President William Ruto is caught between the proverbial rock and hard place as he plays hardball in pushing for the controversial Finance Bill, while undoubtedly aware that the unpopular Housing Fund and other contentious proposals could cost him politically.
Ruto is also painfully aware that while not in open rebellion, many of his Kenya Kwanza alliance parliamentarians are at best lukewarm in support of the first budget proposals of his new regime.
That was what informed the harsh warning directed at MPs when the President attended a Thanksgiving ceremony in Narok County last Sunday, June 4, in honour of the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Soipan Tuya. He cautioned MPs that they would face consequences if they defied the party line.
“I am waiting to see the MPs who will go against the government’s plan to give their voters employment. We want to see and know those going against this Finance Bill.”
He was alluding to warnings directed at MPs by opposition Azimio la Umoja principal Kalonzo Musyoka and several civil society groups that those who voted in support of the Finance Bill would face a backlash from the voters.
Kalonzo had demanded an open vote in Parliament so that citizens can know which of their representatives backed proposals widely criticised as imposing heavy and oppressive tax burdens on the people.
Ruto said he, too, wants an open vote rather than secret ballot, using the latest campaign narratives on the Housing Fund, which is now depicted as critical to not only making decent shelter available for the poor, but also creating employment.
“I have heard some people saying they are waiting to see MPs who will vote for the Bill to pass, but I am equally waiting to see the Members of Parliament who will vote against the Finance Bill … we are waiting to see them oppose a plan that empowers the youth who voted them to Parliament.”
Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua was even more direct, making remarks interpreted as tantamount to threatening MPs with denial of development projects.
“There is a lot of incitement around this whole Finance Bill issue. I was in Kitui yesterday and their MP stood and spoke about leaving Kenya, about seceding the way Raila Odinga has been saying, and everybody cheered.”
He went on: “And then soon after he was telling me to get word to the President that he needed roads, schools, water projects. Where does he expect the money to come from if he doesn’t vote for the Finance Bill?”
That may not be an exact reason to withhold development resources for constituencies whose MPs do not support the Bill, but it is close enough to warrant attention.
Strong-arm tactics may also be an indication that the President is getting increasingly concerned that budget proposals for which he is prepared to put his neck on the line may be in danger of being shot down if his own MPs do not show support.
Ruto has become an ardent spokesman for the Finance Bill in the face of increasing hostility from citizens who see it as oppressive, particularly on the mandatory Housing Fund contribution interpreted as yet another tax on already depleted payslips.
But with the possible exception of Housing and Urban Development Principal Secretary Charles Hinga, the architect of a plan he crossed over with from the previous government of Uhuru Kenyatta, there is hardly anyone else speaking out consistently and with knowledge in support of the Housing Fund.
Hinga is a constant presence on the television and radio talk show circuit, but he is not a very good spokesman for a project which he understands more than anyone else.
He speaks passionately and with deep knowledge of the finer details, but as witnessed when State House organised a media briefing, he gets flustered and sweaty under interrogation.
From within the vast bureaucracy of Ministry of Lands, Public Works, Housing and Urban Development, Hinga has become a largely lone spokesman for the affordable housing scheme, with his Cabinet Secretary, Zacharia Njeru, nowhere near as visible.
And from within the political sphere, the President has become almost like a lone spokesman for an initiative that is clearly close to his heart, and one that he has evidently defined as a legacy project.
The problem is that he has effectively become the chief promoter of a scheme that has become almost personalised because no else in government is able to speak about it with the same passion, understanding and knowledge. Gachagua, National Assembly Majority Leader Kimani Ichung’wa, Majority Whip Silvanus Osoro and others such as Kiharu MP Ndindi Nyoro, Senator Samson Cherargei of Nandi, Senator Aaron Cheruiyot of Kericho and Cabinet Secretaries Moses Kuria of Trade and Aden Duale of Defence, are among a substantial number occasionally speaking up for the Bill.
However, their interventions have been mostly in responding to or launching attacks on opposition critics rather than offering cogent, reasoned and knowledgeable arguments.
The tricky bit is that the Finance Bill – and the Housing Fund in particular – has become a political hot potato. And it is apparent the President does not have the troops, whether from the political or technocratic spheres, or the government communications team, to competently back his crusade.
If the chatter on political platforms, news surveys, social media or street talk, hair salons, churches, marketplaces or wherever else Kenyans gather and discuss current events is anything to go by, Ruto’s budget proposals are widely unpopular, especially the perception of massive tax increases.
He is aware of that and has even jocularly acknowledged the fact that he has earned the nickname ‘Zakayo’, after the tax collector in the Bible.
The political risk of pushing painful prescriptions is one Ruto accepted from the moment he took office last September, starting with scrapping subsidies on petroleum and maize flour.
He would also be aware now that many of the quick fixes he promised have not come through, and he is at risk of losing the core base, the so-called Hustler Nation – the hawkers, the boda operators, the mama mboga, and others on the margins of the modern economy – who propelled him to the Presidency.
Despite his public disdain for opinion polls, which might be justified given wrong projections that he was trailing Raila as the polls of last August approached, Ruto does have a healthy respect for number crunchers.
Almost from the time he started preparing his Presidential bid while still serving a first term as President Uhuru Kenyatta’s deputy, he commissioned polls that drew up all the likely scenarios.
In the closing stages of the presidential campaigns last year, his favoured pollster, a little-known outfit, was the only one predicting his victory, while all the ‘mainstream’ researchers had Raila overhauling him.
Even now, Ruto does have numbers confirming to him that the base he relied on is become increasingly disenchanted. There is a growing anger around the country over the cost of living and broken promises.
His voter base also feels abandoned and betrayed over such issues as government jobs only going to privileged few with access to the corridors of power, nepotism and tribalism in public appointment, and perceptions of runaway corruption.
His private researchers and analysts are churning out data which is corroborated by official agencies. And even politicians close to Ruto understand that, despite the confident bluster, the ground is shifting and they could become casualties.
And that is why very few Kenya Kwanza politicians, including some of the most rabid Ruto supporters, are going out to aggressively campaign for the Finance Bill. Many fear it is a lost cause that would cost them dearly at home.
bout the only Kenya Kwanza MP who has openly spoken out against the Finance Bill is Kiambu County Women Representative Gathoni wa Muchomba.
The former radio presenter, in true Kenyan political fashion, organised a public hearing in her constituency, where she pledged to follow the dictates of voters in the direction she had guided them – against the Bill.
Wa Muchomba’s ploy may have been stage-managed, but it is likely that sentiments in Kiambu against the Bill are mirrored in the rest of the vote-rich Mt Kenya region, which was critical to Ruto’s electoral victory.
Even in Ruto’s northern Rift Valley bastion, support for the Bill seems ambivalent at best. Armed with all that knowledge on shifting ground and the way in which the opposition is moving in to capitalize on the issue, most politicians would beat hasty retreats.
But not Ruto. While he is undoubtedly concerned and frustrated by inability to convince Kenyans that the Housing Fund is a good thing, he remains confident that despite his troops being nervous and unsure, he still has the numbers to ensure passage in Parliament.
Beyond the public warning against defying the party line, Kenya Kwanza strategists have been working the phones over the last few weeks, impressing on individual MPs that voting for the Bill is essential to the party agenda.
The message is that all must, without exception and no room for abstaining or absenteeism, turn up in Parliament on due date and vote for the Finance Bill.
There will be consequences if they don’t obey. The most immediate punitive measure would be de-whipping, the process by which a rebel MP is denied opportunity to represent the party in House committees, official delegations, foreign trips and so on.
That can hit MPs hard as they rely heavily on the allowances earned from committee sittings ad other official assignments outside the Chambers. But de-whipping also comes with risks, as it gives rebels the excuse to snub their own party platforms and continue voting with the other side.
There is also the potent threat to deny rebels nomination to defend their seats come the next elections. That could be enough to whip everybody back into line, especially if UDA and other Kenya Kwanza affiliates are still considered front-runners at this stage.
According to those close to Ruto, he is convinced that as long as the Finance Bill passes, he will have the opportunity to start fixing the economy within a process that involves paying off the crippling public debt inherited from the previous government.
He is prepared for some shock therapy and very painful measures, but believes that once the ship starts stabilising he will be proved right, and have the time to start winning back lost support in advance of campaigns for the next elections.
The problem is that already, some projections are going awry. On the Housing Fund for instance, it has been difficult to show that it is a priority, even for the intended beneficiaries, in the face of so many more urgent needs.
Campaign spin that it will lead to the eradication of slums, create hundreds of thousands of jobs and generally be the magic bullet to economic growth does not seem backed by any real research.
It has also not been demonstrated that slums are the consequence of housing deficit rather than poverty and unemployment.
Focus on the Housing Fund has also obscured what may be other equally important proposals in the Finance Bill, especially in new and increased taxes across so many sectors that will ultimately lead to higher consumer prices, and as disincentives to both local and foreign investment.
Ruto has a difficult balancing act in trying to prevent the economy crashing, while at the same time meeting expectations of those who voted him in on promises of massive cash injections for every interest groups.
In office, he is finding that he promised more than he can deliver, but getting lost in all the noise is the fact that the forces he is up against are not offering alternative prescriptions to those proposed in the Finance Bill.
That is the nature of politics. Civil society, industry lobbies, trade unions, religious groups, student unions, youth groups, small-scale traders and other groupings form a captive pool against the tax policies that Raila’s Azimio coalition would be foolish not to exploit.
That is what might force Ruto to bend. He might well seek a truce on the Housing Fund pending further consultations. The general relief all round could provide him breathing room to gain passage for the rest of the Finance Bill largely intact.