in secret offshore accounts. It’s imperative that government bureaucrats and functionaries who aided and abetted these vices be removed and their positions offered to men and women of integrity. Also, those who supported, excused or justified fraudulent schemes such as Huduma Namba, BBI and the Covid scam must be excluded from this ‘hustler’ government.

Economic pain

There are no quick fixes to the Kenyatta-created mess. Clean-up will take time. Also, the economic pain is likely to get worse before things get better. Ending market-distorting fuel subsidies may, in the short run, push prices upwards but liberating the sector from the stranglehold of cartels would create competition and efficiency—both of which could eventually contribute to stable and low prices.

The President must also defeat cartels who enrich themselves by importing and dumping (at times poisonous) sugar in the country, impeding local production. The government must leverage the strong domestic sugar demand by creating policies and interventions that would create jobs, revitalise sugarcane growing and jump-start the scores of moribund and decaying mills, including Mumias Sugar Company.

President Ruto is a tenacious, hardworking go-getter. He embodies the dreams and aspirations of millions of Kenyans born in poverty with little or no opportunities to excel. He is an accomplished politician with a knack for solving problems by seeking solutions outside the proverbial box.

Given the freshness that he brings to the Presidency, it’s important that the country and its development partners support Dr Ruto in his efforts to create opportunities for all. But as he strives to build on the positive strides made by his predecessor, President Ruto must be quick in rejecting and undoing actions and policies that harmed our nation.

In dealing with the cartels, the President should be ruthless.

Mr Chesoli is a New York-based development economist and global policy expert. [email protected].