As William Ruto starts his presidency, the cards he has been dealt and the environment in which he has ascended to power could determine how much he succeeds.
Looking at the state of Kenya, Africa, and the world of his two predecessors offers a good reading of his possible fortunes.
Mwai Kibaki, in 2002, came to office in a Kenya that was a near basket case, potholed and in despair. It had seen a decade of massive democracy mobilisation and civic activism. His and NARC’s victory gave rise to the highest level of national optimism. Surveys suggested that Kenyans were some of the most optimistic people about their future in the world.
The basket case and despair were a blessing. Years of decay meant there was a lot of upward room to move things even with minimum reforms. Something as basic as appointing a handful of competent bureaucrats and a few averagely honest ministers offered large payoffs.
Kibaki also came to power at the dawn of the African Renaissance, the globalisation of Africa, and a world eager to receive Kenya back into the fold. There were lots of good tailwinds.
Somalia was in great turmoil; Meles Zenawi was bringing Ethiopia to order, and the war in South Sudan was still raging. Tanzania was creeping out of its “socialist” phase, and Rwanda was only to beginning to come to terms with the Genocide against the Tutsi and to get the economy up. Burundi was in civil war, as was DR Congo, and the East African Community was a three-member affair.
In 2013 Ruto and former president Uhuru Kenyatta had to wrestle with ICC demons. The post-election violence (PEV) of 2007/2008 had shattered the Kenyan self-assurance that had bounced back. But the economy was rocking. The digital explosion had happened, and Kenya was a veritable Silicon Savannah. The EAC had expanded to five members.
The Kenyan economy was again on the trot, having dramatically recovered in the last Kibaki years despite (or perhaps partly because) the PEV dip. But Kenya was now in its first war in Somalia. Terrorism had become a bigger problem. South Sudan had quickly relapsed into war barely two years after independence.
Uganda was almost thriving. Rwanda’s star had begun to shine. Burundi was settling down. Africa Rising was still a believable story. The US had elected its first black president in Barack Obama, a man with Kenyan roots. Kibaki had left a reasonably healthy economy amidst a significant infrastructure investment spree.
The ICC case had aroused an independence-era-like bout of nationalism, a mix of virulent nativism and pan-African gung-hoism.
The Afro-optimism and its accompanying Africa Rising buzz fizzled quickly.
So, to today. In Ethiopia, the death of Meles in 2012 opened a small window to liberalisation, but that went up in smoke with the Tigray war from November 2020. While still troubled by al-Shabaab, Somalia is in the best shape it has been in over 20 years.
The EAC has expanded to seven. Rwanda and Uganda are doing reasonably well. In Tanzania, the business-friendly and East African-accommodationist President Samia Suluhu Hassan has replaced the mercurial John Magufuli, who died abruptly, suspected of Covid, in March 2021.
Kenya has climbed to the 9th largest African economy, though it blew up the bank to get there, and the hind wheels have come off the vehicle. Though it remains East Africa’s largest economy, it is no longer the only star on the regional stage.
It has been weakened by internal nativist politics and corruption, and has to reckon with militantly alienated youth living in growing economic inequality. Drought and famine have beset parts of the country for over two years. Environmental perils are plentiful, with droughts in one part of the country countered by some of the worst floods in others.
Covid-19 had also left a trail of destruction, and the country has not fully recovered. A hard-fought campaign, a close election, and another dispute in the Supreme Court left a bitter taste in the mouth of former PM Raila Odinga’s Azimo la Umoja camp, who lost the verdict.
It has all combined to make President Ruto’s “hustler” and “bottom-up” campaign perhaps the most populist and class-focused since independence. Immediately, the hopes of a rapid reduction in fuel, unga (maize flour), and electricity were dashed when the complex realities of running an economy in a post-Covid pressure cooker met the road.
In diplomatic terms, Ruto had an easy early goal. It came via the funeral of British Queen II, allowing him to schmooze with the mighty of the world in London without much pressure to perform in the international spotlight. He thus put his foot in international waters, with little risk, in the perfect emotional moment.
On balance, surprisingly, he is in a less favourable position than Kibaki in 2002 and possibly Uhuru in 2013. He has little headroom, far greater expectations, fewer resources to work with, albeit with more tools, and a more favourable geopolitical environment.