Kenya's President Ruto: From hustler to tax collector

Sunday March 05 2023
Kenya President William Ruto

Kenya President William Ruto. He has dismissed criticism over his administration’s handling of the high cost of living. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG


Kenya’s President William Ruto, in his trademark self-praise, declared last week he had stabilised the economy, whose troubles he blames on the "reckless policies" of his predecessor Uhuru Kenyatta.

The president, speaking at the launch of a $130.5 million LPG plant set to be constructed by Tanzanian firm Taifa Gas in Mombasa, also dismissed criticism over his administration’s handling of the high cost of living that opposition leaders have sought to amplify at their recent anti-government rallies.

But the findings of a newly released survey show that a majority of Kenyans do not share the President’s optimism about the country’s future under his administration. The survey conducted by pollster Infotrak between February 21 and 14 found that more than 60 percent of Kenyans don’t believe the country is headed in the right direction, with the vast majority worried about the high cost of living.

Gloomy sentiment

Those who believe the country is headed in the wrong direction also cited high taxes, unemployment, poor governance, bad politics and poverty for their pessimism. While the gloomy sentiment about the country is strongest in regions that largely voted for the opposition such as Nyanza, Eastern, Western, Coast and Nairobi, the feeling isn’t widely positive in the president’s perceived political strongholds either.

More than half of the people who participated in the Infotrak survey in Central and Rift Valley – the two populous regions where Ruto received the highest proportion of votes — believe the country is not headed in the right direction as well.


Populist campaign

The sinking feeling in these areas is a stark contrast to the boisterous mood seven months ago when President Ruto was sworn in as president on the back of a populist campaign in which he played up his peasant roots while promising to bring down the cost of living in his first 100 days in office and uplift the poor from their misery.

But his administration scored poorly in a past Infotrak survey, which asked Kenyans to rate his performance on key campaign pledges.

The poll conducted on February 21 and 24 gave the president a grade of 39.6 out of 100 on the push to make food affordable, 42 on tackling inflation and 49.6 on improving the lives of low-income earners. Some of the challenges the country is facing are beyond the administration’s control, including the severe drought that will leave an estimated 5.4 million people hungry between March and June.

Prolonged drought

The prolonged drought, which experts say is the worst in the Horn of Africa in 40 years, has also undermined the fertiliser subsidy programme that the President had banked on to boost food production and stabilise prices.

But he has come under scrutiny for his radical directives reversing maize flour and fuel subsidies introduced by the former administration to keep the maize meal staple, popularly known as ugali, and energy affordable for low-income Kenyans.

The President’s aggressive tax policies, which he says will make the country less reliant on foreign debt, have also proved unpopular with small and big businesses which feel they are already carrying a heavy tax burden.

As the President continues to feel the weight of expectations that he helped build up seven months ago, his personal popularity is also taking a beating.

On social media, a new nickname Zakayo — likening him to the biblical Zacchaeus the tax collector — is fast replacing ‘Hustler’, the campaign moniker he used to enhance his appeal among underprivileged Kenyans.