Ndii: I don’t mind working with Ruto to defeat ‘dynasties’

Economist David Ndii. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The economy was already doing badly even before Covid-19, whose long-term consequences are still unfolding.
  • The pro-Building Bridges Initiative group is working on bringing together the big five tribes which are 75 per cent of the country and dominate the other 37 or so communities.
  • When facing an existential threat, you don’t have the luxury to choose who to fight alongside.

Economist and maverick political activist David Ndii believes that President Uhuru Kenyatta is responsible for what his deputy William Ruto has become. He says the President’s “exclusionist economic policies” have pushed citizens to embrace Dr Ruto’s “hustler” philosophy.

Dr Ndii, a key strategist of the Opposition coalition Nasa in the last election, has since fallen out with its leader Raila Odinga and considers the Handshake a mistake that will cost Mr Odinga votes because he will be blamed – with President Kenyatta – for the country’s current economic woes.

The economist, who says he doesn’t mind working with Dr Ruto if that will help stop the “dynasties’ plot to change the constitution to benefit a few people,” spoke with the Saturday Nation on the state of the national economy and politics. Excerpts:

What is the state of the economy?

Not good at all. The economy was already doing badly even before Covid-19, whose long-term consequences are still unfolding. We have failed to structurally transform our economy. Even the celebrated (Mwai) Kibaki administration really only benefitted from the unwinding of the Moi recession. It was a bounce-back helped by decent public financial management. Now, the economy is weighed down by huge debt. We are looking at stagnation of up to a decade. And, given our demographics – many young people are graduating into the job market. I doubt we will survive it.

How does the country wiggle out of the crisis?

I think only a financial implosion can save us: a default as has happened in Zambia and Lebanon. Remember the case of Greece (which had to be bailed out). The break will give us a window to do structural reforms. We are on a slow puncture which, if it goes on for four, five years, the end will be very nasty. Uhuru has entrenched a crony capitalist economy in which a small corporate elite, helped by government policies, enjoy huge profit margins.

A blowback of that exclusionary system is what has given life to the so-called wheelbarrownomics. Ruto did not create it; he is only a consequence of it. There has been an attempt to dismiss Ruto’s donation of wheelbarrows as having nothing to do with the economy. It has everything to do with the economy.

Do you work for William Ruto?

I have said repeatedly that I do not think the hustler movement is a Ruto thing. It is an organic, populist insurgency, a blowback of Jubilee’s economic failure. I saw even before Covid-19 what the standard gauge railway did to Mombasa. We have had a situation where Uhuru has been protecting the big businesses at the expense of the “small” people. A class war has been predicted in Kenya for a very long time.

Remember lawyer PLO Lumumba in a 2014 lecture at St Paul’s University talking about the ‘Sonkonisation’ of our politics? It came to pass, with the rise of Ferdinand Waititu (as governor) in Kiambu and Mike Sonko in Nairobi. I don’t care if Ruto gives wheelbarrows or not. What I am against, and I try to get the elite to understand, is belittling “small” people, which does not augur well for our nation.

Those saying that I support Ruto are trying to divert attention. They are trying to make me embarrassed and kill the conversation. Ruto’s move is only resonating with the masses. His phraseology or timing is only a happy coincidence. Uhuru Kenyatta has actually contributed a lot to the return of the “dynasty talk”.

 I was young, but I saw even in (founding President) Jomo’s time this kind of arrogance: What they used to call the arrogance of Kikuyus but is actually a condescending, paternalistic attitude of the Kikuyu political class. This is something that Moi had killed. One of his redeeming features was the common touch. What Uhuru is doing, and his demeanour, betray what they call the blue blood. He can’t hide it.

So we (a coalition of the civil society members) are engaging other people to build a national solidarity movement.

Is Ruto one of the people you are talking to?

When facing an existential threat, you don’t have the luxury to choose who to fight alongside. You hold your nose and talk to whomever you have to. If we are to dismantle the dynasty ticket, which really is a dictatorship of the big five tribes, you need everyone.

The pro-Building Bridges Initiative group is working on bringing together the big five tribes which are 75 per cent of the country and dominate the other 37 or so communities. They want to change the constitution to make this possible.

We want to stop this and commit them to a free election with the constitution intact. I am very pragmatic about who to engage. If you look at the numbers, Ruto is a frontrunner, with 40 per cent of the people; 25 per cent are undecided while 35 per cent are for the dynasty candidate. If we can get 65 per cent of the people, that will be good enough.

Some of our friends in the civil society have raised an issue with (working with) Ruto but I remind them that even Narc and Nasa had crooked politicians. If we are going to take the moral high ground, are we saying we are better than those who worked together after apartheid in South Africa or the genocide in Rwanda?

Your critics have called you the patron saint of ‘wheelbarrownomics,’ referring to your public support of the DP’s donations of jua kali tools. Would you say that this is different from the culture of handouts?

Those are Ruto’s handouts, and that is his style. But I also see people all the time leaving Capital Hill (Mr Odinga’s office) and State House with bulging pockets. Is it right when only the elite get handouts and wrong if the small people get them? This is the kind of hypocrisy I am calling out. I can name people I know who have received handouts. And if this money is the Covid-19 billions, then they have blood on their hands.

On Christmas Day, these same elites look for the poor to give handouts to. This is hypocrisy. The difference is that Ruto does these things in an in-your-face style.

He says: “If I am going to bribe churches, then I will do it on Sunday as you watch, and you will bear witness that I am corrupt.” But what I try to do in my tweets is to say: Stop offending the dignity of these people by belittling them.

People can live with hunger but when you strip them of their dignity, it is a different thing altogether. So this thing is shaping up as a class war.

Isn’t this a dangerous trend?

Yes, popular blowbacks are dangerous. That is why this rage needs to be brought to the mainstream democratic engagement. We are lucky that Ruto is a mainstream politician. It is the price for our sins as a country, chief of which is extreme inequality. If a demagogue, someone more radical than Ruto, ran away with it would be dangerous indeed.

In the last election you campaigned for ODM leader Raila Odinga, arguing he was the one to take Kenyans to “Canaan”. Today you have no kind words for him. What went wrong?

We supported Raila, not as a person, but as the only one with a pool to create a Narc-like movement against the blowback on the constitution. And we succeeded in a sense. If we didn’t have such a formidable force, Jubilee would have ridden roughshod on the country.

 But, after the election, Raila personalised the cause by cutting a private deal with Uhuru. We even tried to structure the handshake, even though we weren’t for it, but he pegged it on a personal relationship. Whenever we suggested something he would say: “Let me ask Uhuru.” So he veered off course.

But he is a man of a seemingly endless bag of tricks. Do you see him pulling a fast one in the 2022 elections?

My political punditry is not good at all, but I am a numbers person and his numbers don’t look good. Raila’s dalliance with Uhuru is a poisoned chalice. I knew that by the time Uhuru would be leaving State House, he would be more unpopular than Moi and I tried to dissuade Raila from working with him. But he didn’t think the economic performance would affect Uhuru.

He even gave me the example of Zimbabwe, saying the economic ruin there didn’t affect Robert Mugabe’s ratings. He is now in an abyss out of which I don’t think he will come.