Economy first before politics: Kenyan’s wish list for election

Raila Odinga, William Ruto

Azimio presidential candidate Raila Odinga (left) and his Kenya Kwanza counterpart William Ruto.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya and Joseph Kanyi | Nation Media Group

How William Ruto and Raila Odinga define the policies they will deploy to deal with the high cost of living, rising poverty levels, the scourge of dishonest politics, high levels of crime and bad governance could determine whom among the two frontrunners in this year’s presidential election race succeeds President Uhuru Kenya in August.

These six issues are high in a list of grievances that Kenyans have about the state of the nation and cut across all facets of their existence, including the economy, the state of social institutions, leadership and governance, and political stability.

They also mirror a list of key issues that the Nation Media Group has identified as crucial in the re-imagining of the Kenyan society and the redrawing of the country’s economic, social and political trajectory. These issues, under the Nation Agenda project, include governance and accountability, the rule of law and constitutionalism, political stability, free, fair and credible elections, diplomacy and geo-politics, and how to survive the threat of climate change.

In many ways, how the political class addresses these challenges could determine its performance at the ballot in August as this election is not just about who succeeds President Kenyatta, but also what their political postures mean for the future of the country.

This state of affairs isn’t unusual, however as every election has an underlying, unstated question — whether or not to kick out Kanu in 2002, or to laugh off the International Criminal Court in the case against Uhuru and Ruto and end tribal hegemony in 2013, for instance — and politicians across the political divide are going at each other hammer-and-tongs to win favour and following among the electorate. The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the economy, coupled with a slackening of the recovery process, are making this not just a political duel, but an economic one as well.

The Ruto mantra

The Ruto-led Kenya Kwanza alliance has repeatedly framed this election as a contest between “dynasties” and “hustlers”, the status quo and a new order. To the camp, the Kenyatta and Odinga families represent the old order while the Deputy President is the face of a new order, representing ordinary Kenyans, especially young people, who struggle to make ends meet in a battered economy.

On the other hand, leaders in the Azimio la Umoja One Kenya coalition are projecting themselves as reformists who want to end endemic corruption that they blame on Mr Ruto and his allies.

Granted, the two camps are trying hard to stay away from whipping up tribal emotions, as has been the case in previous elections, and are instead shaping their campaign messaging on the issues at the heart of ordinary citizens.

ODM secretary-general Edwin Sifuna says the contest will be between reformists and the corrupt, arguing that graft is an existential threat to the country. He says the economy has always been an issue in elections but Azimio’s take is that corruption is largely responsible for the state of affairs in Kenya, especially before the pandemic hit, and is the biggest threat to the economy.

“Corruption is the main [reason] we are suffering. If Kenyans make the mistake of handing the corrupt power, then they will only have themselves to blame,” Mr Sifuna said.

A recent Infotrak poll sponsored by the Nation Media Group and released earlier this month showed that nearly two-thirds of Kenyans think the country is headed in the wrong direction, with seven in 10 citing the high cost of living as the biggest reason. Some 64 per cent of Kenyans also cited poor governance, bad politics, rampant corruption, unemployment, poverty, insecurity and crime as factors contributing to the feeling that the country is not doing well.

A poll by Tifa released in July last year showed that 72 per cent of Kenyans believed that the country was heading in the wrong direction, with the high cost of living, unemployment, political issues, corruption, the lingering economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and runaway national debt ranking high among their concerns. According to the omnibus survey, the overwhelming perception of Kenyans is that the current challenges are economic, specifically, the cost of living and unemployment, both at 27 per cent.

“There is even more agreement about the presence of economic challenges at the local level, with the top four mentions (unemployment, the cost-of-living, hunger and famine, and poverty) in total attracting a clear majority of all responses, at 64 per cent),” the polling report said.

Earlier reports and polls had also listed government corruption, economic issues such as a lack of employment opportunities and poverty, and crime as ranking high on Kenyans’ list of concerns. This is in addition to poor healthcare and education and the widening gap between the rich and poor, with a majority of citizens believing the situation has worsened over the past five years.

Yardstick for performance

As far back as 2017, Kenyans had begun experiencing several challenges, ranging from slow economic growth and job layoffs to inflation and a high cost of living, according to a year-end poll by Tifa.

“The crisis in Kenya was not only evident in political tensions but also in the wallets of many citizens who could not afford to purchase basic food commodities such as maize flour, milk and sugar, whose prices rose sharply and in some instances by over 200 per cent,” said Ms Maggie Ireri, CEO of Tifa Research, at the time. “2017 was the year when food prices became the yardstick for Kenya’s economic performance in the eyes of the ordinary mwananchi.” Coming against this backdrop, analysts say that the 2022 presidential race will be different from previous ones. They note that campaign messaging targeting the economy and how to respond to the plight of ordinary citizens could carry the day for the winning team.

Although Kenyan politics is not driven mainly by issues, this year voters may deviate from ethnic-line voting to herald broader thinking among them, said political science professor and public administration expert Winnie Mitullah.

To Prof Mitullah, the escalating cost of living, higher prices of commodities and the poor state of the economy will sway voters’ thinking, and improving the economy, addressing the state of education, improving agriculture and addressing challenges in the healthcare value chain are some of the salient issues that voters will be interested in, and they want to see how they are articulated by presidential candidates.

“We have never been an issue-based voting country but whether those issues will determine the voting pattern is neither here nor there. If a candidate comes up talking about how they want to revive the economy, then they must clearly say how that will trickle down to the people,” observes Prof Mitullah, adding that, that is why the two camps have come up with blueprints focusing on social protection.

Kenya Kwanza’s “bottom-up” economic model centres on looking at the livelihoods of the ordinary person, while Azimio’s social welfare plan also addresses the same target group but is worded differently.

“The packages both sides of the political divide are offering are focusing on social protection. However, they are presented in a populist way with no tangible ways of implementing the plans. They should tell us how they will actualise the plans,” she said.

That is also the view of Prof Maurice Amutabi, a social science scholar who notes that the economy will play an important role because of the challenges the country is currently facing. He argues that voters are looking out for a candidate with a better plan to address unemployment, the poor state of the economy, education, completion of ongoing projects that impact ordinary people and a focus on small and medium enterprises.

“Look at the education sector, for instance, which is experiencing a hue and cry because of fees which are out of reach for many Kenyans, leading to hundreds of Kenyan learners being unable to join schools. That is not to talk about ever increasing prices of consumables,” Prof Amutabi said.

No wonder, he explains, that both Kenya Kwanza and Azimio are responding to the challenges through the “bottom-up” and social welfare approaches that focus on ordinary people.

Kitui Central MP Makali Mulu, an economist, agrees with the two analysts, explaining that this year, unlike in the past, the economy will be a key player in determining who wins. The person who comes up with the best programmes for reviving the economy and best articulates them will get Kenyans’ votes.

He says Kenyans are talking about the high cost of living, the possibility of the public debt becoming unmanageable, corruption, and integrity. “I can tell you for sure that unlike in the past where other factors like tribal politics came into play, this time the economy is going to be number one in determining who wins,” Dr Mulu said.

“Anyone whose manifesto will touch the lives of Kenyans in terms of giving them hope that they will be able to do better in terms of economic issues like growing key sectors including manufacturing, agriculture, among others, will definitely carry the hearts of Kenyans.”

Overburdened lot

At least three studies this year showed that a majority of Kenyans live in poverty and are overburdened with taxes and a generally harsh economic environment that has raised the cost of living. The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) in January reported that over half of Kenyans were living in poverty by 2018, an increase from 38 per cent as of 2014. And Oxfam and Development Finance International (DFI) this month reported that Kenya is one of the most unequal countries globally, with the two richest persons controlling more wealth than 16 million poorest Kenyans.

Kenya is a youthful country, with those aged between 18 and 35 making up about 75 per cent of its population and the biggest voting bloc. In 2017, the youth accounted for more than half (51 per cent) of the 19.6 million registered voters, and in 2019, per the census figures that year, young people of voting age constituted 14.6 million or a third of the country’s 47.6 million people.

But considering that children below 18 were 21.7 million per the 2019 census, adding the 14.6 million of voting age means that at least 76 per cent of the country’s population is young.

Unfortunately, a large percentage of this population is unemployed and feels marginalised regarding access to opportunities, representation and participation. Because of slow economic growth, corruption, nepotism and demand for experience by potential employers, most of them remain unemployed.

The unemployment rate in Kenya increased to 6.6 per cent in the first quarter of 2021, against 5.4 per cent in the previous quarter, with 5.3 million or 38.9 per cent of the 13.7 million young Kenyans aged between 18 and 34, being jobless.

The youth are hit hardest by joblessness compared with their counterparts above 35 years. Data from KNBS showed that about 1.72 million workers lost their jobs in the three months to June 2020 when Kenya imposed a coronavirus-induced lockdown that led to layoffs and pay cuts. Young workers between the ages of 20 and 29 accounted for 63 per cent of the lost jobs, or 1.2 million positions, yet every year close to one million young Kenyans graduate from local institutions ready to enter the job market.

Alive to the changing dynamics, the two leading contenders have tweaked their campaign strategies, aligning their blueprints to speak to the issues the country is grappling with.

Responding to the concerns, Mr Ruto has assembled his lieutenants under the “Hustler Nation” mantra with a “bottom-up” middle-out economic model pegging his battle for the presidency on a campaign to resuscitate the economy by empowering the poor. An economic team led by economist David Ndii is expected to deliver a framework for setting up and implementing a Sh50 billion annual “hustlers fund” aimed at facilitating access to affordable credit to 10 million micro and small enterprises that now get such credit facilities at exorbitant interest rates.

The team will also provide mechanisms for non-exploitative government-led mobile and digital loan facilities as an alternative source of low-interest credit to grant a reprieve to the 15 million Kenyans blacklisted by credit reference bureaus.

On programmes, the Ndii team will propose how to accelerate Universal Health Coverage by providing a formula for equitable contributions as a percentage of income.

They will also work to ensure that by December this year, every citizen will have an insurance cover under a scheme to be known as Universal Health Insurance.

In the agricultural sector, the team will propose administrative and legislative interventions on support for farmers, including subsidised fertiliser and other inputs, feeds and national government-aided agricultural mechanisation and irrigation programmes to enhance output.

Funding the plan

To fund the ambitious plans, the team will propose how to restructure the tax collection systems legislatively and administratively to accelerate effective, efficient and taxpayer-friendly tax collection to at least double national revenues. The measures will also aim to eliminate pilferage and corruption so as to conserve resources and manage the national debts, which is a source of concern for millions of Kenyans.

For their part, Azimio unveiled a 15-point, Sh150 billion social welfare plan that will invest in higher value-added industries and strong productivity to boost food security and an efficient public primary healthcare system. The plan includes enhancing ongoing social protection measures with subsistence allowances for the urban and rural poor, with a campaign pledge of Sh6,000 per month for vulnerable families. Under the plan, the programme will reach about eight million poor Kenyans a year, with at least Sh12 billion spent every month.

“This initiative will integrate the current social protection programme on which we already spend Sh37 billion,” said Mr Odinga. “We will add about Sh100 billion to this and expand it to include the poorest of the poor among Kenyans.” To raise the funds, Mr Odinga explained he would seal all corruption loopholes and redirect funds to be slashed from ministries’ budgets, with some dockets taking a 25 per cent hit.

However, Mr Mulu is not convinced that the plans by both Ruto and Raila are practicable, saying that none of the candidates has come up with a concrete plan on how to finance the proposals. He explains that financing such plans would be difficult because Kenya’s budgets always have huge deficits.

“They are talking much about what they will do without telling us how they will finance the plans. They are going to be in a catch-22 situation. At the end of the day, they are likely to be proposals which will not be implemented.”