President William Ruto
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President William Ruto’s multiple battle lines

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President William Ruto addressing journalists at State House in Nairobi on July 5, 2024.

Photo credit: Bonface Bogita | Nation Media Group

President William Ruto is facing a growing number of pressure points, all of which could weaken him politically and have a lasting impact on his presidency, just under two years into office.

The Head of State was forced to decline to assent to the Finance Bill, 2024, following weeks of countrywide protests by majority young Kenyans amid threats of more anti-tax demonstrations across the country.

This also followed pressure from various groups, including the Church and the opposition who insisted that protesters had valid reasons that needed to be urgently addressed. This has left his administration staring at a yawning gap of Sh346bn in the Budget that he has now promised to bridge through cuts and borrowing. But how to end the protests that are both a security and political problem, lower tension and satisfy the grievances of diverse groups—in particular young Kenyans—remains an enduring headache that Dr Ruto will need to deal with.

On Friday, July 5, he announced a raft of proposed measures after weeks of protests that piled pressure on his administration. They touched on debt, employment freeze, merging 47 parastatals, shelving appointment of chief administrative secretaries, cutting down on the number of advisers, scrapping confidential spending, stopping Harambees and halting non-essential travel, among others. In another unusual move, the President also directly engaged young Kenyans on social media site X (formerly Twitter) Space. During the session that initially faced technical challenges, he responded to various burning questions.

Coming at a time when his own deputy Rigathi Gachagua has launched a massive pushback against his government, political observers opine that the Head of State could be treading on dangerous grounds, posing a risk to his administration.

The DP has publicly linked some of the President’s allies to his tribulations, attracting fierce criticism from them and fermenting internal rift. He recently accused National Intelligence Service (NIS) Director-General Noordin Haji of losing control of the agency and giving ineffective counsel to Dr Ruto. “Some few politicians, who are around the President, want to meddle with Mt Kenya politics to fight me. Mt Kenya politics is so complicated and what we hate is betrayal.

“As Mt Kenya, we have never interfered with Rift Valley politics and we deserve respect,” the DP said recently.

But as the heat turned on the government following the contentious Finance Bill that was eventually withdrawn, there were already fears from the top Executive over the possible endgame. Prime Cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi had warned of the consequences of rejecting the proposed annual tax law, noting it would amount to “a vote of no confidence in the President”.

Weekly protests

But after its withdrawal, Mr Mudavadi moved to assure foreign nations of Kenya’s commitment to maintaining national security amid weekly protests that have been witnessed in most parts of the country in the past two weeks. He said the country’s long-term security will not be compromised and that the government will do all it takes to restore sanity.

“The state will continue to protect the people, public institutions and private property within its territory,” Mr Mudavadi said.

Dr Ruto’s allies, including National Assembly Majority leader Kimani Ichung’wah who had dismissed the youth uprising in the country as consisting of “KFC-eating, Uber-riding privileged city dwellers,” had eaten humble pie, and recognised that Gen Z had valid concerns.

Political analyst Martin Oloo argues that the government must fast come out of “its arrogance and sense of entitlement”.

Jobless Kenyans

“He wants to tax even jobless Kenyans? He has overstretched his imagination. The youth revolt is a consciousness built out of frustration, disbelief and diminished faith in adults.

“A revolt against false promises and lies. A realisation that their destiny can only be safe in their hands,” Mr Oloo told Nation. “The President must, like Zaccheus, come down from the Sycamore tree of arrogance, aloofness and sense of entitlement. Kenyans are his bosses not his servants.”

In addition to the tax war the President has faced, he is also under pressure to address the perks row pitting him against his predecessor Uhuru Kenyatta that has been turned into a political weapon to beat the Kenya Kwanza administration in Mt Kenya.

Mr Kenyatta accused Dr Ruto of refusing to pay for his office and denying him budget for two consecutive financial years – about Sh1.1 billion. Analysts see the protest by Mr Kenyatta and the DP of having the potential to whip up emotions and cause disruptions.

Nyeri Governor Mutahi Kahiga insists that whereas Mr Kenyatta “may have wronged the powers that be, he deserves his legally provided pension and facilitation for his office”.

Dr Ruto is also facing a challenge from within his Kenya Kwanza camp, where affiliate parties feel they are being pushed to fold up to strengthen the United Democratic Alliance (UDA). Already, Mr Mudavadi, the founder of Amani National Congress (ANC), has agreed to enter into a merger with UDA, something that other parties, including Ford Kenya of National Assembly Speaker Moses Wetang’ula, are reluctant to do.

Dr Ruto said Kenyans do not want politics of ethnicity and called for the consolidation of political parties into a mega party.

“You cannot have a democracy without solid political parties built not on the basis of personality cults or tribes but based on the solid basis of an agenda, vision and plan,” he said.

Ugenya MP David Ochieng’, the Movement for Democracy and Growth (MDG) party leader, has already hit the ground running, with no plans to fold up his party to join UDA as the ruling party has been pushing.

Debt situation

Politician Jimi Wanjigi believes that Dr Ruto’s failure to address the country’s economic situation could be his Waterloo.

“His failure to address the issues we have been saying over and over again on the economy and the country’s debt situation is now leading him to more trouble. He has lost moral legitimacy to govern, thus cannot handle this situation where the youth are now rising against his administration,” Mr Wanjigi said.

Dr Ruto has also publicly confessed to having been failed by his communication team to explain to Kenyans the import of the withdrawn Finance Bill, thus putting his administration on the receiving end.

He argues that his communication team may have failed to provide adequate information regarding some of the new tax measures introduced in the Bill.

He noted that if he had been given a chance to explain the content of the Bill and its impact on the country’s economy, every Kenyan would have agreed with him. “We did not explain ourselves better, I am sure my communication team failed, and our communication architecture did not deliver. The message did not get out to the people,” he stated, lifting the lid off another area he has to contend with.

Whether he will reorganise the team to suit his demands is another challenge he will have to face. Already, there are concerns by a section of Kenyans that the President needs to dissolve his Cabinet and instil fresh blood.

“Watch this space,” he said during a recent interview when asked if he would take action.

Changes

In his address to the nation on Friday, he vaguely talked about making changes “shortly” without indicating what this would entail.

Whether he will accede to the demand that he dissolves his Cabinet rather than reshuffle it remains to be seen.

Just as the youth pressured him not to amend the Finance Bill but to reject it in toto, he is once again facing a similar demand not to reshuffle the Cabinet but dissolve.

The opposition has added yet more pressure to President Ruto, with Azimio la Umoja One Kenya principal Kalonzo Musyoka challenging him to call for a snap election.

“Kenyans have already expressed the lack of confidence in this government and we urge President Ruto to assent the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission Bill 2024 into law to allow for the Kenyans to express their democratic rights by holding the leaders accountable. The MPs are afraid of even going to parliament given the events witnessed there, let him sign so that Kenyans can recall the MPs and allow for a snap election,” Mr Musyoka said.

Mr Wanjigi insists that the President should resign since he has “lost his moral legitimacy to govern.”

“He should set up transitional authority through a convention that will usher in a time for another election. He cannot handle the youth uprising,” the former presidential aspirant told Nation.

The president’s quest for the formation of a National Multi-Sectoral Forum to address the concerns raised by the youth has also faced opposition, with Azimio challenging him to implement the National Dialogue Committee report first

Kenyans living in the diaspora have also rejected Dr Ruto's plans to engage the public through the multi-sectoral forum and instead want the Head of State to speak directly to Gen Zs in the country.

They also want the immediate release of all those arrested during the nationwide protests against the controversial Finance Bill 2024, which at its climax saw demonstrations in 35 of Kenya's 47 counties.

In addition to these, the president is also racing against time to give assurance to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on its tax plan after the withdrawal of the Finance Bill 2024.

President Ruto reportedly spoke to the IMF Chief Kristalina Georgieva days after he withdrew the Bill.

According to Reuters, Dr Ruto spoke to Georgieva by phone following the withdrawal which was occasioned by an outrage by Kenyan youths.

The finance bill containing the tax increases was central to policy reforms agreed by the country with the IMF as part of a lending programme worth $3.6 billion.