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Kenya’s William Ruto: From selling chickens to vows of nation building

The man who calls himself the champion of the poor is now Kenya’s President. 

But for William Ruto, who assumes the country’s top office after a bitterly fought election, steering the country out of a confluence of problems could be a tougher task than his pre-poll promises.

Loans totaling billions of dollars that outgoing president Uhuru Kenyatta took out to pay for an infrastructure spending spree are due.

And the worst drought in 40 years in the north has left four million people in need of food assistance.

But his rise to the top has given hope to the people. 

Residents of Sugoi village, about 35 miles from Eldoret city in western Kenya, recall Ruto as a barefoot youngster who used to sell chickens at a roadside stall.

“I could not imagine somebody who did not have shoes for all his life in primary school could become president,” says a grinning Esther Cherobon, who was in Ruto’s year at school.

“We imagine all leaders are from rich families.”

Nearly 40 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 34 are unemployed, and the economy is not producing enough jobs to accommodate the 800,000 young people who enter the labour force each year.

In response, Ruto, 55, has promised to reward low-income “hustlers” as he made Kenya’s class divisions the centrepiece of his campaign, pledging a “bottom-up” economic model for expanding employment and small companies.

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Ruto’s opponent and former prime minister, Raila Odinga, 77, argued that he is not the champion of the poor. Instead, he is a businessman who travels in helicopters and owns several properties, including a mansion, a five-star hotel, and a vast chicken plant.

Ruto rose to fame as a youth organiser for former president Daneil Arap Moi. 

He had backed Odinga during the contested elections of 2007, when political violence prompted ethnic cleansing that left 1,200 people dead. 

After that, Ruto changed sides, and in 2013 he was appointed Kenyatta’s vice president. However, they split following the 2017 election when Kenyatta made amends with Odinga and cut ties with Ruto.

What next?

In order to cover rising debt servicing costs while also increasing social spending, Ruto says that Kenya should reduce borrowing and raise tax revenues. 

Under Kenyatta, a slew of borrowing for big infrastructure projects has led to increased debt distress and issues with long-term sustainability. 

The Standard Gauge Railway, the Lamu Port, and the Nairobi Expressway are some of Kenyatta’s “legacy projects” that the government has borrowed money to fund since he assumed office in 2013. 

It left the country in an ever-increasing debt burden, with expenditures to service the nation’s $71 billion in total debt (70.2 percent of GDP, up from 39.7 percent in 2013) surpassing government spending for the first time in July.

Kenya has $2 billion in maturing Eurobond debt that will be due in 2024. 

How the Kenyan government will pay the maturity without taking out new loans, given the lack of rational proposals to raise billions in revenue, remains to be seen. 

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