A strange union, a testy election and a torn legacy

A strange union, a testy election and a torn legacy

By NLM Writer

Irony is a form of politics, to quote Franco Berardi. But even when it is not, often, irony and politics go hand-in-hand. This spectre defines the General Election in August – and, by extension, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s political legacy.

Deputy President William Ruto has long maintained that the 2018’ handshake’ between President Kenyatta and Orange Democratic Movement leader Raila Odinga derailed the Jubilee government’s development and governance track record. On his part, Mr Odinga insists that the Handshake helped resolve the political crisis that followed the disputed elections of 2017 – Odinga boycotted a rerun ordered by the Supreme Court in October of the same year. 

Mr Odinga was accused of treason – although he was never tried – following his unofficial swearing-in in Uhuru Park in January 2018, culminating in the Handshake barely two months later after President reached out to the ODM leader for talks and reconciliation. The resultant pact created a strange political world in which Mr Odinga, once a bitter critic of the UhuRuto duo, has emerged as one of the strongest defenders of the Jubilee government.

Mr Odinga is steadfast in defending President Kenyatta’s track record on healthcare and infrastructure, but he continues to criticise the Jubilee government’s performance on debt. Experts have long raised concern about the terms and structure of Kenya’s debt portfolio, with such criticism often dismissed by none other than the Treasury itself as alarmist. 

In September last year, the Central Bank – which has always expressed confidence that our public debt is manageable – raised the alarm and asked the government to curb its ballooning debt, which currently stands at over Sh8.4 trillion – more than 70 percent of GDP.

Odinga argues that a large proportion of the additional debt burden was incurred in the Jubilee government’s first term and confines his praise of President Kenyatta Uhuru to his second term. 

On the other hand, DP Ruto blames the Handshake for the country’s unmanageable debt. Ruto has capitalised on the debt status, accusing the Handshake duo of overseeing the raising of the debt ceiling to unmanageable levels. 

“Tragically, the only thing I can remember that the Handshake has done on matters to do with the economy is to borrow Sh7 trillion in the last five years,” the DP said during UDA National Delegates Conference at Kasarani in March.

In the same breath, the Mr Ruto says he broke ranks with his boss because the president “openly told me he no longer wanted us to work together in delivering our Jubilee administration promises to Kenyans.”

Such is the irony that characterises this year’s General Election: it is a contest between a sitting Deputy President campaigning in opposition to his government and an Opponent aspirant endorsed by the President. And in March this year, that spat played out in the international arena when both the DP and Mr Odinga visited London to rally support in the diplomatic community.

Speaking at Chatham House when he visited Britain in March, Ruto promoted his bottom-up economic model as the elusive solution to which Kenyans have long aspired.

Ruto’s economic pitch is that he will support the ‘hustlers’ [common person]. His basis is that small businesses are the biggest support of Kenya’s economy. Small business grants and a government-backed loan scheme will help them unleash their economic potential to expand our economic base and GDP: the DP’s entire campaign rests on this premise.

Whenever he has had to respond to critics of his “hustler’s economic model”, DP Ruto has often responded that the alternative, the trickle-down approach, has failed because it is very good at breeding cartels – a euphemism for the fabulous riches that Kenya’s political elite, including the Kenyatta and Odinga families, have amassed. To his credit, the hustler economic model is a quite efficient campaign tool.

Mr Odinga, on the other hand, cites his reform-driven history and says he will tackle graft and waste of public resources, cut the country’s ballooning public debt, and provide monthly payments for the country’s poor and unemployed. In his speech at Chatham House, weeks after Ruto made his address there, Mr Odinga said he would prioritise easing the country’s debt burden by renegotiating loan terms and prioritising commercial loans with long-term lenders lower interest rates. Kenya, he insisted, would not default and would address any concerns through dialogue.

The upcoming General Election is an important democratic event, but it is also a litmus test of how well President Kenyatta can consolidate his tattered legacy, and Kenyans continue to debate the President’s election wager and political future in the Azimio candidate, Mr Odinga.

Revive BBI

The curtain will fall – or is supposed to – on Kenyatta’s presidency in less than three months. But, as Dauti Kahura writes in ‘The Elephant’, the President does not behave like someone who wants to leave after his constitutionally mandated two terms are over. 

When the Building Bridges Initiative was born, many correctly read its intentions as a project geared to secure a post-presidency position for Uhuru after 2022. Evidently, President Kenyatta has no intentions of exiting active politics soon. Besides staying on as leader of the Jubilee Party, he also chairs the powerful Council of the Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya coalition. 

Although the Supreme Court officially killed off the BBI constitutional reform following its ruling on March 31, it did not entirely bury it. Mr Odinga has promised to revive many of its key provisions. As he told Chatham House, ‘I’m convinced our constitution still needs some reforms’.

For better or worse, President Uhuru’s legacy must be looked at through the lens of the August Election and the events leading to it. Two months out, it is clear the President has unfinished business and is in the thick of the makings of murky succession politics. (

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