By Silas Apollo
The year 2023 has been a defining one for the country in many ways, whether on the social, political, or economic front.
The year, which started off as the first year in office for the newly elected Kenya Kwanza administration, began with heightened political tensions pitting the ruling coalition against the opposition Azimio la Umoja One Kenya Alliance.
At the start of the year, both teams engaged in protracted political battles revolving around electoral reforms, especially those touching on the conduct of the 2022 presidential elections and other governance issues. These would later drag on into the year, shaping policy and political discussions and decisions.
The year 2023 also saw the country go through one of the most radical economic shifts by introducing policies such as the contentious Finance Act of 2023. The Act, which many opposed, introduced, among other things, new levies, and taxes on the earnings of employed Kenyans’ goods, as well as on commodities and other things.
Touted as a necessary evil in the wake of the mounting public debt, the new Finance Act received heavy criticism from the public and the opposition, as some government leaders also criticized the introduction of new levies such as the housing levy fund.
The opposition coalition would also later rally the public against the Finance Act through country-side protests calling for removing the new taxes and reducing the high cost of living. The opposition also used the protests to call for electoral reforms and challenge the legitimacy of President Ruto, leading to the bi-partisan talks between the government and the opposition.
Other political players and activists also moved to court to oppose the new Finance Act, leading to the High Court judgment declaring the new housing levy fund unconstitutional in November.
On public debt management, the country, for the first time, also crossed the Sh10 trillion ceiling set by Parliament, as the government continued to engage more domestic and foreign lenders to service previous loans and finance its key projects and programs.
Documents tabled in Parliament by the National Treasury showed that the debt crossed the Sh10 trillion mark by about Sh278 billion as of the close of June 2023, with the new figures also linked to the decline of the Kenyan shillings against the US dollar.
Governance expert Gitile Naituli opines that the last 12 months have been one of the most challenging periods that the country has faced in a long time.
Prof Naituli of the Multi-Media University argues that part of this is because of the mounting pressure that those in government, especially President Ruto, have been facing to fulfill his pledges to the country.
“Dr Ruto’s campaign messaging was largely based on the platform of economic liberation theology. But for that transformation to be achieved or even seen, there is an urgent need for diverse transformational ideas, which can lead to a composite approach to national issues. Continuing the current transactional approach to national duty is no longer tenable,” Prof Naituli told the Nairobi Law Monthly.
While campaigning for the presidency last year, Dr. Ruto had promised his supporters a shift in the country’s economic agenda, saying that his government would prioritize those at the bottom of the economic pyramid.
In his many campaigns and rallies across the country, the Head of State added that his administration would enact and promote policies that are friendly to the common man, whom he said had been ignored by previous administrations. The Head of State noted that this plan would include reversing the many retrogressive policies enacted by his predecessor, former President Uhuru Kenyatta.
But a year into office, the President has had to contend with some tough economic choices, including raising taxes to balance books and dealing with the growing public debt.
In his first year in office, Ruto has also faced hard political decisions from the opposition coalition, which vowed to demonstrate against the government earlier this year.
At home within his ruling Kenya Kwanza Alliance, the President has also had to rein in a growing internal supremacy battle involving some of his lieutenants and allies, including deputy president Rigathi Gachagua, public service cabinet secretary Moses Kuria, National Assembly leader of majority Kimani Ichung’wa and others.
National Assembly leader of minority and Ugunja MP Opiyo Wandayi now says that the Head of State’s current problems could be a part of his own making.
“You cannot manage the economy through propaganda. One year later, all indicators indicate that life is deteriorating and not improving. Look at the dollar or even the escalating cost of living,” Wandayi said.
But those in government, like Belgut MP Nelson Koech, disagree, arguing that President Ruto has done much work to steer the country in the right direction.
The legislator defended President Ruto’s record in office, singling out efforts to lower the cost of essential goods and commodities.
“When we were in the elections, one of our rallying calls was that we were going to bring the cost of Unga to Sh200 or even below, and now the cost has come down, even though some critics are still brushing that aside,” Koech said.
Other achievements the government has been lauded for include the heightened efforts on climate change championed by President Ruto, which has since seen the signing of multi-billion climate action deals and the ongoing efforts to plant trees across the country, among many others.
Supporters of the President have also pointed out programmes such as the Hustler Fund, which, since its launch in November 2022, has extended loans of about Sh39.7 billion to 21.8 million people.
Aside from the political and economic challenges, the Kenya Kwanza administration has also had to contend with growing graft and mega scandals in government, threatening to derail President Ruto’s campaign promises to deal with graft in government.
Some of the latest scandals that have rocked the government include the multi-billion shillings cooking oil deal, which, according to investigative authorities, has since roped in at least two cabinet secretaries.
Prof Naituli argues that moving into the new year, President Ruto now faces the daunting task of moving past the hurdles that marred his first year in office to deliver on his agenda.
“It is becoming increasingly clear that Kenya Kwanza’s governmental practice significantly differs from their campaign rhetoric. Turning around an economy calls for a series of well-thought-out actions coupled with personal incorruptibility of leadership, deep commitment to transforming the country, and an unwavering resolve in the war against corruption.
“Without instilling fiscal discipline at the top level of government, public service as well as established institutions and commissions, stabilization of the economy remains a pipe dream,” Prof Naituli said. (