Between rising inflation, rampant unemployment, progressive debt, insidious corruption and a troubling humanitarian situation, the challenges faced by the new president are immense.
As of September 13, 2022, William Ruto, 55, is officially Kenya’s fifth president since the country gained independence in 1963. He was sworn in before the Supreme Court in Nairobi, in the absence of his disappointed presidential challenger, Raila Odinga, 77, who only trailed by 233,000 votes. Outgoing Vice President Ruto is credited with winning 50.49 percent of the vote, whereas Odinga claimed 48.85 percent, failing accession to the presidency for the fifth time, even though he was backed by outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Time is ticking and it’s clear William Ruto will not have a grace period, given the public’s high expectations vis-à-vis the country’s urgent and widespread economic and humanitarian challenges.
The atmosphere in Kenya is already heavy due to unbridled inflation which reached 8.3 percent last August, versus 7.5 percent in 2021, even though the goal was to reduce it to 5.5 in 2022, according to the World Bank.
Rising oil prices have led to higher commodity prices. A dough made from maize flour that is used in Ugali, the country’s national dish, has become less accessible to ordinary Kenyans.
The country is therefore paying the consequences of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine — two countries which provide Kenya with the majority of its grains, mostly wheat and maize.
Furthermore, the drought that has gripped a large part of the country has had a negative impact on agro-pastoral production, which accounts for 22 percent of its GDP and is being further impaired by the increased cost and scarcity of fertiliszers, both of which are imported from Ukraine and Russia. During his election campaign, William Ruto promised subsidies for this key sector of Kenya’s economy.
Another pitfall for the new president is the ogre of unemployment wherein 75 percent of the population is under 35 years old. Each year, Kenyan universities release nearly 500,000 graduates into the job market, without anyone actually knowing how or where to place them. According to World Bank figures, there are at least 5 million unemployed young people in Kenya — and the informal sector, where the real prospects are, alone provides them with 80 percent of the country’s jobs.
To curb unemployment, former President Uhuru Kenyatta had relied on growth driven by investment in infrastructure, including the modernisation of the Port of Mombasa and the construction of a railway between Nairobi and Mombasa. However, this policy has been costly and has considerably increased the country's debt — especially since the Kenyan shilling is continually depreciating against the US dollar, having seen a drop of 5 percent since the beginning of the year, with $1 being valued at KSh 120.45 on September 13, 2022. Estimated by the World Bank at 70 million dollars, Kenya’s debt service now represents 67 percent of its GDP, with China being Kenya's main bilateral creditor.
This means that between 2013 and 2022, Nairobi has multiplied its debt by four. Worried about the risks of excessive debt and the sustainability of these loans, Mary Goldman, the representative of the World Bank, has continued to attract the attention of the authorities.
While William Ruto has promised more transparency and restraint in debt policy vis-à-vis China in particular, rampant corruption is a concern for the business community.
Rampant corruption and a controversial president
In the latest 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index report compiled by Transparency International, Kenya still ranks at the bottom of the scale,with Nairobi placing 128th out of 180.
And the new president — who has built his campaign strategy on socio-economic divisions, presenting himself as the candidate of the "resourceful" — will have to lead by example and stir up the hornets’ nest.
William Ruto’s reputation of corruption precedes him. Exasperated by his criticism during the electoral campaign, outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta had even called Ruto a "thief". As the head of an immense fortune amassed in livestock, agriculture, real estate and hotels, the new president has not succeeded in mitigating suspicions and accusations of corruption and land expropriation that have plagued him; no wonder his detractors call him the "king of the scam".
What's more, Kenya’s Vice President Rigathi Gachigua was, just before the presidential election, ordered to pay a sum of around $1.7 million for his involvement in a corruption case.
Drought and humanitarian emergency
Finally, the new president will be confronted with the harsh consequences of climate change. Parts of northern and eastern Kenya are suffering from the worst drought they’ve experienced in 40 years. According to the UN, at least 2.5 million people are already in a situation of food insecurity, with more than 460,000 children under five and at least 90,000 pregnant women suffering from malnutrition.
The economy in these arid regions of Kenya, which is mainly based on livestock farming, has been severely disrupted.
At least 50 percent of the country’s cattle herd was decimated due to lack of water and pastures. Even wild animals are not spared: Carcasses of large herbivores such as giraffes and buffaloes are regularly discovered in wildlife reserves. The pastoralists are even forced to sell off their livestock to survive.
As a response to what qualifies as a "national disaster," according to former President Kenyatta, Nairobi created the National Drought Management Authority (NDMA). Financed by the government and international organisations, the humanitarian agency suffers from a real lack of funding.
This reveals that the economic and humanitarian challenges William Ruto will face are immense and pressing; they are akin to climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest peak, which towers over part of Kenya with its royal stature.