David Ndii: Economist emerges as Ruto's unofficial fiscal explainer-in-chief


David Ndii is the chairperson of the Presidential Council of Economic Advisers. ILLUSTRATION | JOSEPH BARASA | NMG

Is public finance that difficult? That was how David Ndii recently opened his tweet responding to media reports of delays in payment of civil service salaries on the back of similar gloomy headlines depicting the government as broke.

While other State mandarins have opted to stay behind the curtains as rumours of a struggling government circle, even as some public servants go without their March salaries, Dr Ndii, the chairperson of the Presidential Council of Economic Advisers, has not been one to bury his head in his hands.

“When maturities bunch up, or revenues fall short, or markets shift, something has to give. Salaries or default? Take your pick,” he tweeted away, taking the elephant in the room head-on.

Dr Ndii, the celebrated economist, author, columnist and public intellectual, has gradually emerged as the unofficial fiscal affairs explainer-in-chief using platforms such as Twitter and interviews to try to demystify what to some are complex matters of public finances.

He has been louder on the prevailing fiscal pressures than those tasked with the affairs at the National Treasury, making himself a regular source of information on the ongoing government financing strife.

And while many expect him to hold the fort for his employer, being an insider in the Kenya Kwanza administration, Dr Ndii has been something of a gadfly with his no-holds-barred approach to his commentary.

On a recent Citizen TV appearance, he fingered the administration for wastage.

“We have a very profligate government, that I will tell you. What I have found is the preoccupation with benefits, perks and personal privileges at the top level,” he said.

His views on the recent appointment of Chief Administrative Secretaries and the creation of offices such as the Office of the Prime Cabinet Secretary were equally unguarded.

“When you have a new government, there are certain things you have to do. Politics have to be paid for,” he said.

Critics say Dr Ndii may be shooting himself in the foot by being so brazen in his assessment of his employer, a government that tends to paint everything rosy.

When not on media interviews or speaking to the ear of President William Ruto, Dr Ndii shares insights on government fiscal operations and other economic topics of interest, specifically on Twitter where he has a following of more than one million.

Here, he is ballsy, not intimidated by critics in the day and age of keyboard warriors. For instance, when asked to use layman's language in his explanation of how $2 billion (Sh264.9 billion) will soon be available to the economy, he answered, "means this is not your lane. Go back to junior crossword."

Dr Ndii is nevertheless humble about his role in government, emphasising that he remains just an adviser and not a policy-setter.

“I am an adviser, I don’t pronounce policy if you pay attention to what I have said. But I inform a lot of policy and that’s my team’s job,” he said.

Over the years, the economist has stoked controversies as highlighted by his heavy criticism of the former Uhuru Kenyatta's administration.

He also recently scathingly attacked the Mwaki Kibaki administration, which he served as an adviser and helped to craft the post-2003 economic recovery strategy.

“I had a ringside seat and I watched Kibaki mismanage politics from 2003. All that we did economically came to naught in 2007. The first duty of a government is political stability," he said.

Previously, Dr Ndii served as the chief strategist of the National Super Alliance. He has also had a long career in civil society going back to when he co-founded the Institute of Economic Affairs at just 26 years old in 1994. The institute became Kenya’s first independent policy think tank.

At Transparency International, Dr Ndii was a steward in the development of the Kenya Urban Bribery Index.

He holds Bachelor and Master's degrees from the University of Nairobi and is a Rhodes Scholar with a PhD from the University of Oxford.

His works saw him listed among the most influential economists online by Richtopia in 2020, coming in at position 22 and second in Africa behind Zambia’s Dambisa Moyo.

Dr Ndii’s remarks have in the past attracted criticism, with some wondering if his policy suggestions are only good on paper and others arguing he lacks the required "public engagement good manners."

Irked by Dr Ndii’s attack on the standard gauge railway (SGR) project, for example, the late Wahome Gakuru, a former director at the Vision 2030 Board, once posed: “Can Dr Ndii offer solutions to our national problems that are practical, real, and less emotional?”

In newspaper and online columns, Dr Ndii has been warning of a tightening fiscal space since as far back as 2014.

He now suggests that the chicken has come home to roost after years of living dangerously from a fiscal standpoint.

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