President William Ruto’s inaugural State of The Nation address would in ordinary circumstances have been a celebration of victory, as well as highlighting achievements of a first year in office from the policies and programmes that are the foundation stone for what can be expected in years to come.
Instead, Kenyans saw a president who is usually so confident, at ease and master of the stage clearly feeling the weight of his presidency. There was no soaring rhetoric or ambitious blueprints for the future, but instead a defensive performance in which the President was more intent on responding to critics of his difficult first year in office than in unveiling anything new.
Not too long before his first State of the Nation address before a joint sitting of the National Assembly and Senate, Ruto had hosted Cabinet Secretaries, senior civil servants and Kenya Kwanza Alliance MPs and other leaders for what was described as a frank and difficult conversation. Ruling party MPs were reported to have put it plainly to the President that he was losing the ground due to the economic travails afflicting citizens, and growing disillusionment over unfulfilled promises.
MPs pleaded to the President to do something over the rising cost of living, particularly on the prices of petroleum, food and other basic commodities, and growing unemployment. The President stuck to his guns and insisted that people only had to be patient, as he would not buck economic fundamentals to seek short-term solutions via unsustainable subsidies his and reckless borrowing as did his predecessor, President Uhuru Kenyatta.
The President approached the speech knowing it was his shoulders that lay the burden of explaining to ordinary Kenyans that they must bear with hard times for now, in hope that they will reap the bounty when his policies stabilise the economy and lead to renewed growth. The problem was the Ruto’s speech did not really communicate the message of hope.
The President has a masterful wordsmith in his chief speechwriter Eric Ng’eno, and can also call a large array of policy experts and technocrats to put together the right messaging.
All too often, however, the best efforts are rendered useless when civil service bureaucrats take over and reduce presidential speeches to an inconstant and erratic hodge-podge of paragraphs from each government ministry touting its supposed achievements.
That has been the standard extra dull and boring template for Ruto’s speeches at national day celebrations, in stark contrast to the brilliant addresses seemingly reserved only for his international engagements. And that is high an inaugural State of the Nation address was reduced to the usual self-appraisal scorecard, a long list of accomplishments out together with little effort at rhyme or reason.
MPs surveyed after the speech took predictably partisan positions, praise from Kenya Kwanza and dismissal from Azimio. One observation, however, stuck out: Dagoretti South MP John Kiarie, citing his own communications background, first expressed himself awed by Ruto’s mastery of the teleprompter, before going into the content.
That could be telling. The Constitution provides for annual State of the Nation address on measures taken and the progress achieved in realisation of the national values and principles, and fulfilment of international obligations.
The national values outlined include patriotism, national unity, sharing and devolution of power, rule of law, democracy and participation of the people. Others are human dignity, equity, social justice, inclusiveness, equality, human rights, non-discrimination and protection of the marginalised; as well as good governance, integrity, transparency and accountability and sustainable development.
But Ruto’s speech of just over one hour dwelt largely on the usual things plucked straight out of Bottom-up economic model mantra. He mentioned gains from subsidised fertiliser, flour prices, dairy and coffee sector reforms, fish landing sites, restructuring of sugar companies, Hustler Fund, universal healthcare, social security, education, and so on. It was a very long list of what Kenya Kwanza promised, and what it has supposedly delivered on or at least made great progress.
But there was a problem in that many of those achievements have not really been felt on the ground, as Ruto heard from his coalition MPs just a day before. And apart for the self-congratulatory scorecard, the president had no choice but to address the burning issues about an economy in seeming freefall, and growing public discontent.
He did express confidence that his there was light at the end of the tunnel, even as he urged Kenyans to bear with difficulties for now. He also had, commendably, had to make it clear that there were no shortcuts to pulling Kenya out of economic slump. That is not an easy message to sell when he is buffeted from all sides by demands around the cost of living.
Apart from what he heard from MPs who not only have their ears to the ground but are also concerned about their own political futures, Ruto is also in possession of sobering survey results — some done independently by the various polling companies and others commissioned by the government — which all concur on the public discontent and the likely political ramifications.
After all the lofty campaign promises and outsized expectations, followed by an economy in seeming freefall, the bare fact is that the Ruto government now faces a serious credibility problem, evident even in regions that voted solidly for Kenya Kwanza. Ruto is being honest with his admission that there are no easy fixes, but is finding it increasingly difficult to sell hope and optimism that good things are around the corner.
It is likely that the most important elements of his speech was in moving away from his scorecard, and addressing more important issues that should be the real essence of a State of the Nation address. One such issue was the confidence he expressed in the outcome of the bipartisan talks between his team and representatives of opposition leader Raila Odinga’s Azimio la Umoja coalition.
He noted the presence of Wiper Party leader Kalonzo Musyoka — in a rare slip of the tongue referring to him as a former President instead of former Vice President — who co-chairs the talks with National Assembly Majority leader Kimani Ichung’wa. The President lauded the search for common ground towards national unity, noting that dialogue, consensus and collaboration, rather than conflict towards joints aspirations.
With the team having concluded deliberations and set to present its report and recommendations to the two principals, Ruto seems to be preparing the ground for his own great moment that could divert from grouses around the poor state of the economy, and point towards a future where the issues that lead to perpetual political conflict are resolved once and for all.
The Building Bridges Initiative of Kenyatta and Raila, which Ruto as Deputy President opposed, was a miserable flop. We could be set for a Ruto-Raila BBI by another name if the expected outcomes, which he suggested mirror the national values enshrined in the Constitution, are realised.