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On paper, Henry Rotich’s new role as President William Ruto’s special advisor pales in comparison to that of his former position as the Cabinet Secretary for the National Treasury.

And that is because before he was hounded out of office on accusation of fraud involving KES 63 billion tenders for two dams, Mr Rotich was the man that controlled the purse strings, overseeing the collection and spending of trillions in taxes and borrowed cash.

Now, as a senior advisor on Fiscal Affairs Budget Policy in the Office of the President, it can be assumed that Mr Rotich is but a paper tiger. He can only whisper into the ears of his boss. The boss can choose to hear, let alone acting on his words.

But as the over-sized role of Dr David Ndii, another special advisor to President Ruto, has shown, the reality could be different.

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On Friday, the former Treasury CS denied claims that he had declined the appointment. “That is not true at all. I have not declined the appointment.” Mr Rotich told the Nation.

Insiders who spoke in confidence believe Mr Rotich might just be as influential as the CS for the National Treasury and Economic Planning, Prof Njuguna Ndung’u. Or even more powerful given his proximity to the seat of power.

Mr Rotich is joining a coterie of powerful individuals who have the President’s ear on the matters of the economy. These individuals have not only been responsible for the President’s recent love affairs with econ-speak with the Botany expert overzealously throwing into his speeches such terminologies as debt distress, they have also played a major role in crafting and shaping Kenya Kwanza’s controversial policy decisions, including the introduction of a raft of tax measures.

This battery of advisors, with their offices domiciled at State House, wield incredibly huge influence on policy-making, yet they only answer to one person: President Ruto.

“I hear nobody is more influential than a tiny kitchen cabinet of no more than six individuals,” said a State House insider, who spoke in confidence.

Most of them, such as Mr Adan Mohamed, the chief of strategy execution, and Dr Augustine Cheruiyot, the senior advisor and head of Economic Transformation Secretariat, have largely been pulling the strings from behind the scenes.

After the US official Katherine Tais refused to meet the then CS for Trade Moses Kuria, Mr Mohamed was picked to accompany the President for the US-Africa Business Roundtable. While there, the President introduced Mr Mohamed, a former CS in Uhuru Kenyatta’s government, as CS and economic advisor.”

Mr Mohamed, who served as the Trade CS in Mr Kenyatta’s government before being moved to that of the East African Community (EAC), heads the President’s Strategy and Execution team.

Dr Cheruiyot is responsible for the actualisation of the Kenya Kwanza’s dream of empowering ordinary Kenyans and small businesses, popularly known as the hustlers, through the Bottom-Up Economic Transformation Agenda (Beta).

Others such as Mr Ali Mohamed, the President’s senior advisor on environmental governance and climate change action, are behind Dr Ruto’s newfound enthusiasm with the fight against climate change through the trading carbon credit which has also permeated recent public policies.

Former Treasury Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich during an interview in Gigiri, Nairobi, on December 19, 2023.
Most of these advisors have largely been silent. But Dr Ndii, the chairperson of the Council of Economic Advisors. A regular figure in the social media site X (formerly Twitter), he takes no prisoners, dressing down anyone who crosses his path, including senior government officials.

Some of the State officials have taken offence, whenever they have felt that Dr Ndii has crossed the redline. But he appears unbothered, a reflection of the kind of confidence he enjoys from the President himself.

For example, when the energy regulator raised the prices of electricity and Dr Ndii tried to justify the increase by chiding middle class individuals for complaining yet they spend more on streaming services and satellite television than power, the Deputy President lashed back, describing his statements as “insensitive.”

“David Ndii is an advisor to the President, he doesn’t pronounce policy. Public policy is pronounced by the President, the Deputy President and the respective Cabinet Secretary,” said the Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua on electricity prices.

“If that pronouncement came from the CS Davis Chirchir, I will be able to talk about it,” added Rigathi.

Dr Ndii is a straight shooter, especially on his X account, and is among the few government officials who publicly take on the DP, apparently without fear of any consequences.

Although he goes to great lengths of why some of Kenya Kwanza’s controversial policies such as the housing levy and the fuel import scheme are important, he often shows his disdain for the middle class or the rich, who he derides as the Upper Deck People.

President Ruto rose to power largely on the narrative of uplifting the fortunes of the hustlers– typified by mama mboga, boda bodas and jua kali artisans. It is a message that seems to have been curated by Dr Ndii, and he keeps hammering it home to the chagrin of the middle class salaried workers who are the target of the 1.5 percent housing levy and a proposed 2.75 percent for the Social Health Insurance Fund, among others..

According to Dr Ndii, the Council of Economic Advisors is modelled around a similar one in the US, with its chief role being to breathe life into the presidential system as envisaged in the 2010 Constitution.

This team seems to have taken the thunder from the Treasury. Henceforth, Dr Ndii’s team will work on the goals set by the President, according to an earlier article by Jaindi Kisero, a columnist and former managing editor of The EastAfrican.

Treasury’s work, it seems, is just to collect taxes and monitor the spending by various ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs).

But this seems to clash with the Public Finance Management Act which states that, among the functions, the Treasury will be responsible for the “overall economic policy and public finance management.”

President Ruto wants his administration to mirror that of the President Mwai Kibaki, whose economic policies contributed a lot to the slashing of poverty rates in the country between 2005 and 2015, according to a World Bank report.

At the heart of Kibaki’s economic miracle was the National Economic and Social Council (NESC) an advisory unit that is remembered for the crafting of the Kenya’s long-term development blueprint Vision 2030.

“Quite a big number of heads of various dockets would be on that team,” said Gerrishon Ikiara, a former Transport PS in Kibaki’s government.

“I would think that the processes and aims are more or less the same. The differences would come through implementation,” added Mr Ikiara.

The NESC was chaired by the President himself and had various experts from various ministries, disciplines and countries and was instrumental in turning the economic fortunes of the country.

Interestingly, Dr Ndii was not only a key architect of the NESC, he was also one of its members together with the then Prime Minister Raila Odinga, Kisumu Governor Anyang Nyongó, the then Central Bank of Kenya Governor Njuguna Ndungú (now Treasury CS), and then-Attorney General Amos Wako.

On the other hand, the CEA is chaired by Dr Ndii and has no membership from the other ministries.

Dr Ruto’s flagship projects such as the Housing levy, Hustler Fund and the government to government (G-2-G) fuel import scheme were crafted by this team.

Dr Ndii has been at the forefront of developing the fuel import scheme whose aim is to ease the pressure on the country’s dwindling foreign exchange (forex) reserves and ultimately help the Shilling.

Early last year, the Head of State publicly thanked Dr Ndii and the CS for Energy for this invention.

“In a special way, let me commend some of our performers, my economic advisor David Ndii, Mohamed Hassan, Davis Chirchir and the young man at Epra,” said Dr Ruto. Those four gentlemen have done something phenomenal in our country. They have managed to put together that has taken us away from looking for 500 million dollars every month to buy our fuel needs, which was slowly snowballing into a crisis.”

President William Ruto assents to the Supplementary Appropriation (No.3) at State House, Nairobi in November 2023.
Dr Ndii was seen at the port of Mombasa when Kenya received its first consignment of fuel under the G-2-G scheme.

Unfortunately, the shilling is yet to gain ground against the dollar, with the government preparing to exit the fuel import scheme and leave it to the private sector players.

Bob Mkangi, a constitutional lawyer and one of the members of the Committee of Experts (CoE) that drafted the Constitution, reckons the creation of some of these offices, some whose roles he believes amount to duplication, should be subjected to public participation.

“Because it is Kenyans who are going to pay them after all,” said Mkangi.

When the Kenya Kwanza made its first changes to the budget in March last year, Dr Ruto’s economic advisors were awarded Sh204 million to buy cars, furniture and pay rent.

Initially, the budget for economic advisors in the office of the President, had been awarded a mere Sh7.9 million. A big chunk of this allocation, Sh92 million, was to be used for the purchase of new cars for these officials whose members also include Mohammed Hassan.

In the current budget ending June, the budget for all these advisors seem to have been lumped together under the National Economic and Social Council vote in the Executive Office of the President has been allocated Sh28.65 million.

But there are fears that these positions are being created for rewarding Ruto’s loyalists who might not pass the probity test required by Chapter Six of the Constitution.

A joint statement by two civil society organisations, the Kenya Chapter of Transparency International and the Kenya Human Rights Commission, insists that Rotich remains a risk to the country’s finances.

“It was the court’s considered view that the prosecutors aided Rotich and his co-accused to walk free by not effectively prosecuting the matter,” reads the joint statement.

“This formed the basis of our statement in December demanding that Rotich and the other co-accused be barred from public office appointments as their acquittal was suspect and required comprehensive, independent investigation to thoroughly examine the circumstances surrounding the case’s collapse,” reads the statement.

Mr Rotich was accused together with his then PS, Dr Kamau Thugge, who is now the CBK Governor and occupied the position that has been given to his former boss. Mr Rotich has since been exonerated of the charges and said the allegations were a witch-hunt .

In the end, advisors are just advisors. Those being given the advice might choose to accept or refuse it. The same is true with President Ruto with his powerful kitchen cabinet.

“In the end, the buck stops with the President,” said Mr Mkangi.

 

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