Letter from Nairobi

The coronavirus outbreak weakened the economic buffers of many countries. As a developing country, Kenya has transformed its financial policy to allow government to amass debt.

The last term of President Uhuru Kenyatta has been defined by an unmatched growth in public debt. Experts are concerned about the ability of the nation to service the debt with the coronavirus aftermath on the economy.

As a tradition, Kenyan towns are always busy with activities and talks about diverse issues. People gather in groups for casual debates about the social, economic, and political future of the country.

As the elections near, ordinary people, ranging from hawkers, mechanics, traders, and bystanders engage in intimate discussions, lamenting about the high cost of living, massive debt, and high corruption levels. In light of the upcoming general elections, concerns are rising about the future of Kenya. The economy is on its death bed as price of basic commodities doubled within a span of five years.

Recently, I accompanied my sister to the market for her weekly grocery shopping. As I observed from the parking lot, people looked tired and serious, evidently discouraged by the hard economic times. I approached a group of traders engaging in a conversation, shouting and lamenting in aggrieved voices.

 “This country has become unlivable. It is just hard for me,” one trader said, citing the high taxation and low value of the Kenyan shilling.

Listening through the discussion, corruption was cited as the major problem. The political class and their allies amass wealth by initiating ghost projects funded by the public. Recently, President Uhuru Kenyatta publicly acknowledged that the country lost 2 billion Kenyan shillings each day from corruption.

After acknowledging this, the Pandora papers showed that the Kenyatta family had billions stashed in offshore accounts, making them one of the wealthiest families in Africa. Allegations affirm that these monies could be proceeds of corruption within the current government.

“Whenever I can’t afford food, I just remember that 2 billion shillings is lost from the public reserves. That the president’s family featured on the Pandora papers and nothing has been done,” another trader lamented.

The Pandora papers emerged late last year while the president was on an oversee official visit. When asked about them, he had promised to “comprehensively address the matter when [he is] back home.” Months on, life has continued unhindered and he has not kept his promise.

A similar case happened when government officials were accused of stealing funds intended to purchase medical supplies and utilities to assist Kenyans affected by the pandemic. Although the president promised to fast-track investigations and prosecute those involved, nothing has happened so far.

Corruption and theft of public resources is severed by the massive debt. The nation’s net debt is alleged to be at Kshs 11.7 trillion, with major lender being China. Most loans are due and the government revenue from domestic tax is limited. Therefore, serving these loans has forced the government to take loans from other multilateral lenders such as IMF and World Bank. Moreover, the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) has increased basic taxes for basic commodities, which has affected the retail prices.

Reports also show that most companies have either closed down or cut down the number of employees. The number of unemployed people is high and things are becoming grimmer. Many Kenyans can hardly afford three meals per day and pay for housing.

The rising unemployment rates and price of commodities are causing public anger and bile. With a high-stake presidential election coming up this year, politicians are trying harder to woo voters on their side. The top contenders are the current Deputy President William Ruto and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

Mr. Odinga has a had a reconciliatory handshake with President Uhuru Kenyatta, which prevented the country plunging into tribal clashes in 2013. After the handshake, President Uhuru Kenyatta sidelined the Deputy President in his official duties, working closely with Mr. Odinga. The ‘handshake brothers’ have overseen a regime massive borrowing, spending, and stealing. Many leaders supporting the handshake have been alleged to perpetrate corruption in government institutions. While the country accumulates its debt for infrastructure development, the ground impact is minimal.

The dynamics of this coming elections are heated and unfamiliar because President Kenyatta has openly endorsed Mr. Odinga and had detailed a retinue of state facilitations to help him clinch the seat. On the other hand, the Deputy President has been relegated to the periphery of power. These political schisms are leading issues in public debates, instead of addressing the social and economic ills experienced by ordinary Kenyans.

Ethnicity is still a major threat to peaceful co-existence in Kenya. As a bitterly fractured ethnic nation, the stability of the nation is threatened further. Another factor is the perceived war between the rich and the poor in the coming election. President Uhuru Kenyatta and Mr. Odinga are claimed to fight and protect family wealth. The two families have been at the helm of Kenya politics and leaderships since independence. The Deputy President has rose through the ranks of power, after growing up in a poor family that many Kenyans can relate with. To many political commentators, the dynastic families are aiming to retain power through Mr. Odinga, without a willingness to transform the country’s economy. They argue that, the high-level corruption seen in the past five years has burdened Kenyans, and the concerns will become worse if Mr. Odinga wins.

While campaign is aligned to rich vs poor, there is no direct policy proposals from either political divide to address the plight of Kenyans. The political rhetoric does not include issues of healthcare, corruption, public debt, unemployment, and lowering price of basic commodities. The political contest is based on personality, ethnicity, and which community will dominate many government positions. From the current state of things, Kenya is a cocktail of sad neglect of the poor majority and prioritization of personal aggrandizement by the wealthy and powerful minority.

Donald Ngonyo