On 21 September William Ruto delivered his inaugural address at the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly. Kenya’s new president will hope that the speech, in which he demanded urgent climate action and greater inclusion for the Global South in the UN’s peace and security architecture, will establish his credentials as a leading voice of African ambition on the world stage.
Ruto’s address in New York was stacked with rhetoric imported from his successful campaign in August’s presidential election. “Hustlers” – his epithet for those who work in Kenya’s vast informal economy – were at the centre of his bold demands for a reconstruction of the international order.
“It is time for multilateralism to reflect the voice of farmers, represent the hopes of villagers, champion the aspirations of pastoralists, defend the rights of fisherfolk, express the dreams of traders, respect the wishes of workers and, indeed, protect the welfare of all the peoples of the Global South,” Ruto told the General Assembly.
Since being sworn in on 13 September , Ruto has wasted no time in reasserting Kenya’s foreign policy and building bridges with allies. His administration hosted delegations from 14 countries across Africa, Europe and the Americas during its first week in office, before the president joined world leaders at the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II in London and departed on a tour of the US.
In what could come to represent a significant departure from predecessor Uhuru Kenyatta’s trade policies, Ruto honed-in on the value of multilateral relationships between Africa and the rest of the world.
Under Kenyatta, Kenya flirted with the possibility of bilateral trade deals in recent years and looked set to sign the US’s first free trade agreement in sub-Saharan Africa when talks with the Biden administration recommenced this summer.
But critics of bilateral deals, who warn that they undermine the emerging African Continental Free Trade Area, were given cause for optimism when Ruto declared in New York that “Kenya stands ready to work with other nations to achieve the pan-Africanisation of multilateralism”.
Nevertheless, Ruto, who has expressed his wish for immediate business deregulation in Kenya, particularly for those in the informal sector, is also keen to demonstrate that Kenya is open for investment. His presidential inauguration welcomed a delegation led by US Trade Representative Katherine Tai, and following roundtable talks with American executives in New York, the president tweeted:
“Kenya is open for increased business with the USA. A conducive and enabling business environment will be a focus area of my administration to spur domestic and foreign direct investments to create jobs and wealth.”
An early misstep
Not all of Ruto’s diplomatic interventions have been so sure-footed.
Barely 24 hours after he was sworn in at a ceremony attended by Brahim Ghali, leader of the Polisario Front which advocates for the independence of Western Sahara, Ruto announced on Twitter that Kenya would rescind its recognition of the self-declared Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).
The new president quickly deleted the tweet in the face of international pressure and announced that Kenya “supports the UN framework as the exclusive mechanism to find a lasting solution to the dispute”.
Analysts say that Ruto is keen to build bridges with Morocco – which controls the majority of Western Sahara and does not recognise the SADR – in a bid to support Kenya’s struggling agricultural sector.
High fertiliser costs and a devastating drought have ravaged the country’s maize crop, and Ruto needs access to Morocco’s world-leading reserves of phosphate-based fertilisers.
His promise to deliver 1.4m bags of subsidised fertiliser priced at KSh3,500 ($29), down from the current KSh6,500 market price, was a key vote-winner in August, especially in the breadbasket North Rift region. Ruto’s pledge to farmers came against a backdrop of vocal criticism of other agricultural subsidies, introduced during Kenyatta’s tenure.
“The interventions have not borne any fruit,” he said in his inauguration speech. “On fuel subsidy alone, taxpayers have spent a total of KSh144 billion, a whopping KSh60bn [$498m] in the last four months.”
With tough times ahead for Kenya’s farmers as subsidies are withdrawn across the supply chain, Ruto’s fertiliser pledge –dependent upon his ability to forge relations with Morocco – must hold true to cushion the blow.
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