Revenue sharing stalemate a good political omen for Ruto

Ruto asking the senate to find a middle ground, shed a spotlight on Uhuru, Raila weaknesses.

In Summary

• Siaya Senator James Orengo blamed the stalemate on inaccessible leadership from President Uhuru Kenyatta and ODM leader Raila Odinga.

• When Ruto asked the senate to look for compromise and middle ground, he essentially occupied a side different from that of Uhuru and Raila. 

DP Wiliam Ruto with the Muslim faithfuls in Karen.
DP Wiliam Ruto with the Muslim faithfuls in Karen.
Image: /DPPS

Last week, Senator James Orengo of Siaya in his statements to the senate alluded that the lack of clarity from up above is what had brought the senate to the current impasse when it came to pass the third Commission on Revenue allocation (CRA) formula. He blamed it on inaccessible leadership from President Uhuru Kenyatta and ODM leader Raila Odinga.

Orengo asked the senate to try to find the middle ground, a happy compromise for all counties. Orengo asked fellow senators to be wise and to take direct action the same way a guided missile would. The failure to enact the new formula will have widespread political ramifications. 

The senate was not as convinced as I was that the CRA formula matter should be solved as soon as possible, and it sparked a thought in me inspired by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. When systems are stuck in dangerous impasse randomness and only randomness can unlock them and set them free. Let me explain, in the book Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, he told us about the “Hungry Donkey Problem” whereby a donkey equally famished and thirsty was caught at an equal distance between food and water.

 

The donkey unavoidably dies of hunger or thirst, because the donkey is unable to decide about which direction to go. However, according to Taleb, the donkey can be saved thanks to a huge nudge one way or another, but instead the miserable donkey swivels his head left and right deliberating between the two choices – water and food. All the while the poor donkey paralyzed by the choices available eventually dies of starvation. This metaphor is also named Buridan’s Donkey after medieval philosopher Jean de Buridan. 

Taleb argues that it is in politics where randomness is needed most. On the extreme, he also says that citizens should pick their rulers randomly and remove them at random as well, or else we will always be victims of ‘Tyranny of Choice’– but that’s an argument for another day, perhaps closer to 2022!

But at this moment, we can see that the senators this week were caught up in this same dilemma as the hungry donkey. The senators ignored the nudges from their party leaders up above. Uhuru supported the proposed CRA formula. And Raila came out of rest to give a very vague statement on his position on the new CRA formula. Presumably cautious that he would not want to disgruntle future voters who may be disenfranchised by the new proposal. Interestingly, the nudge they did listen to was William Ruto’s.

Let’s unpack the importance of this gesture.

In politics, there is always an assumption about what a particular political actor’s goal is- this is a common flaw. Political goals can be incredibly complex. And the main political actors are playing in more than one game. We must ask ourselves, what is the game of primary and secondary thrust? Who stands to benefit from the actions this week? Who was behaving sub-optimally? I posit that the loss in the senate this week was a win for William Ruto. That Uhuru misread the political settlement with this one. And that Raila Odinga may have been the one behaving sub-optimally with his ambiguous direction on the proposed third CRA formula.

When Ruto asked the senate to look for compromise and middle ground, he essentially occupied a side different from that of Uhuru and Raila. And this was the dose of randomness needed to unlock the stalemate. Politically, the Deputy President has a pretty good sense of where the popular will is and what makes them tick. The clever political strategy on his part has been one of “triangulation”, that is – co-opting traditionally Opposition issues.

The stalemate in Senate can be used to Ruto’s advantage, he is thought to have no ethnic oligarchs as political allies. But William Ruto understands that the new theatre of “war” is Bunge, it is the main game in town. Especially as BBI debates come to the fore. Such that, if he was able to force a stalemate with the third CRA formula, can he do the same with the upcoming debate on BBI? Could this be Ruto’s loonshot? A loonshot in this case refers to an idea that challenges conventional wisdom, it can be disruptive. If Ruto recognizes that each political actor is trying to improve upon their current status quo. The challenge then is, will he offer them the best chance of doing so?

 

Ruto should ask those being asked to endorse BBI: is the solution being offered by BBI going to make you better off or worse off? For sure, second-term governors should probably pay close attention to the parliamentary model that BBI wishes to take. The deputy president William Ruto is one of the most interested parties in the outcome of the referendum, he is acutely aware that the constitutional debate is just beginning. However, if Ruto wishes to oppose BBI, then he should come up with his viable alternative- he should not oppose it for opposing’s sake.

In February 2019, Ruto made a trip to London’s Chatham House (The Royal Institute of International Affairs), in his speech, he left us some clues as to what his BBI alternative might look like. Ruto’s proposal for potential changes in the constitution included: maintaining a purely presidential system, and crucially for him- the recognition of the individual who would get the second-highest number of votes in an election- they would be the leader of the official opposition.

The Deputy President would take care of government business in parliament, as well as making the senate the upper house. Ruto also suggested that cabinet secretaries be ex-officio members of parliament, that they would attend sittings in parliament but not be elected members. So that they would answer any questions or issues raised on the floor of parliament, thereby increasing their accountability to the electorate. If he still feels passionate about a presidential system, then these ideas should be his call to action.

As all these debates emerge, be it BBI or the CRA formula, they will be crucial moments of negotiation. As such political actors must appreciate two things, one, the biggest mistake in a negotiation is only focusing on what you want. And two, the idea behind a good negotiation outcome is that the outcome of it should make you better off than you would have been had you not negotiated.

If we apply game theory to our politics we will see that most actors will be inclined to adopt the dominant strategy, i.e. the course of action that results in the highest payoff for a player regardless of what the other player does. But on this, I caution, it might be wiser to examine which situation will be playing a dominance strategy earn you more than deference? So, for example, those aiming for the top seat in 2022 may ask themselves – should I run now, or run later?

The political events of the past week have shown us that nothing is cast in stone. Handshakes are emerging as shaky and the underdogs are surprising us with tactics that defeat the strong. Indeed, there are many more questions than answers when it comes to Kenya's political future. It is not as simple as asking whether Ruto or Raila will deliver our Political Salvation. Kenyans and the political elite must ask themselves- is what you are seeing- all that there is? Currently, two powerful men are fighting on two different fronts. Who promises to be in genuine service to the good of the people? Or will they both promise even greater riches to the political elites and the oligarchs? Both embody ambition and power – but who embodies genuine public-spiritedness?

On whether this is an actual political crisis? Senate demonstrated to Uhuru and Raila that: to serve does not always mean to follow, they did not allow their hand to be forced…just yet! And on the other side, Ruto’s move in asking the senate to find a middle ground, shed a spotlight on the two leader’s weaknesses.

Nonetheless, this week taught us that good leadership is a shared exchange of openness, it is the most basic building block of cooperation and trust. The journey ahead is likely to be treacherous but as Winston Churchill amidst World War II said: “if we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.” Now Kenyans must look forward, forge unity to create our best future. 

Faith is a Development Economist and Consultant, passionate about Political Economy. Engage with her on Twitter @semasana or email her [email protected]