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Litmus test for President Ruto economic advisers


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Litmus test for President Ruto economic advisers


Prime Cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi (right) takes oath of office at State House in Nairobi on October 27, 2022. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO | NMG

What was the point of the process of parliamentary vetting of Cabinet nominees? It looked more like a pageant for flaunting personal net worth than an exercise in gauging skill and talent.

Literally, all cabinet nominees who were vetted claimed to be dollar millionaires. If you asked me, most of what they were disclosing about personal wealth was fiction because the numbers they were flossing for actual annual income could not add up with what they were stating as their net worth.

The parliamentary committee should have forced them to table details on taxes paid from the hundreds of millions of shillings they claimed to own. The committee should have demanded more details from the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) because the information the taxman offered to Parliament — a one-page blanket clearance letter — was unhelpful in determining the veracity of the claims the Cabinet nominees were making about personal wealth. Still, all this is water under the bridge because all nominees were passed and duly sworn in.

So what is the quality and calibre of the people who are going to be running a country in the middle of economic doldrums? This is a pertinent question because the new Cabinet has to deliver in a context of a precarious debt-reliant economy with more than a decade of stagnating productivity and falling incomes for most of the inhabitants. Indeed, Kenya’s economy badly needs a radical post-pandemic reset to create new profitable private sector businesses and many decent jobs for its citizens.

What do you discern in terms of academic orientations of the new teams that will manage economic policy both at the Treasury and the new hordes of economic advisers that President William Ruto appointed? A friend dismissed the new kids on the block as a bunch of neoliberal Taliban. That they are unlikely to do anything radical beyond enforcing the International Monetary Fund’s stringent conditions — austerity, raising taxes, cutting public sector expenditure and eliminating fuel subsidies.

Predictably, the House team vetting the Cabinet nominees focused on corruption and integrity. Corruption and avarice are big factors. But the main Achilles Heel of our contemporary Cabinets is incompetence: the discipline of getting things done.

Today, the sense of purpose we saw during the regime of former President Mwai Kibaki does not exist. Yet we all know that the ability of a Cabinet to deliver on a proposal is an important mark of competence.

The problem manifests in what wonks refer to as the state capacity-the ability of a political system to enforce rules, implement policies, and deliver quality services to the people. Countries can be divided into high-capacity and low-capacity states. For instance, within this region, the state of Ethiopia and Rwanda are regarded as having high capacity because these two countries have set records in terms of rolling out big infrastructure projects in record time and at a rapid rate.

Is it a surprise that we have contracted Ethiopia to sell to us electricity? Isn’t it just amazing that the electricity we are going to import from Ethiopia, despite having to travel long distances to reach Kenya, will still be hitting our national grid at prices lower than the power we produce locally? When a government has high state capacity, it can deliver big infrastructure projects at a low cost.

Ten years ago, former President Uhuru Kenyatta experimented with the idea of a Cabinet full of unelected technocrats. President Ruto’s is a Cabinet of professional politicians. In terms of capacity and doing what must be done, Mr Kenyatta’s technocratic cabinet did not make much of an impact.

In terms of the ability to coax compliant behaviour from the public, Mr Kenyatta’s Cabinet did not have an equivalent of the late John Michuki under the Narc government. When you look at the capacity of the Treasury during the Kenyatta years with the capacity of Treasury under David Mwiraria, do you see initiatives as bold as Mwiraria’s move to drive the Treasury Bill rate to below one percent? And the taxman under Kibaki, Michael Waweru, demonstrated stronger capacity at KRA than the people who succeeded him.

My parting shot is about the hordes of unvetted economic advisers President Ruto has appointed. Too many advisers lead to diffusion in decision-making. It also leads to indecisiveness, especially during a crisis.

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