On Tuesday September 13th, 2022, William Ruto was inaugurated in Nairobi as Kenya’s next president after a narrow win. It was a peaceful election, breaking a long trend of violence and ethnic conflict surrounding Kenya’s past elections. Despite the legitimacy of the outcome being questioned by losing candidate Raila Odinga and former President Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s Supreme Court ruled that the results were valid and that Ruto was the rightful president, with leaders from across East Africa also acknowledging the peaceful election as a positive step. Kenya’s democratic institutions showed their strength and willingness to protect the 2010 constitution, cementing Kenya as the most stable democracy in its region, with a new administration that rode a wave of popular support across ethnic and religious lines. During a cost-of-living crisis, mass unemployment, spiraling sovereign debt, drought in northern Kenya, and instability in neighbouring Somalia, the jury is still out on how the Ruto administration will maneuver these challenges.
Aly-Khan Satchu, an economic analyst and CEO of investment advisory firm Rich Management Ltd., said that the government was “between a rock and a hard place” regarding the cost-of-living crisis. On the day following his inauguration, President Ruto lifted petrol subsidies, citing their high cost, and the artificial shortages of the subsidized products. The Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority set higher fuel prices for petrol, diesel, and kerosene—which is used for cooking in most Kenyan households. This is estimated to push inflation even higher than the five-year peak of 8.5% in August. The inflation crisis is being driven by knock-on effects from the rise in crude oil prices. As the global price of crude oil rises, subsidizing energy costs will become more expensive for Kenya, driving the nation deeper in debt. The government has opted to lift subsidies to prevent the deficit from increasing, while making this a gradual process to minimize the strain on citizens. Despite these justifications, Kenyans will still face an uphill climb as high energy costs are likely to continue because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing sanctions war. Global food shortages are also an issue. Before the war, African countries imported 44% of their wheat from Ukraine, with Ukraine alone growing enough food to feed 400 million people. These energy and food shortages mean the inflation crisis will likely become more protracted for Kenyans, many of whom live in poverty or are unemployed. President Ruto’s cross-ethnic coalition and ‘hustler’ narrative may unite the nation as it faces these obstacles.
Like other nations, Kenya grapples with the adverse effects of climate change. Northern Kenya is currently experiencing the worst drought in generations, with many feeling that the previous administration had turned a blind eye to this perennial issue. The northern regions have endured decades of neglect and ‘second class status’ following Kenya’s independence, while being rocked with the proliferation of small arms, bandits, and the growing presence of extremist groups. ‘The Standard,’ a longstanding Kenyan media organization, reports that young people in the North have been victims of extrajudicial killings and disappearances. This has disincentivized investment into the arid regions, despite opportunity for cross-border trade. The new administration has an opportunity to deploy a ‘Marshal Plan’ for the North, while Ruto’s pastoralist background in politics gives confidence that people from the neglected regions will have a seat at the decision-making table. There are also development partners willing to invest heavily in the North. Nonetheless, the political will has been ‘lacking so far,’ according to an editorial in The Standard. Under the Ruto administration, these opportunities must be recognized amid the many crises facing the region. Immediately addressing the drought by making an emergency appeal to the donor community could be a strong start, but more fundamental measures are required for Kenya to leap forward and achieve sustainable development, self-reliance, and the inclusion of all regions into its democracy.
The Ruto government also faces security challenges abroad, as drought and instability persist in neighbouring Somalia. President Ruto met with Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud on September 14th, 2022, to strengthen bilateral ties and enhance security in Somalia and the Horn of Africa. Both countries have been affected by terrorist attacks from al-Qaeda-linked militant group al-Shabaab. Ruto affirmed that “we will fast track the implementation of the Joint Commission of Cooperation (JCC) between Kenya and Somalia.” He claims, “this will boost trade in miraa and fish, and ease movement between our two nations.” President Mohamud pledged to continue working closely with Kenya on development and security, among other issues. Kenya is one of the countries with troops serving in Somalia as part of the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) umbrella. Time will tell whether these commitments can yield mutual benefits for the region.
Ultimately, the Ruto administration has entered office with good will and optimism from a diverse group of the Kenyan public. There are opportunities to include marginalized regions into the decision-making process, assist drought-stricken regions, and bridge ethnic and religious divisions with a ‘bottom-up economics’ vision for the country. President Ruto has already signaled a willingness to work with pastoralists throughout the country, and he has committed to strengthening security, trade, and cooperation with neighbours. The cost-of-living crisis, itself the result of inflation driven by food and energy shortages, remains a huge challenge for Kenya as well as other nations. With rising sovereign debt and depressed economic growth, the new administration faces a difficult path to manage its economic circumstances. However, it is possible that Kenyan debt holders can be flexible during this difficult time in the world economy. For example, China—a large donor to Kenya—has restructured and postponed much of the debt owed to it. Loan forgiveness and restructuring of this kind could give countries like Kenya more options.
To the disappoint of many human rights activists, President Ruto has also not wavered form Uhuru Kenyatta’s strong stance on LGBTQ+ rights in Kenya, doubling down on his prior statement that homosexuality has ‘no place’ in Kenyan society. Human rights abuses and brutality against LGBTQ+ Kenyans will likely continue, while the religious fundamentalism driving homophobia in Kenya persists. In a CNN interview, Ruto cited Kenya’s respect for the customs of others and demanded others do the same, claiming that bread and butter issues like infrastructure, healthcare, and job creation are more important than gay rights, a topic he describes as a ‘moral issue of society,’ and not a political priority for Kenya.
Taking all into account, the Ruto administration has the potential to navigate Kenya’s challenges in a way the Kenyatta government could not. With enough political will, Ruto can bring the country together, invest into marginalized regions, and cooperate with neighbouring countries—and the international community at large—on issues ranging from security to climate change. However, social issues surrounding sexuality, human rights abuses, and religious fundamentalism seem unlikely to change. His sweeping economic promises are a matter of political will and sound financial management, a difficult feat especially during a global economic contraction coinciding with resource shortages and inflation. It remains to be seen, therefore, how President William Ruto’s new government will perform, but the excitement surrounding his election, and the optimism many have for a fundamental change in Kenya’s path forward, leaves hope and opportunity for a new chapter. We must, nonetheless, be cognizant that the echoes of colonialism cannot be redeemed in a single presidential term. Food insecurity, energy shortages, public health concerns, and climate change are issues that no one nation can resolve on its own. Perhaps the test for President Ruto will be his willingness to cooperate with the international community in Kenya’s best interest.
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