News | Economic / Social Policy - East Africa Is William Ruto Failing Kenya?

One year into his presidency, the self-styled maverick appears to be faltering



Mussa Billegeya,

William Ruto in Berlin.
Kenyan President William Ruto at a press conference with the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin, 28 March 2023. Photo: IMAGO / Jürgen Heinrich

Wealthy businessman William Ruto was sworn in as Kenya’s fifth president on 13 September 2022. His inauguration came a month after being declared the winner by the nation’s electoral body, the Independent Electoral and boundaries Commission (IBEC), and surviving a Supreme Court verdict on the validity of his victory after his arch-rival Raila Odinga challenged the official results in court — and lost.

Musa Billegeya works as a programme manager at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s East African Regional Office in Dar es Salaam.

Many observers following the elections were not exactly shocked when the chair of the already-divided electoral commission announced Ruto’s victory — albeit with the slimmest majority of 50.49 percent of the total ballots. Nevertheless, his victory had been anything but a foregone conclusion. Ruto had to defy odds to survive the political onslaught from former Prime Minister Odinga who, in addition to his immense political capital and storied history in Kenyan politics, enjoyed the support of Ruto’s friend-turned-foe, outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta, under whom Ruto himself had served as vice president. Yet Ruto turned things around with his ingenious campaign strategy of branding himself as a “hustler”, a self-made man who identified with the nation’s youth, poor, and the most disadvantaged who aspire to strike it rich. Even at 55, he was very much a youthful candidate compared to his chief opponent Odinga, who is more than 20 years older.

To win voters away from his politically magnetic opponent (and distract them from his own dark political legacy), Ruto promised a land of milk and honey. He rebrand himself around his own humble beginning as a poor street chicken seller. Many Kenyans, especially young people and women, related to this narrative. He promised to establish a fund for “hustlers” and poor people to access loans to start and grow businesses and make life better for the average mwananchi (citizen) by curbing skyrocketing living costs, fighting corruption, depoliticizing the police force, and establishing gender parity in his cabinet.

Ruto promised that under his rule, Kenya would be the best it has ever been for poor, unemployed young men and women. Yet one year into his administration, his ambitious agenda is no closer to being implemented.

High Expectations and Unrealistic Plans

On the one hand, Ruto’s economic promises could be seen as plausible considering the country’s strong economic standing. It ranks among the top-ten economies in Africa in terms of GDP, and the first in the region. That said, the mere presence of wealth in the country says little about how it is distributed. Kenya has one of the largest gap between the rich and the poor in the world. Statistics show that the top 0.1 percent of the population owns more wealth than the bottom 99.9 percent. About one fifth of the population lives in extreme poverty, and approximately 10 percent of the total population face extreme hunger and a quarter of the Kenyan population lacks reliable access to healthcare.

Moreover, Kenya is plagued by historical injustices and widespread corruption in almost all aspects of society — especially among its political elite, whether in government or opposition. Ruto for his part never put forward a plan to tackle these root causes — indeed, by many accounts, he is deeply implicated in corruption himself. Thus, for anyone familiar with the country’s political and economic history, his promises were flat-out unrealistic.

Having been in government for so many years, even serving as second-in-command of the republic for two terms, Ruto must have known this very clearly. His personal journey into the economic elite never gave an indication that he would be any different from other Kenyan politicians, who regularly use public office for personal enrichment, either. He belongs to the country’s elite class of wealthy (and often corrupt) politicians, far removed from the impoverished majority. He is said to be among the richest politicians in the country, owning many business ventures including holdings in the areas of real estate, agriculture, hospitality, and insurance, although very little is known of how he managed to amass this wealth.

Promises Delivered, Promises Broken

Within his first 100 days in office, President Ruto inaugurated the so-called “Hustler Fund”, also known as the Financial Inclusion Fund, which he initially furnished with 50 billion Kenyan shillings. That sum amounted to around 393 million euro at the time, but now is only around 319 million, thanks to the freefall the shilling has entered since. The fund provides cheap credit at a flat interest rate of 8 percent to segments of society regarded as neglected and deserving of support, encouraging them to “hustle” their way to success.

As of August 2023, a total of 34.5 billion shillings (slightly less than 220 million euro) was reported to have been disbursed to applicants. While the fund was flaunted by most of his supporters as his first fulfilled promise, its popularity among the population has diminished with time. Polling data suggests that in March 2023, six months after his term began, 29 percent of Kenyans who said the new government was on track to fulfill its promises cited the fund as its biggest achievement. That percentage dropped to only 10 percent three months later.

Critics argue that the fund is not the silver bullet the president and his supporters claimed it to be. One of its flaws, they say, is that the amount of credit granted is far too small to enable most of the applicants to do much. One fruit seller in Nairobi reported receiving only 500 shillings, a little over 3 euro — hardly enough to investment, let alone start a new business.

Ruto’s choice to hide behind his legislative majority is harming his ability to smoothly run the country and implement his recovery programmes — at the expense of the entire nation.

Soon after his inauguration, the president started delivering on some of his promises — albeit selectively. He fulfilled his promise to make subsidized fertilizers available to farmers, delivering about 1.4 million bags within his first week in office. This represented one of his medium-term solutions to the hunger crisis already sweeping the nation. According to polling data from TIFA Research, this move boosted his popularity by about 6 percent. Yet the fertilizers did little to remedy the food supply situation, as the country went on to experience its worst drought in 40 years. From his long list of campaign promises, fertilizer is the only one he has realized so far.

Having served as the deputy president himself for two terms prior to his own presidency, Ruto was very much aware of the immediate problems facing the nation, such as rising costs of living and inflation, among many other chronic issues like corruption and state capture. Indeed, he even made bringing down the cost of living one of his major campaign promises. Yet, immediately after coming into office, he scrapped the government subsidies on maize flour that had kept the price of this crucial staple food within reach of many ordinary Kenyans. This led to an immediate rise in its price, deepening the food crisis for millions of ordinary citizens who were already struggling with hunger.

He also scrapped the fuel subsidy that had helped keep retail prices in check, leading to a further rise in the cost of practically every good and service that requires fuel for its production. His decision may have been a political move against the allies of the former president, whom he accused of siphoning money off the schemes, but it had far-reaching and harsh implications for the wider public. It was not long before the cost of living became the main topic of discussion in the country’s media.

To make matters worse, the government introduced more taxes and levies for the 2023–2024 financial year, including a doubling of VAT on fuel and a compulsory housing levy for all salaried employees. These moves will only make life harder for many.

Perhaps Ruto’s most obvious broken promise in his first year has been his betrayal of gender equality. Several months into the election, Ruto not only promised to choose an equal number of women and men in his cabinet for the first time, but even went as far as to sign a “Women Charter detailing gender inclusion policies in a public rally at Nyayo Stadium in Nairobi. So far, he has not only failed to fulfil his promise of appointing 50 percent women in his cabinet, but even the seven women he did appoint falls behind Kenyan law, which mandates that at least one third of positions in government offices be filled by women.

His failure to address gender equality and women’s rights in fact goes beyond his political appointments. A recent article by Kenyan feminists revealed that women are still suffering from indiscriminate violence under Ruto’s administration. Nothing seems to have changed in that regard. Not only has the government failed to provide protection and guarantee the safety of millions of women living in difficult conditions in Kenya, but the ongoing daily hardships and rising cost of living are further exposing already vulnerable women and young girls to violence and banditry — all in addition to the psychological and mental anguish imposed by their inability to care for their children.

Staying the Course

Although legitimate (at the very least, no one succeeded in challenging it in the courts), Ruto’s victory was far from a reflection of broad popular support. His 7.1 million votes actually represented less than one third of Kenya’s total 22.1 million registered voters, and he has walked a political tight rope from day one.

Soon after taking office, his opponent Odinga started organizing rallies in different parts of the country, challenging Ruto’s legitimacy and claiming access to classified information that the election was rigged. At first, his rallies did not gain much public support, as many felt they were for his personal political gain. However, this changed when he also incorporated the cost of living into his protest agenda. The rallies became bigger, more frequent, and violent — especially in the capital Nairobi and the western city of Kisumu, his hometown. According to Amnesty International, by July 2023, up to 30 protesters had been killed by police, dozens more wounded, and about 300 arrested.

Kenyan society and its politics are structured almost exclusively around ethnicity.

Kenya is no stranger to post-election turmoil. Both of Ruto’s predecessors, Mwai Kibaki in 2007 and Uhuru Kenyatta in 2017, defeated Odinga in general elections and faced political uprisings soon afterwards. Both chose the path of political negotiations and reconciliation to enable the smooth functioning of their governments. Although Kenyan presidents are by no means obligated to do so, Kenya’s political history testifies to the need for those in power to acknowledge the fluidity and complexity of running the Kenyan state and create space for the opposition in running the nation for all.

Thus, Ruto should have known that to save his administration and preserve national harmony, he had to engage in talks with the opposition. Nevertheless, he has chosen to take a hard-line stance against the opposition and refuses to take meaningful action on the rising cost of living. On numerous occasions, he has boldly declared to his dwindling supporters that he is not open to a “handshake” with his opponent. Yet his choice to hide behind his simple majority of votes and his legislative majority is harming his ability to smoothly run the country and implement his recovery programmes, at the expense of the entire nation and its people.

Moving Beyond Ethnicity

When Kenya’s highly celebrated new constitution was adopted in 2010, many citizens hoped for national healing, socio-economic recovery, and newfound political freedoms. Indeed, Kenyans have enjoyed more political and social freedoms in recent years compared to their peers in many other African countries. With a few exceptions, of course, there is more freedom of expression and even space for mass actions — or at least picketing — than in most neighbouring countries. This can be seen in the extent of media freedoms and political rallies.

Nevertheless, there is a problem: whether in government or opposition, Kenya’s politicians appear to have mastered the dangerous art of adaptation. They seem to have grown thick skins, thick enough to withstand public pressure without yielding to popular demands. They have become masters of pretence — able to pretend not to hear even the most audible of public cries or see even the most obvious crises.

As a result, while on the one hand, the majority of Kenyans increasingly feel that the government is failing them, on the other they are exhausted by the endless public actions that seem to fall on deaf ears, while those in power dig their heels in deeper. This is in addition to the innocent people shot dead by police when trying to exercise their constitutional right to picket. As a result, Kenyans are growing increasingly apathetic — a fact that will likely affect how they organize and fight for change.

Kenyan society and its politics are structured almost exclusively around ethnicity. Parties and alliances are formed on ethnic lines and voting follows the same trend. Almost all top politicians belong to the wealthy few — opposition leader Odinga is frequently listed among the richest politicians in the country, benefiting from his long history in politics and business and inheritance from his father. Progressive actors are rare following decades of anti-communist propaganda and repression of the political Left. There are hardly lines between Left and Right, whether within the government or in the opposition, and politicians easily switch sides to pursue new political and economic opportunities. In that sense, for many voters, even a change from Ruto to Odinga would make little difference.

This trend, by extension, informs and affects how all other groups of society (including civil society and trade unions) act and react towards almost every agenda. This is one of the factors that demotivate most people from political participation, including protests, knowing that a change of politicians in power will most likely amount to little more than an exchange of faces and tribes rather than a meaningful shift in thinking and actions.

For the average Kenyan, the immediate need is for the government to bring down the cost of living: that means lowering prices of basic goods and services, raising wages for low-income workers, subsidizing food staples affected by severe drought, and protecting consumers from fuel price shocks. In the long term, the only force that could make such changes are progressives and the Left. Progressive actors in Kenya must further mobilize and grow both in numbers and influence, establishing the foundations for a broad, popular movement from below. As fantastical as it may sound to many at this stage, this is the only viable path towards a lasting exit from the country’s current socio-political quagmire.