On the eve of the Budget statement some 10 days ago, a social media wag posited that National Treasury Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich would temporarily ditch the standard fuel-guzzling behemoth to make his entry into Parliament in a ‘Uhuru-compliant’ Volkswagen Passat.
The fellow subsequently crowed that his prediction had come to pass. He wrote that the CS was driven to Parliament in the relatively modest VW but, soon afterwards, abandoned the PR stunt to go back to the four-wheel-drive monster beloved of his class even for smooth city roads.
Now, I confess to not checking on the veracity of those reports. I did not keep tabs on what Mr Rotich was driven in that day, and I have no idea what his favoured mode of locomotion is.
Looking at the basic principles of his stewardship of the economy, however, that tale on Mr Rotich is entirely plausible. The Treasury boss talks austerity but presents voodoo economics of a budget based on phantom numbers.
Mr Rotich irresponsibly agrees to every madcap political spending proposal, ignoring economic basics familiar to every housewife.
So, in Kenya we boast a budget running into trillions while blithely playing blind to the fact that Mr Rotich and his merry band of Treasury mandarins have only the foggiest idea where the money will come from.
They set ambitious tax collection targets that they know are impossible to attain in a depressed economy. For the balance, they seem to bank on what they can beg and borrow, but the only sure thing is that plenty of it will be stolen anyway.
Economists and other clever chaps are increasingly questioning the numbers presented every year. Many have been withering in their criticism of Mr Rotich, who, evidently, cannot be trusted to run a household kitchen budget. He might be the type of fellow who goes to the grocery store with Sh1,000 in his wallet but loads up his trolley with stuff worth Sh10,000 and, once at the till, somehow expects other shoppers to bail him out.
Mr Rotich obviously deserves all the brickbats that come his way, but we also have to accept that the buck does not stop with him.
If he has been incompetent and irresponsible at the Treasury, it is because he is faithfully fulfilling the expectations of his boss.
He was selected for the sensitive docket because he could be trusted to ignore economic fundamentals and common sense to cook up budgets based on political wish lists.
President Uhuru Kenyatta’s spendthrift Jubilee Party administration is the one that demands more than the public kitty can afford.
It seems to operate on the principle that reckless spending and borrowing are signs of economic development.
And that is where VW Passat comes in. In his earlier life as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance, Mr Kenyatta ran a fiscally responsible Treasury. He was the one who, in 2009, decreed that Cabinet ministers, permanent secretaries and other high-ranking officials surrender their government-issue Mercedes Benz limousines and luxury 4x4s and be content with a modest engine capacity of no more than 1,800cc.
The Passat was selected as the approved official vehicle for senior public servants, with the previous vehicles that were too big and expensive mopped up for sale by public auction.
Though the order was not fully implemented, it showed a Treasury chief aware of the need for belt-tightening, armed with the basic bookkeeping knowledge that public funds are not elastic, and prepared to lead by example.
‘Uhurunomics’ presents a different picture altogether. It is spend, spend, spend and borrow, borrow, borrow economic regime.
The Treasury has been reduced to no more than a tool within the stultifying political wars. It is like President Kenyatta learnt nothing from his time at the Treasury, where he implemented economic policies designed by President Mwai Kibaki, an eminent economist and former Finance minister who rescued the economy from the slash and burn carnage of President Daniel arap Moi’s destructive regime.
President Kenyatta cannot spend his way into fulfilment of development goals designed as political rather than economic objectives.
Neither does it help that he is distracted by vicious infighting within the Jubilee ship, where forces loyal to Deputy President William Ruto are determined to reduce him to early irrelevance.
But can Dr Ruto divorce himself from the Jubilee economic mess? No way, he is part of the problem.
Let us not forget, however, that Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto did not shoot their way into the Presidency. We elected them. We are the problem.
[email protected] @MachariaGaitho