Columnists

Debt, dust and deprivation: the pain ahead for Kenya’s next government

candidates

The two front-runners in the race to succeed President Uhuru Kenyatta in the August election, Deputy President William Ruto (right) and Opposition Leader Raila Odinga. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Votes are cast, the counting underway, but there is already one certainty about the new government of Kenya: it will be operating in the worst economic environment, and with the most overstretched finances, of any government since independence.

For the post-Covid 19 world, with its Russian-initiated war wreaking extra havoc, and a Chinese-initiated war beginning to look barely a stride behind it, is a world straining in the face of financial and commodity shortages and rapidly spiralling prices. And there is no escape set from the impact of that alignment.

We all feel the soaring oil prices and surging price of flour, now, but beyond the immediate pain comes a long tail. Take the type of nutrition essential to basic health: the global crash of 2008 slashed nutrition in sub-Saharan Africa to levels that had still not fully recovered by the time Covid hit.

Protein consumption fell, iron deficiencies that were dropping jumped back up, and there were more hits besides, in more than a decade of impact behind a ‘crisis’ that now looks confined and limited when compared to the impact of Covid plus new, but now long-term, wars in some of the world’s biggest producers.

But, now, Kenya is carrying a legacy into the current climate challenges, financial challenges and commodity challenges that it wasn’t in 2008 and which means it is set to take the hardest of hits.

Look at our once semi-arid regions, where satellite photos, after a decade in which the livestock feeding off those areas has more than doubled, show that where once was semi-arid, now is arid.

For the burgeoning livestock, which has taken many areas above their ‘carrying load’ for how many cattle can be supported while vegetation still replenishes itself, has continuously removed too many plants, even in good years, closing down local water catchment, and reducing ever larger areas to dust bowls: even before we record shortfalls in the general levels of rain.

And so it is with government finance too: we have borrowed to the point that taxes just cannot cover our expenditure, because our debt servicing now eats 30 percent of government revenue.

Devolution and other drivers have increased the public sector wage bill three-fold, and we have borrowed like never before to build railways, ports and highways. So all we can do is borrow more every year just to pay the salaries and borrowing costs.

Thus, we enter what may be the worst global depression ever seen and we arrive in this era of shortages with dust and debt. We have nothing in the bank. And now we will do more damage still fighting for who will lead us with our nothing. Ours is profligacy.