Between many fires: Why President William Ruto is in a fix

William Ruto

President William Ruto is weeks away from his first anniversary in offic.

Photo credit: File I Nation Media Group

President William Ruto is weeks away from his first anniversary in office, having opened and fought multiple wars already.

How the adept and confident politician navigates challenges facing his government could shape the direction the country takes.

The skyrocketing cost of basic commodities and protests that point at the high cost of living and distribution of State jobs remain challenges whose consequence has been calls for “peace talks” , a move that could further complicate Kenya’s political landscape.

Elected on a populist ticket that promised to lower the cost of living and improve the lives of ordinary Kenyans, the President has in the past few months faced criticism from opposition Azimio la Umoja One Kenya chief Raila Odinga, who has led protests accusing the Kenya Kwanza administration of doing away with subsidies that kept prices of basics stable.

The administration says it will subsidise production and not consumption. It is also fighting hard to counter the criticism of failing to fulfil its pledges.

It has been baptism by fire, with a weakening shilling, high cost of living and Kenya’s mounting debt that stands at Sh9.2 trillion.

During the campaigns, Dr Ruto criticised the high affinity by the Uhuru Kenyatta administration for loans.

However, in his first three months in office, Dr Ruto borrowed more than Sh137 billion, according to the Central Bank of Kenya report for September-November 2022.

At the same time, the International Monetary Fund has issued prescriptions – part of Kenya’s deal with the lender – which experts feel could derail the growth of the economy.

And as the economy struggles under the watch of President Ruto – whose administration keeps saying it inherited dilapidated coffers – the withdrawal of corruption cases against top state officials and what many say is entrenching ethnicity in public service have further put the administration on the defensive.

“It is the first time Kenya is witnessing a two-tribe regime. Kenya Kwanza is a one-sided illegitimate regime that is planting seeds of ethnicity. Only members of two communities are getting public jobs,” Mr Odinga said recently.

Other hurdles are uncertainty of the new taxes after the High Court temporarily blocked the implementation of the Finance Act, 2023 – an order that was lifted by the Appellate Court on Friday. Civil servants are experiencing salary delays and cuts and there is a dilemma on which countries to work with.

President Ruto has reversed more than 20 policies pursued by his predecessor, including restructuring government and revisiting cancelled projects.

Dr Ruto is yet to fully constitute his government after courts put brakes on the hiring of at least 50 Chief Administrative Secretaries.

Whereas the President’s allies say he needs more time to address the problems bedevilling the country, Mr Odinga’s supporters insist Dr Ruto is steering a grounded vessel.

National Assembly Minority Leader, Opiyo Wandayi, says the President brought all the problems to himself.

“It is for him to decide to do what is right for the country and Kenyans. Our democracy moved from politics of chest thumping, dictatorship and brutality long time ago,” the Ugunja MP says.

“Our country demands sobriety, goodwill, dialogue and consensus in governance matters. This administration suffers from acute deficiency.”

Orange Democratic Movement Secretary-General, Edwin Sifuna, says things have taken a turn for the worse.

“There is turmoil in this government. The administration is at war with human rights organisations, neighbours, donors and others,” Mr Sifuna says.

“When  we rise up to call it out before it destroys itself and expose us to instability, it dehumanises and detains us.”

Turkana University don Tom Nyamache believes President Ruto’s “tragedy” of fighting multiple wars is largely self-inflicted.

“If l were President Ruto, I would put in place structures and – using advisers – come up with subsidies and proper policies to bring down the cost of living,” Prof Nyamache says.

“By so doing, l would beat opposition leaders in their own game and end the protests. President Ruto should address real issues.”

None of these views make sense to Senate Majority Leader Aaron Cheruiyot.

The Kericho senator says the government will weather the storm and “shame its detractors”.

“The foundation of this administration is honesty. Kenya has a magnanimous President. While we take these setbacks with grace and contentment, we will remain focused to delivering the Kenyan dream as was emphatically pronounced to us by voters.”

He adds that the the only genuine concern raised by the opposition  is the cost of living.

“We have also not been given our fair share of coverage to defend ourselves. We are where we are because of mistakes made by the ‘handshake Brothers’ (Mr Kenyatta and Mr Odinga) of borrowing recklessly and allowing runaway corruption as they left power,” he says.

National Assembly Speaker, Moses Wetang’ula, says it is unfair to make a summary judgment on President Ruto’s achievements just under a year in office.

“President Ruto has been working on the Jubilee administration’s budget. Judgment should be based on his first budget. Those we competed with are piling pressure on us to derail our development agenda,” Mr Wetang’ula says.

Ugenya MP David Ochieng, who now backs President Ruto, says some wish to see public services grind to a halt so that the Kenya Kwanza administration is seen to be failing.

“Forces out to frustrate the government from taking off are working overdrive but being responded to by a focused, thoughtful and firm President,” Mr Ochieng says.

According to Embakasi East MP Babu Owino, nobody needs the interpretation of pundits to know that the government “is turning out to be a monster ready to devour even its children as it consolidates power”.

“In Ruto’s administration, people do not matter. The government has been transformed into a company of shareholders as the rest of us are expected to watch quietly,” he says.

With some “hustlers” who contributed to Dr Ruto’s victory last year complaining about the cost of living and other unfulfilled promises, former Murang’a governor Mwangi wa Iria thinks it is only a matter of time before “things fall apart”.

“His goose will be ready for serving once these hustlers consolidate their opposition to this administration that has exhibited raw contempt against citizens by seeking to strangle them with taxes and police brutality instead of giving them jobs and putting money in their pockets as they had been promised,” Mr Iria says.

Governance expert, Javas Bigambo, says President Ruto’s choices could be reduced to two – embrace his opponent Odinga and risk isolation from Mt Kenya voters or stick out, hope to fix the economy and the cost of living, and let the people judge him in 2027.

“He has to either choose working with Mr Odinga or choose to face political storms, then vanquish the veteran opposition leader and walk into the 2027 election with high chances of success,” Mr Bigambo says.

“Working with Mr Odinga now will be a poisoned chalice. All he needs to do is manage the high cost of living and the opposition leader will have little to latch on.”

Prof Masibo Lumala, a political analyst and senior lecturer at Moi University, says the President should consider reshuffling his Cabinet to inject fresh blood.

“Nearly one year in office, he finds himself between a rock and hard place. Most Cabinet Secretaries are not technocrats. He ended up with such people because of political leanings,” Prof Lumala says.

“That is why the country is experiencing problems. The only way President Ruto can redeem himself is through a major Cabinet reshuffle.”

The situation gets more complicated when some of President Ruto’s allies like Laikipia East MP Mwangi Kiunjuri and his Githunguri colleague Gathoni wa Muchomba accuse a number of government functionaries of being dictatorial, condescending and divisive.

“There are those who have made it their business to silence others; people who only think of kingships and eating. Given time, President Ruto will work and deliver beautifully,” Mr Kiunjuri recently says.

Ms Wamuchomba, who sent shockwaves in the Ruto administration by opposing the Finance Bill, 2023, had earlier said: “There are those barring us from promoting the one-man, one-shilling, one-vote principle of resources and opportunity sharing for the benefit of Mt Kenya”.

Religious leaders feel it is high time the President and the opposition chief broke ranks with their hardline supporters to find a common ground and ease the tension, animosity and differences in the country.

“It is our commitment that we win peace. We are trying to bring together President Ruto and Mr Odinga. We are not yet successful but we will keep trying,” says Fr Evangelos Thiani of the Orthodox Church.

He adds that the major challenges facing the country are a battered economy, loss of lives and heightened ethnic-driven animosity.

Fr Thiani says the clergy, through the National Council of Churches in Kenya (NCCK) where he is an executive member, will continue to push for dialogue, concessions and tolerance.

 But Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua has been uncompromisingly terse in his opposition against dialogue with Mr Odinga.

“If the clergy had taken time to study what is happening, they would have seen its pattern. It has not started today. What is happening is a continuation of political blackmail to get into government,” Mr Gachagua says.

“Blackmail is a crime in our penal code. So bishops, with respect, when you ask the President to sit down with a blackmailer, you are asking the President of Kenya to commit a crime.”

But Fr Thioni insists the Church will insist on standing where peace and prosperity reside, “even after it is clear that some of us in the Church are playing sectarian politics, but where truth and justice lies will always be the voice of the Church”.

He saYS President Ruto and Mr Odinga together have the backing of 99 per cent of Kenyans.

“If they are to come out to order the country to peace, we will remain still like water in a jerrycan,” he says.