Kenya’s ‘Hustler Man’ Vs. Burkina Faso’s ‘Upright Man’

The differences in the performance of the “Hustler Man” in Kenya and the “Upright Man” in Burkina Faso is a function of genuine belief in transformational leadership, on the one hand, and mere self-serving populist political propaganda on the other.

Wanjala S. Nasong’o

March 11, 2024

AW Kamau, Going Postal
Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso.
Typical street scene in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso,
Helge Fahrnberger
Licence CC BY-SA 3.0

The Kenya Kwanza Alliance (KKA) administration, which dubiously came to power directed by Western meddling in September 2022, campaigned on the promise of instituting a transformational governance model based on a “bottom-up” economic approach that would focus on uplifting the lot of the common people. This was encapsulated in the campaign mantra of “hustlers” (adopted by the KKA) pitted against the “dynasties” embodied in the Azimio One Kenya Alliance (AOKA). More than one year into the KKA administration, however, the “hustler” promise stands in ruins as the cost of living skyrockets, the economic downturn worsens, the value of the Kenyan shilling continues its record fall, civil servant salaries have gone unpaid – for the first time in the country’s independent history – and disbursements to county governments have not been timely even as the government’s profligate spending continues apace.

What went wrong? This article offers to answer this question by juxtaposing the KKA governance dynamics with those of Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso. Whereas the latter’s policies transformed the Burkinabé economy and society within four years, KKA’s policies are set to plunge Kenya into an economic crisis of unimaginable magnitude with major ramifications for Kenyans’ livelihoods. Utilising the transactional-transformational leadership ideal types, I argue that the differences in the performance of the “Hustler Man” in Kenya and the “Upright Man” in Burkina Faso is a function of genuine belief in transformational leadership, on the one hand, and mere self-serving populist political propaganda on the other.

The diametric differences between Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara (the Upright Man) and Kenya’s William Ruto (the “Hustler” President) couldn’t be starker. Sankara took power by force yet going against the ingrained self-aggrandising disposition of military rule in Africa, he ended up implementing a people-centred economic development agenda that transformed the lives of the Burkinabé.

On the other hand, Ruto gained power via a Western-controlled democratic process (from candite nomination to presidency) based on a campaign that promised to uplift the lot of the downtrodden, the “Mama Mbogas”, “Boda Bodas”, and Jua Kali operators, yet his policies have had the diametrically opposite results from those of Sankara. They have made life for the majority of Kenyans a living nightmare to the extent that many now regret having voted for the Hustler Man. A critical look at the two leaderships helps to highlight some key lessons in what transformational leadership ought to entail.

Thomas Sankara: The Upright Man

Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara, an army captain, was instrumental in the 1982 military coup that ousted Col. Saye Zerbo, the president of the then Upper Volta. The Zerbo military regime was characterised by intensive rivalry and instability that saw Sankara outmanoeuvre Major Jean-Baptiste Ouedraogo and take power in August 1983. Sankara was only 33 at the time. Upon assuming power, Sankara changed the country’s name from Upper Volta (a French colonial name) to Burkina Faso (Land of Upright People) and adopted radical left-wing policies to reduce government corruption and transform society. He subsequently led the most ambitious social reform programme ever witnessed in Africa that fundamentally reversed the structural social inequalities inherited from French colonialism.

First, on taking office, President Sankara sold off the government fleet of Mercedes cars and made the Renault 5 (the cheapest car sold in Burkina Faso at the time) the official service car of cabinet ministers. He lowered ministerial salaries, reduced his own salary as president to only US$450 a month and limited his valuable possessions to a car, four bicycles, three guitars, and a refrigerator. President Sankara banned first-class air travel for government officials on foreign trips, arguing that there was “no need to waste public resources to drink champagne in first class!” In his view, whether you are in first class or economy class, when the plane takes off, you all take off; when it lands, you all land!

As president, Sankara focused Burkina Faso’s limited state resources on the poor majority with the goal of achieving self-sufficiency in food production. He implored the Burkinabé to see imperialism on the dinner plates of their imported rice, emphasising that “whoever feeds you imposes their will on you”. Sankara thus urged the Burkinabé to produce what they consume and to consume only what they produce. He emphasised the fact that food aid and foreign aid are generally counterproductive as they create a dependency syndrome among recipients. With particular focus on foreign loans, Sankara noted that they resulted in a debt burden for African countries, with creditors hiking interest rates at will. In a powerful and impassioned Pan-African speech, Sankara implored fellow African heads of state and governments at an OAU meeting in Addis Ababa in July 1987 to constitute a united front against foreign debt and collectively resolve to refuse to pay their debts to Western bilateral and multilateral institutions, arguing that “if Burkina Faso stands alone in refusing to pay, I will not be here for the next conference… I’ll be assassinated!”

Sankara argued that religion is very often deployed to serve imperial interests. It was his view that the Bible and the Koran cannot serve the wealthy and the poor at the same time. He pointed out that the poor and the rich cannot be held to the same standards. This philosophy informed his approach to political leadership that focused on transforming the plight of the majority poor in all spheres of social and economic life.

On the issue of empowerment of women, Thomas Sankara outlawed female genital mutilation, forced marriages, and polygamy. He was the first African leader to appoint women to major cabinet positions and to actively recruit them into the military.

A motorcyclist himself, Sankara formed an all-woman motorcycle personal guard; and encouraged women to work outside the home. One of his most transformational policies in this regard was his decree that even if a schoolgirl became pregnant, she was to return to school to continue with her education. He wondered why the practice was such that a girl who got pregnant was expelled from school, yet nobody asked about the boy responsible for the pregnancy who could have been in the same class.

With regard to healthcare, President Sankara launched a nationwide public health programme code-named “Vaccination Commando” in early November 1984. This was a state-run programme that completed the immunisation of 2.5 million children against meningitis, yellow fever, and measles in a period of only 15 days. This was a world record and such a significant achievement that it was recognised by the World Health Organization. Vaccination Commando was so successful that children in neighbouring countries like Côte d’Ivoire and Mali were sent to Burkina Faso for free immunisation that helped curtail high rates of infant and child mortality in the region.

Sankara also emerged as a foremost environmentalist. He led a reforestation campaign that planted over ten million trees to halt the growing desertification of the Sahel. This was a first on the continent. On infrastructure, he implemented an ambitious locally resourced road and rail construction programme to “tie the nation together”. Most remarkably, Sankara accomplished this without foreign aid. Furthermore, he implemented a public housing programme in urban areas that included the construction of new affordable houses and the rehabilitation of old ones.

Most importantly, Sankara implemented an agrarian reform programme that increased productivity from 1.7 tons to 3.8 tons of rice per acre, resulting in Burkina Faso achieving food self-sufficiency in less than four years. To further help cotton farmers and the local garment industry, Sankara promoted a national dress code for all civil servants made by local tailors from locally produced cotton in the spirit of encouraging all Burkinabé to consume what they produced and produce what they consume.

Sankara implemented a public housing programme in urban areas that included the construction of new affordable houses and the rehabilitation of old ones.

Well known for jogging unaccompanied through the capital, Ouagadougou, Sankara promoted sports for every citizen including volleyball, cycling, soccer, and jogging, emphasising that a healthy mind in a healthy body made for well-rounded productive citizens. Above all, Sankara disdained formal pomp and banned any cult of his own personality. When asked why he didn’t want his portrait hung in public places, as was the norm for other African leaders, he said, “There are seven million Thomas Sankaras in Burkina Faso.”

William Ruto: The Hustler Man

Whereas Sankara came to power in Burkina Faso by military coup, Ruto assumed the presidency in Kenya via a Western-controlled process called democracy albeit a contested one. He took a populist approach in his campaign for the presidency, styling himself as a hustler pitted against the dynasties of his electoral opponent, Raila Odinga and his supporter, the incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta. Ruto promised to form a government of the common people, of the hustlers, including Boda Bodas and Mama Mbogas. He committed to implementing a bottom-up economic agenda intended to uplift and transform the lives of Kenyans.

However, the true picture of things to come emerged with Ruto’s appointment of his cabinet. Instead of a government made up of hustlers as per his campaign promises, the “poorest” cabinet minister had a net worth of KSh100 million while the richest had a net worth of KSh4.5 billion. Furthermore, some of those appointed to the cabinet had corruption and murder cases pending in courts of law that were promptly dropped upon their appointment. This signified that personal integrity and respect for the rule of law were not the new government’s cup of tea.

Second, whereas Sankara mobilised development resources by slashing the salaries of top government officials, including his own, as well as selling off a fleet of sleek official government vehicles, Ruto commenced by imposing a 3% Housing Levy (1.5% on both employees and on employers), doubled VAT on petroleum products from 8% to 16%, tripled the sales tax for small businesses from 1% to 3%, and introduced a new medical insurance tax of 2.5%. The new taxes have seen some Kenyans part with 40% of their income in taxes, the highest ever paid by employees in the country’s history, according to Reuters’ Evelyn Musambi. Therefore, instead of reducing the cost of living in line with his campaign promises, Ruto’s taxes have resulted in skyrocketing cost of living that has led to widespread disenchantment with his government.

Third, the foregoing has been compounded by lavish spending on the part of the new government for the purchase of new vehicles and office furnishings for the offices of the President, Deputy President, and the newly created office of Prime Cabinet Secretary. Paradoxically, while decrying the “empty” national coffers inherited from the previous government, a total of KSh802.2 million was allocated for these expenses.

Fourth, whereas Sankara discontinued first-class air travel by government officials on missions abroad and minimised such foreign trips to save government revenue, Ruto’s penchant for foreign trips with large delegations in tow saw him exhaust the external travel budget within six months of assuming the presidency. As a consequence, this necessitated a supplemental budget in March 2023 to cover the remainder of the financial year.

This profligate spending at the top of the Ruto government caused delays in the payment of civil servants’ salaries and in remittances of revenue to county governments. Additionally, the overspending saw Ruto increase the recurrent budget left behind by his predecessor by KSh86.57 billion. The irony of the increased recurrent budget is that it came just a few months after President Ruto had pledged to cut the recurrent budget by as much as KSh300 billion to bring our country to sanity where the state does not borrow to finance recurrent expenditure.

Fifth, whereas Sankara made history as an environmental conservationist by leading an afforestation programme that planted 10 million trees, within the year that he assumed power, Ruto lifted the ban on logging that had been put in place by his predecessor to stem the tide of illegal logging and help increase the country’s forest cover to 10%. Noting that lifting the ban was “long overdue”, Ruto asserted that it was aimed at “creating jobs and opening up sectors of the economy that rely on forest products”. In Ruto’s view, “We can’t have mature trees rotting in forests while locals suffer due to lack of timber. That’s foolishness.” The lifting of the logging moratorium has resulted in clearance of forests with potentially “catastrophic environmental consequences”, according to Greenpeace Africa. Again, the paradox of Ruto’s action in this regard came even as he purported to position himself at the forefront of continental efforts at combating climate change. The contradictions inherent in his agricultural, energy, forestry, and transportation policies, as Brock Hicks argues, reveal that this is just his latest hustle.

This profligate spending at the top of the Ruto government caused delays in the payment of civil servants’ salaries and in remittances of revenue to county governments.

Sixth and finally, as noted above, Sankara mobilised local resources, both financial and human, to implement his socio-economic development agenda. He eschewed foreign loans, particularly from the World Bank and the IMF. He went so far as to implore his fellow African leaders to collectively agree to refuse to repay the multilateral loans whose stringent terms were regularly adjusted at the expense of the borrowers. On the contrary, Ruto has demonstrated an appetite for borrowing from the same multilateral institutions as well as bilateral lenders that surpasses by far that of his predecessor. Quoting data from the National Treasury, The Star reported that Uhuru Kenyatta’s government borrowed only KSh437 billion in its first 12 months. On the other hand, President Ruto borrowed KSh716.92 billion from international sources in the first nine months of his government. Again, this reality stands in diametric opposition to Ruto’s promise to go slow on external loans to mitigate the country’s debt, which his predecessor increased from KSh1.8 trillion when he took over from Mwai Kibaki in 2013 to KSh8.7 trillion at the end of his administration in 2022.

What emerges from the foregoing is that Ruto failed to live up to his promises, his pledges, and his empty commitments to Kenyans. He has proved completely unable to walk his talk, resulting in the National public perception that he is a lying president, who talks about lofty stuff to please public audiences with no intention of ever actually coming through on the same. Indeed, in his first few months in office, Ruto took to highly Pan-Africanist rhetoric in his engagement with continental audiences that endeared him to these audiences including the fiery Pan-Africanist, Julius Malema, leader of South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters party. Soon, however, even Malema became disillusioned with Ruto declaring that he no longer knew who Ruto was because his actions did not match his rhetoric: “The things he said during elections and the things he is doing now are two different things.” On social media some Kenyan netizens, while the majority of Kenyans not on social media, simply to refer to Ruto as the “Liar-in-Chief”.

Lessons in transformational and transactional leadership styles

Within the space of four years, Thomas Sankara’s socio-economic policies transformed Burkinabè society and economy in fundamental ways. This is an exemplar of transformational political leadership. The significance of this leadership typology is that transformational leaders transcend themselves, they do more than expected and engender from their subordinates and institutions performance beyond expectations. As Bernard Bass argues, something special happens under their watch, something almost mystical, or at least outside of our conventional variables.

On the other hand, Ruto’s leadership, only in its second year, amply illustrates the case of a failed transactional political leadership style wherein Western-controlled (therein Ruto’s role) focus is on maintenance of the status quo with rewards especially in the form of money as the main incentive for actors in the system. The mantra for transactional political leaders is “what is in it for me?” That of transformational leaders is “what is in it for the general society?” It is in view of this that when transformational Sankara assumed office, he immediately slashed the salaries of top government officials including his own, sold off a fleet of luxurious official cars and banned first-class air travel for government officers and redirected the saved revenue to socio-economic development projects.

Conversely, when transactional Ruto assumed office, he imposed multiple new taxes on Kenyans (most of whose revenue is lost to corruption), bloated the bureaucracy by employing more chief administrative officers to reward his cronies, exhausted the foreign travel budget within a few months, and allocated USD6.1 million (KSh802.2 million) to the purchase of new vehicles for the top three political offices. In January 2024, even as many public universities were facing a revenue crunch with some unable to pay full salaries to their staff and faculty, President Ruto commissioned the renovation of State House at the staggering cost of KSh795 million.

Secondly, transformational leadership as illustrated by the case of Thomas Sankara teaches us the true and practical meaning of personal integrity, commitment to a cause, and selfless leadership. This kind of political leadership is devoid of the corruption and self-aggrandizement so common with many political leaders. Despite the ultimate position he held, Sankara lived a modest life and died unblemished by the scourge of wealth stolen from public coffers. On the contrary, transactional political leaders tend to be corrupt, hypocritical, and self-aggrandising even as they engage in populist rhetoric to hoodwink the unsuspecting common people. The populist hustler-dynasty narrative in the 2022 Kenyan electoral process juxtaposed with some of the shady characters appointed to high public office and the draconian policies implemented thereafter are emblematic of this kind of doublespeak and lack of personal integrity and leadership probity among transactional political leaders.

Third, Sankara’s transformational leadership also provides us with a powerful lesson in the importance of friendship, loyalty, and personal values even in the midst of betrayal. Sankara was made aware that his friend and second-in-command, Blaise Compaoré was planning to assassinate him and was asked to give the green light for the latter’s arrest. However, Sankara refused to sanction his friend’s arrest, arguing that it was not in his place to betray. Compare this with President Ruto, who raves and rants against real and perceived enemies and those he does not see eye to eye with, promising them “mambo matatu”: move out of Kenya, go to prison, or prepare to “go to heaven”.

Despite the ultimate position he held, Sankara lived a modest life and died unblemished by the scourge of wealth stolen from public coffers.

Fourth and finally, Sankara’s transformational leadership clearly demonstrates to us that imperialism is well and alive in postcolonial Africa, perpetrated by former colonial powers with support from willing collaborators within the continent. Sankara’s revolutionary leadership and commitment to a self-reliant development model so threatened the vested interests of colonial and neocolonial forces at the regional and international levels who benefit from Africa’s dependency syndrome that he had to be eliminated. Sankara’s assassination in 1987, barely four years after assuming power, was sanctioned by the French, facilitated by Côte d’Ivoire, and executed by Blaise Compaoré. The latter, corrupt and dictatorial but beholden to the interests of neocolonial forces, remained in power for 27 years until he was ousted in 2014 by a popular uprising.

In other words, transactional political leaders of the ilk of Ruto and Compaoré are beloved by neocolonial forces because they are ready and willing or easily manipulated to serve neocolonial interests (inevitably at the expense of the interests of their own countries and people) as long as they have something to gain at a personal level. This constitutes the enduring tragedy of African politics and governance – the multiplicity of transactional political leaders and the dearth of truly transformational ones.

© Wanjala S. Nasong’o, Ph.D. 2024 – Professor of International Studies, Rhodes College, Memphis, Tennessee and a Carnegie African Diaspora Program Fellow.

AW Kamau 2024