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Kenya: Bumpy first year in office for William Ruto

September 12, 2023

Food costs and taxes are high, the opposition belligerent and Kenyans are angry. President William Ruto has lost a lot of support at home. It's time for him to listen to those who voted for him, some experts say.

Kenyan President William Ruto addresses the Africa Climate Summit
Kenyan President William Ruto has imposed new taxes — and prices for ordinary Kenyans have exploded under his administration. Image: Khalil Senosi/AP/picture alliance

Many Kenyans call President William Ruto "Zakayo" after the biblical tax collector Zacchaeus who extracted every last penny from citizens' pockets.

On the first anniversary of his administration, Ruto has received harsh feedback from some citizens in Kenya.

"Ruto's one year in office has been a burden that most of us cannot bear," Fred Ooko, an IT specialist from Nairobi, complained.

"My honest opinion, William Ruto's administration is the worst in Kenya's history so far," Mombasa resident Hamisi Salim told DW.

Supporters of Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto celebrate at his party headquarters in Nairobi
In his election campaign, William Ruto presented himself as a man of the people.Image: Mosa'ab Elshamy/AP/picture alliance

How did Ruto — who last year portrayed himself as the candidate of ordinary people struggling to make ends meet — become so unpopular so quickly?

"My government will lower the cost of living," Ruto had vowed after taking office. But one year later, not much has changed. Many believe that they are worse off under his leadership.

"He came in with lots of populist promises about how he was going to change the systems to make Kenya work more for its citizens rather than just for the elite," Kenyan political commentator Patrick Gathara told DW. "He removed existing subsidies on foodstuffs and on fuel that he claimed are not working. It felt like he was deaf to the concerns of Kenyans." 

Collecting taxes

Inflation in Kenya fell to 6.7% in August but over the past year petrol prices have increased 22%, electricity by nearly 50% and household staples like sugar and beans by almost 60% and 31% respectively.

Ruto in July signed into law a finance bill expected to generate more than $2.1 billion for the government's depleted coffers.

It also included new taxes or increases on the price of basic goods such as fuel and food, and mobile money transfers, as well as a controversial levy on all tax-payers to fund a housing scheme. 

The government said the taxes would help create jobs and reduce public borrowing — but many people have been struggling to make ends meet.

"[We are] a population of slightly over 50 million, but majority of Kenyans are living below a dollar a day, living below the poverty line," said Nerima Wako, CEO of Siasa Place, an NGO engaging youth in governance. "They don't have access to things like health, housing, water."

"Kenyans don't have a problem with paying their tax," Wako pointed out. "But where exactly is that tax money going? When you pay your taxes, you get better roads, better health, power. But Kenyans are not seeing that. What Kenyans are seeing is the burden of tax and the government not being held accountable."

"The law is a mistake and an experiment that Kenyans cannot afford," said opposition leader Raila Odinga. "And the new myriad of taxes gave Ruto the nickname he is now known as, Zakayo."

An opposition supporter throws a stone towards police officers during clashes in Nairobi
Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga called on his supporters to participate in countrywide protests to demand that the government lower the cost of living. Some of these protests turned violent.Image: Luis Tato/AFP

Fighting with the opposition

This development played into the hands of the opposition led by Odinga, who felt he was cheated out of winning the election after running as a presidential candidate for the fifth time.

Odinga called on Kenyans to take to the streets to protest the end of subsidies and rising taxes. At least 33 people died since protests began in March 2023, according to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Hundreds of others have been injured.

"A lot of it was being driven by the opposition who had tagged their own grievances to do with the election onto this widespread feeling that the government was doing little to bring down the cost of prices," Garatha explained.

In August 2023, Kenya's ruling coalition and the opposition reached a deal on a 10-member bipartisan national dialogue team to resolve the country's political dispute.

"We're hoping that this will result in some form of coordination and collaboration so that we can all move forward," Wako said.

Ruto on the international stage

While Ruto's reputation in Kenya has suffered, outside of the East African nation he is considered by many to be a global leader, Wako explained. 

Wako referred to Kenya's hosting of the Africa Climate Summit and said the fact that Ruto drove to the meeting in an electric car showed "how he wants to be portrayed as a trendsetter, as being innovative and as this president who pushes for innovation in the digital economy." 

Kenyan President William Ruto (l.) and Sierra Leonean President Julius Maada (r.) met at the opening ceremony of the Africa Climate Summit
Ruto is considered a dependable ally to the West, taking a strong stand against the war in UkraineImage: Monicah Mwangi/REUTERS

In September 2022 Ruto sent his predecessor Uhuru Kenyatta as a peace envoy to Ethiopia to oversee the monitoring of a peace deal.

In November 2022, he sent 900 troops to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to join a regional force tasked with trying to calm deadly tensions fueled by armed groups.

In April 2023, Ruto offered to mediate between warring sides in Sudan to help restore peace in the country, which was rejected by Sudan's military government.

And in August 2023 Kenya offered to dispatch police officers to Haiti to help police fight escalating gang warfare.

Ruto is considered a dependable ally to Western nations, taking a strong stand against Russia's war in Ukraine and being openly critical of Vladimir Putin's withdrawal from a grain deal that let Ukrainian grain pass through the Black Sea.

"I think he was trying a lot to build up an international stature to counter the questions about his legitimacy that were being raised by Raila Odinga," said Garatha.

Kenyan President William Ruto slams opposition

A chance to turn things around?

However, it is not all gloom and doom.

"On the agricultural side he has done well," Fred, the Nairobi resident, told DW."Some have been given subsidies for fertilizers and that's increasing food production."

According to Garatha and Wako, Ruto pushed for digitization in the country and better internet access. He stabilized his regime and moved forward with his agenda of reforming the healthcare system. Furthermore, he brought the Africa Climate Summit to the country and took his time naming his cabinet — though that also drew criticism. 

"This administration doesn't seem to have stopped politicking," Wako said. "We hope that they will move toward focusing on their work and less on politics."

Some observers think say that what Ruto needs to do now, is get back in touch with the Kenyans who voted for him and who trust him to improve their lives.

Andrew Wasike and Thelma Mwadzaya contributed to this article

Edited by: Keith Walker

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DW - Silja Fröhlich
Silja Fröhlich is a German journalist and radio host.