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ANALYSIS: Kenya’s Ruto Faces Domestic Turmoil Amid Global acclaim

IN the two years since his election, Kenya’s President William Ruto has garnered global recognition, captivating climate activists in Paris, engaging with tech leaders in Silicon Valley, and earning praise as a peacemaker at the White House. Despite his international acclaim, Ruto’s domestic standing is precarious, as Kenyans grapple with severe economic hardship. The recent wave of protests forced Ruto to abandon plans for substantial tax hikes, exposing the rift between his global image and the harsh realities faced by his citizens.

The abrupt policy reversal has weakened Ruto’s domestic authority, revealing divisions within his administration and invigorating his political opponents, who are capitalising on the widespread discontent in anticipation of the 2027 elections. This dichotomy between his international persona and local challenges underscores the complexities of Ruto’s leadership.


Public discontent and economic hardship

Kenya, one of Africa’s largest economies, is mired in a cost-of-living crisis exacerbated by high levels of debt, corruption, and security threats. As Ruto embarked on numerous foreign trips, citizens back home faced deteriorating economic conditions. The announcement of steep tax hikes ignited nationwide protests, forcing Ruto to retract the proposed financial legislation.

The protests highlight the chasm between Ruto’s jet-setting leadership style and the pressing issues confronting his country. Willy Mutunga, Kenya’s former chief justice, critiqued Ruto’s administration as being out of touch with the needs of the youth, who are particularly affected by economic challenges. The growing unrest has raised questions about Ruto’s ability to address domestic concerns while maintaining his global engagements.

Global role and domestic challenges

Despite the domestic turmoil, Kenya has expanded its global role under Ruto’s leadership. The United States has designated Kenya as a major non-NATO ally, enhancing its access to military training and equipment. Ruto has also advocated for global financial reform and climate action, positioning himself as a prominent voice for Africa on the international stage.

However, the domestic protests, including in Ruto’s hometown of Eldoret, signal a growing dissatisfaction with his leadership. Analysts suggest that if Ruto does not shift his focus to address internal issues, Western powers may lose a key ally in their strategic interests in Africa, particularly in countering the influence of Russia and China.

Ruto has extended an offer for dialogue to placate the protesters, but it remains uncertain if this will be accepted or who the talks will involve. He must devise a new strategy to tackle Kenya’s economic problems, a challenging task given the deficit cuts required to meet international lenders’ conditions for future funding.

Political and social dynamics

Ruto’s reputation for a strong work ethic is overshadowed by his struggle to overcome past allegations from the International Criminal Court regarding post-election violence in 2007-8. His ability to engage effectively with both international and local audiences has been noted, but his domestic policies have faced significant criticism.

His numerous international trips—62 to 38 countries in his first 20 months—contrast sharply with his perceived indifference to domestic grievances. The opposition has nicknamed him ‘Zakayo,’ a reference to a greedy tax collector in the Bible, reflecting the growing resentment among Kenyans.

The anger is not only directed at the government but also at institutions like the World Bank and the IMF, seen as the architects of Ruto’s fiscal policies. With a national debt of approximately $80bn, around 70 percent of GDP, Ruto now faces the daunting task of managing this debt without imposing further economic burdens on the population.

International relations and future prospects

Kenya’s deepening relationship with the United States has been a hallmark of Ruto’s presidency. US support has been pivotal in combating Islamist militants in Somalia, and Ruto’s state visit to the US highlighted the strong bilateral ties. However, critics argue that this close relationship has led to a muted response from Washington regarding Kenya’s internal issues.

Prominent social activist Boniface Mwangi criticised the US response to the recent violence as insufficient and urged Washington to use its influence to push for meaningful engagement between Ruto and the protesters. Mwangi emphasised the need for the US to recognise the serious domestic challenges facing Kenya and to advocate for a more balanced approach.

As Kenya navigates this period of domestic unrest, the coming months will be crucial in determining Ruto’s ability to reconcile his international ambitions with the pressing needs of his country. The challenge lies in balancing global responsibilities with effective governance at home, ensuring that the promises of economic growth and stability are realised for all Kenyans.

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