Kenya: Assessing William Ruto’s First Year – Initial Promises of Ease for Kenyans Met with Deterioration

It’s been over a year since President William Ruto took office as Kenya’s fifth president. At that time, Kenya was facing challenges such as rising food and fuel prices, high unemployment, and a concerning debt burden.

During his election campaign, Ruto promised to address these issues by tackling corruption and ineptitude in the economy. He pledged to promote good governance, prioritize the needs of the poor, and address ethnic politics while upholding constitutionalism and the rule of law.

Ruto’s promises were significant because the rule of law and constitutionalism are crucial for economic planning, development, and equitable distribution of national resources.

They act as safeguards against impunity, democratic regression, lawlessness, and political instability. In Kenya’s history, the political elite have exploited ethnicity to gain power at the expense of the overall well-being and social unity. This entitlement has also weakened state institutions and led to corruption and impunity.

Having studied democratic transitions, conflict, state-building, and elections in Africa, I wrote a book in 2018 that explored how the political class in Kenya had leveraged ethnicity for their own political and economic advantage, resulting in weak and dysfunctional state institutions.

During his campaign, Ruto identified key issues that required immediate attention. These included resolving tensions between the executive and judiciary, ensuring independent police finances, and relocating port operations from Naivasha to Mombasa. However, tackling Kenya’s economic hardships has proven to be a difficult task, as acknowledged in Ruto’s state of the nation address on November 9, 2023. Over a year into his presidency, Ruto has made little progress in turning around Kenya’s economy.

Economic turbulence

Ruto presented himself as an outsider to Kenya’s power structure who could improve the living conditions of the poor and marginalized. Unfortunately, the economy has not improved under his leadership. In fact, living conditions have worsened.

The cost of living has increased due to higher petrol prices and the local currency’s depreciation. Ruto’s government has introduced new and increased taxes, ostensibly to reduce the need for external borrowing.

Read more: William Ruto is now in charge of Kenya’s shaky economy: where to start

While the government quickly removed fuel and food subsidies, it has been slow in addressing government wastage.

The government’s main strategy was to subsidize fertilizer to boost agricultural production and achieve food security. However, it remains to be seen whether this approach will be successful. More deliberate measures are needed to revitalize agriculture, which is the backbone of the Kenyan economy.

To prioritize the needs of the poor and marginalized in governance, Ruto focused on the financial sector and introduced the “Hustler Fund” to make credit more affordable.

However, the fund’s positive impact on overall living standards, such as job creation, is likely to be negated by a punitive tax regime and a struggling economy.

Rule of law

One of Ruto’s first acts as president was approving the appointment of six judges left in limbo by his predecessor, Uhuru Kenyatta. He also increased funding for the judiciary, as he had promised.

Read more: William Ruto: how Kenya’s new president took on powerful political dynasties

However, entrenching the rule of law and constitutionalism requires more than this. Judicial officers must act with integrity and equality before the law must be affirmed. Senior state officers and the political elite must face consequences if found guilty of wrongdoing.

The Kenyan judiciary still suffers from corruption, which hampers access to justice. Disturbingly, it has been perceived as biased against the poor while allowing the rich and political elite to act with impunity. Unlike his predecessor, Ruto has obeyed court rulings that went against him. However, some critics, including the Law Society of Kenya, accuse his administration of disregarding court orders.

Ruto spoke out against extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances committed by the police in the past. He sought to grant the police financial and operational autonomy by transferring the police budget to their control, as he promised.

Despite these changes, a culture of impunity and lack of transparency continue to undermine the Kenyan police force. Extrajudicial killings persist, and the police need to be subjected to civilian oversight as required by the constitution.

Ruto’s failure to establish a commission of inquiry into state capture, as promised during his campaign, raises doubts about his commitment to fighting corruption. One year later, no such commission has been formed, and the issue seems to have been abandoned.

Unless Ruto takes action against corruption and holds culprits accountable, it is unlikely that he will fulfill his manifesto. The rule of law demands the recovery of proceeds from crime and decisive punishment for economic sabotage. This approach would reduce the need for burdening Kenyans with taxes and more borrowing.

National cohesion

Appointments to government positions have been hindered by issues such as appointee recycling, patronage, nepotism, and ethnicity. Additionally, senior government officials openly promote exclusionary ethnic politics without consequences. Ruto must exert control over them.

It is also concerning that Ruto engaged in talks with the opposition elite to address their violent protests against his victory. These talks, driven by self-interest, could lead to constitutional amendments creating more political positions under the misguided belief that this enhances national cohesion. This is a departure from Ruto’s previous stance.

Ultimately, national cohesion is Ruto’s most crucial challenge. Kenya is divided on various fronts – economic, ethnic, regional, and religious – as a result of past governments. Ruto needs to go beyond ethno-regional appointments. To gain legitimacy and bring about transformation, he must reconnect with and empower the “hustler nation,” the marginalized constituency that propelled him to power. Failure to do so could result in a strongly contested reelection bid, similar to his predecessors.

Westen K Shilaho, Senior Research Fellow, Institute for PanAfrican Thought and Conversation (IPATC), University of Johannesburg

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