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January 21, 2019

PATRICK GATHARA: 2019: Ruto, graft war and debt

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For Kenyans, 2018 began on a knife edge.

Raila Odinga finally took his oath as the ‘People’s President’ on January 30, unleashing a wave of government repression, including the shuttering of private media stations that covered the event live, the arrest and illegal ‘deportation’ of Miguna Miguna, as well as the prosecution of Tom Kajwang’ for treason. The stage was set for a continuing gargantuan struggle between Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta for power and legitimacy — each had one and craved the other.

Today, all that seems to have been nothing more than a bad dream. The Handshake completely scrambled the political picture, yoking Kenyatta and Odinga together in a political deal that was reminiscent of other deals the latter had forged with the former’s predecessors whom he claimed had stolen the presidency from him: Mwai Kibaki in 2008 and Daniel arap Moi in 1997.

The deal conspicuously left out William Ruto and set up an interesting historical dynamic. Since Independence 55 years ago, Kenya’s ethnically charged politics have been dominated by the shifting alliances and conflicts between the Luo, Kikuyu and Kalenjin.

In 1963, the Independence party, Kanu, was essentially a coalition of Kikuyu and Luo, and the Kalenjin, led by Moi, were in the opposition. Within a year, the opposition party, Kadu, had been folded into Kanu and by the close of that decade, Moi was Vice President and it was the Luos turn to be cast out into the cold.

In 2002, a coalition of Luo and Kikuyu elites, led by Kibaki and Raila, took over from Moi, who, by then, had been in power for nearly a quarter of a century. Shortly thereafter, the two fell out, Raila joining hands with Ruto, the new Kalenjin kingpin, to challenge Kibaki in the 2007 general election. That bungled election, and the violence it precipitated, forced all three together in a Government of National Unity followed by another Kikuyu-Kalenjin alliance which swept to power in 2013 and retained it in 2017 with the Luo again left in opposition.

Ruto is today very much on the defensive. The President’s renewed and seemingly vigorously prosecuted war on corruption has been seen by some as an attempt to clip his deputy’s wings. Given recent comments by Jubilee Party vice chairman David Murathe, to the effect that Ruto should retire from politics when Kenyatta’s final term ends, and despite the President’s protestations of innocence, Ruto’s fate and ambition will be a defining issue for politics in 2019.

Similarly, Kenyatta will be under pressure in the coming year to begin to show tangible results in the war on corruption. He has staked his legacy on the ability to bag the ‘big fish’ but so far, has only an empty net to show for it. The wheels of the Kenyan justice system grind very slowly indeed and it won’t be long before public confidence begins to wane. He will need a few quick wins early in the year but it is unclear whether the courts will oblige.

It is a problem of Kenyatta’s own making as in his rhetoric he has repeatedly emphasised convictions, rather than an actual reduction in the prevalence of corruption, as the measure of success. And now, he is trying to set up the Judiciary to take the fall. This will be an interesting and continuing flashpoint throughout the coming year.

A final theme to watch in 2019 will be the issue of the national debt and the increasing scepticism with which ordinary Kenyans view the country’s relations with the largest holder of that debt — China. At the end of 2018, debt repayments and IMF conditionalities for new loans have seen taxes raised on basic commodities such as petroleum.

The President’s upbeat rhetoric on the performance of his signature project, the standard gauge railway, is undermined by seemingly waning Chinese confidence in the project and reports, denied by both governments, that China may take over Mombasa port if Kenya fails to keep up its payments. With the government now reduced to borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, 2019 is set to bring even tougher economic hardships for Kenyans than 2018.

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