Uhuru Kenyatta: How will Kenya’s outgoing president be remembered?

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Uhuru Kenyatta

When a student asked Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta in 2018 how he would like to be remembered if he leaves office, he seemed taken aback by the question, before citing two points.

“One is that I will have left a united, close-knit society. And two, that we will have won the war against corruption,” he said, applauding.

Has he achieved these – and other – objectives as he prepares to resign after two terms and hand over power to his former ally turned bitter rival, William Ruto?

Short presentation gray line

Short presentation gray line

The most important step towards national unity was in March 2018 when he shook hands with opposition leader and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga as a sign of their political truce.

The now-famous “handshake” ended months of uncertainty and unrest following a 2017 election that was overturned by the Supreme Court, and a subsequent repeat boycotted by Mr Odinga, who went on to hold his own mock ceremony at an event in the capital Nairobi.

But the Kenyatta-Odinga Pact was not well received by Vice President William Ruto, who claimed it derailed their ambitious agenda of improving food security, achieving universal health care, making housing more affordable and boosting the manufacturing sector. .

This eventually led to the couple falling apart, with Mr Kenyatta withdrawing his support for Mr Ruto and instead backing his rival, Mr Odinga, for the presidency in the August elections.

Tensions between Mr Kenyatta and his deputy have persisted even after the election. He has yet to publicly congratulate Ruto on his win, although he has said he will facilitate a smooth transfer of power.

Kenyatta and Odinga shaking hands

This handshake changed the political scene of Kenya

The unity Mr Kenyatta sought may not have gone as he would have liked, but observers say it was important for a country that has tried to distance itself from the widespread inter-ethnic violence that erupted after the disputed 2007 elections, which left some 1,200 people dead. died and thousands more had to flee their homes.

With the elections just concluded peacefully, analysts believe Mr Kenyatta has achieved his goal of uniting and building a cohesive society, even if his own candidate, Mr Odinga, lost.

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“The handshake created a sense of inclusivity because if there was something that would divide this country and throw it to the dogs, [it] was the whole idea that some people felt left out — the idea that government more or less belonged to a section of people or communities,” said Egare Kabaji, a professor of literary communication at Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology (MMUST) .

However, this truce left a vacuum in the opposition.

“It created confusion about who was in government and who was not,” said Nerima Wako-Ojiwa, a political analyst and head of Siasa Place, which helps young people get involved in politics.

The lack of a strong opposition to control the government’s excesses may have played a role in Mr Kenyatta’s failure to end rampant corruption and the waste of public resources.

While campaigning for Odinga, he admitted that he had been too lenient in his dealings with corrupt individuals. In 2021, he said the country lost about 2 billion Kenyan shillings ($17 million; £14 million) every day through corruption.

“For me, the obvious question is, ‘Well, if you knew that, why didn’t you do something about it?’ There are a lot of lawsuits pending, but they seem to be going in the wrong direction,” said Nikhil Hira, tax expert at Kody Africa.

Train on standard gauge

The Standard Gauge Railway has been described as Kenya’s largest infrastructure project since independence

Kenyatta’s government has invested heavily in infrastructure across the country with projects ranging from mega dams, sports stadiums, power links, railways and roads such as the Nairobi Expressway.

These investments have been made possible through massive borrowing, but questions have been raised about the costs incurred, value for money and return on investment for citizens.

For example, the China-built Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) from the coastal city of Mombasa to Nairobi cost taxpayers $3.2 billion (£2.8 billion), which analysts say was too expensive compared to similar projects carried out by neighboring countries. Tanzania and Ethiopia.

The loans pushed the country’s national debt to record levels, which the country will have to repay in the coming years.

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At the end of 2021, the country’s debt stood at $72.6 billion, representing 68% of GDP, compared to 38% of GDP when Mr Kenyatta became president in 2013.

Debt Rising Chart

Debt Rising Chart

Where observers agree that the country needed new infrastructure to accelerate the economic prosperity of East Africa’s largest economy, they have expressed concern about the mismanagement of the funds.

“While there’s nothing wrong with having debt, the question is how do we use it?” says Mr Hira.

Policy debates aside, some will miss Mr Kenyatta’s easygoing personality, especially when dealing with people in less formal arrangements, where he would be “himself”.

He would be depicted taking a leisurely stroll down a street in Nairobi with his security at a distance, having nyama choma (grilled meats) at a market surrounded by local people and leaders, or attending golf tournaments where he interacted freely with the customers .

He also demystified State House by opening it up for many people, including children and celebrities to visit and look around. Previously, it was the exclusive domain of those in power.

He also often went off-script when giving speeches, giving the audience a hint of what went on behind the scenes.

Ms. Wako-Ojiwa says this can be endearing, but it can also lead to disorganization if he is late to meetings.

Kenyatta smiles

Some will miss President Kenyatta’s easygoing personality

In 2013, Mr Kenyatta pledged to buy laptops and tablets for all school children to help them develop digital skills. But the plan never materialized after a pilot phase, during which the gadgets supplied to some schools went unused and others were stolen due to lack of storage spaces.

Observers in the education sector blame the failure of this project, among other things, for a lack of training for teachers and a poor electricity supply.

“We advised the government to instead build computer labs in all schools and supply them, and that would have been accomplished very easily, but somehow those who make decisions didn’t listen to some of us. And that was very unfortunate,” said Mr Kabaji.

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However, his government succeeded in reforming the national curriculum.

While there has been some criticism of the changes, the new system aims to bring out students’ creative potential by giving them the skills they need to get a job, rather than just focusing on passing exams.

And while an ambitious plan to roll out universal healthcare across the country has not been fully implemented, hospital bed capacity has improved significantly and new hospitals have been built.

Outside of the domestic scene, internationally, Kenya’s reputation has improved over the past decade.

It took on the rotating presidency of the United Nations Security Council, where it made headlines in February 2022 after condemning Russia for its decision to send troops to Ukraine. In a statement widely shared on social media, Kenyan Ambassador to the UN Martin Kimani made comparisons between Africa’s experience of colonialism and the crisis between Russia and Ukraine.

“We understand that divorced people look longingly across borders in hopes of reintegration, but Kenya rejects such a desire to be chased by force,” said Mr Kimani.

Many other African countries decided to abstain rather than take sides in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

Mr Kenyatta also chaired the East African Community (EAC), which dealt with conflict resolution in Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he was appointed as the group’s mediator.

However, Anthony Francis Mveyange, head of the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research (PASGR), says it was wrong to pursue bilateral trade deals with the US and UK rather than negotiate through the EAC.

“This could affect how Kenya compares to countries in the regional blocs it is a member of,” said Dr Mveyange.

Overall, during Mr Kenyatta’s tenure, Kenya has faced unexpected challenges such as attacks by Islamist militants in Nairobi and elsewhere, the Covid-19 pandemic and the rising cost of living, in part caused by the war between Russia and Ukraine.

With Mr Kenyatta handing over power, the challenge for the next government will be not only to deliver on some of the great promises they have made to the electorate during campaigns, but also to meet some of the pressing needs of the address citizens.

These include high unemployment and rising cost of living, with inflation hitting a record high of 8.5% in August.

Chart with changes in food prices

Chart with changes in food prices

Election Branding

Election Branding

Election Branding

Election Branding