Nairobi, the capital of Kenya and several of the country’s major cities, such as Kisumu on Lake Victoria and Mombasa on the coast are slowly returning to normal after thousands took to the streets on Monday 20th March to protest against government policies and the administration of President William Ruto.
The protests led to one fatality, many injuries, considerable damage to property and losses estimated at over $15m. But while the clearing up process continues, city residents are bracing themselves for more disruption as the Leader of the Opposition, Raila Odinga, and his Azimio Party threatened to repeat the demonstrations on a weekly basis. “The war has just started; it will not end until we get our rights,” pledged Odinga.
They were protesting against the rising prices of essentials like maize flour – the staple food for the majority in the country – fuel, cooking oil, electricity and school fees. President Ruto had removed price subsidies on fuel and maize installed by his predecessor, Uhuru Kenyatta. This had led to ‘skyrocketing’ prices according to protestors who said the extra burden, coming on top of the worst drought the country has seen in decades, had made it ‘impossible to live’.
The aim of the country-wide demonstrations was to confront the President over the cost of living crisis, the ‘stolen 2022 elections and other lapses’ since Ruto assumed office in September 2022 having narrowly won the Presidential election against Odinga.
Ruto’s first significant legislative act soon after being sworn in as President in September 2022, was to scrap the fuel subsidy installed by his predecessor Uhuru Kenyatta.
The price of fuel had already risen by over 50% since 2021 following the global spike in crude oil prices and the subsidies were aimed at keeping a lid on retail prices to slow down the rate of inflation which had climbed to 8.5% from 5% a year earlier.
Announcing the end of fuel subsidy, Ruto said subsidies were a temporary solution to a permanent problem and that they were unsustainable. “We did away with the subsidies in August and I am happy that we have saved our economy a huge amount of money.”
Instead, he announced a substantial subsidy on fertiliser which would be made available to the country’s farmers to help then grown more food and thus reduce the cost of living. The government announced a new price of KShs3,500 ($27) for a 50Kg bag of fertiliser against the market price of KShs6,500 ($50).
But with the country in the grip of its worst draught in decades, it was unlikely that local production would increase substantially over the short period. However, the higher fuel prices had an immediate knock-on effect on production and distribution raising inflation to over 9% and pushing many families into want.
The government then went on to remove subsidies on maize flour and cooking oils and raised the price of electricity as well as increasing personal income tax, introducing a new capital gains tax and raising the tax on bank to mobile and mobile to bank transactions, adding to the strain on the average household. The currency which had lost value to the dollar increased the pressure on the exchequer to service its already vast loan repayments.
Ruto was also under intense pressure from the IMF to drop subsidies – a highly controversial but standard measure used by the institution to rein in government spending – as part of the conditions for the disbursement of a $447.39m loan.
The accumulation of all these factors and the belief that Ruto, once in office had abandoned his core supporters – the young and those on low incomes – drew increasing country-wide support to the demonstration.
The protestors, who included many who had voted for Ruto during the Presidential elections, wanted the subsidies reinstated and the pledges he had made to the youth to support them with financial packages and jobs to be fulfilled.
“Since Mr Ruto was sworn in six months ago, he has continued to run the country with a lot of contempt,” alleged Odinga.
Running battles between stone-throwing protesters and anti-riot police who fired tear-gas canisters and engaged with demonstrators using batons and shields had left the Nairobi Central Business District and parts of Kisumu town looking like the sort of urban battlegrounds that had marked the worst case of violence in the country’s post-independence history when over 1,000 people died following the 2007 elections.
However, except in a few areas such as the country’s biggest slum, Kibera, Nairobi CBD and Kisumu, the demonstrations were relatively peaceful and people could heave a sigh of relief that their worst fears of a repeat of the 2007 scale of violence had not occurred.
Nevertheless, in a tragic case, William Mayange, a third-year university student from Maseno University, situated in Kisumu, the capital of Nyanza district and a traditional political stronghold of Odinga, died after he had been shot in the neck by police.
The police claimed that students and other demonstrations had been looting supermarkets and other establishments, had lit bonfires and had counter-attacked the police who had run out of tear-gas. They resorted to using live ammunition.
Hundreds more were injured and around 200 people, including some politicians, had been arrested. Church and other religious leaders condemned what they called heavy-handed police action and called for Ruto and Odinga to meet and work out solutions
Archbishop Anthony Muheria, speaking for the country’s Catholic Bishops, said: “The injuries and loss of even one life is way too expensive. Kenyan lives matter. We urge restraint of the police in such occasions and urge them against use of live bullets and excessive force that might cause injury to the people.”
Series of rolling protests
By Thursday, 23rd March, many offices, shops, schools and public buildings – which had been closed and in some cases barricaded – had reopened and the clean-up of the Central Business District in Nairobi which had been littered with stones used against anti-riot police, burnt tyres set up as barriers by protestors, a few burnt and blackened cars and tear-gas canisters.
Odinga said the demonstrations would not only continue, but would be expanded. He has called for another nationwide demonstration on Monday 27th March and Thursday 30th March and pledged that the protests would continue until all the demands, including releasing details of the election result to public scrutiny to determine if the 2022 elections had been fair, had been met.
While, mercifully the human toll in terms of deaths and injuries was relatively light, the economic cost is still being counted. According to the Governor of Nairobi City Council, Johnson Sakaja, the city had collected “only half our revenue due to Azimio protests and we cannot sustain it should it be weekly”.
Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua calculated that the demonstrations cost Kenya $15m. John Kihiu, Kenya Hawkers Association National Chairman, said the demonstrations, supposedly to support the poor and lower income earners had achieved the opposite effect as the hawkers could not conduct their businesses and that many would not be able to put food on the table for their families.
With the threat of more disruptions to come if Azimio goes ahead with its planned weekly demonstrations, Church and Mosque leaders have appealed to President Ruto to sit with Odinga and other leaders to address the crisis, including the soaring cost of living. The Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims has also urged dialogue, saying the holy month of Ramadhan (which began on Thursday) elevated tolerance, forgiveness and humility above conflict and hubris.
Responding to these pleas for dialogue instead of confrontation, President William Ruto said: “I am ready to engage with any leader if we are discussing the future of our country, the destiny of our nation, in a constitutional, legal manner.
“But we are not going to engage in anarchy, you are not going to threaten us with ultimatums and violence. We will be rewarding impunity if we were to succumb to ultimatums and chaos. We will not.”
Raila Odinga has run for the Presidency five times since 1997 and has lost each time, coming in as the runner-up on the last three occasions. He was Prime Minister in 2008 to 2013. He has always alleged fraud after losing the elections; in 2017, the courts upheld his petition and the Presidential election was re-run but Odinga refused to throw his hat into the ring saying the system was not level. Uhuru Kenyatta won the re-run polling over 93% of the votes cast.
With the then President Kenyatta supporting him against Vice-President Ruto, it was seen as Odinga’s best chance to finally win the national election and for his Luo ethnic community to have their man at the top of the state ruling apparatus at last. It did not happen and some are now asking if it ever will.
Raila’s ability to mobilise vast support across a broad cross-section of the population as well as classes was amply demonstrated in the size of the demonstrations on Monday. What is not clear is what he expects to be able to do with his following once this issue is resolved.
Will he abandon political ambitions and become a formidable leader of the opposition, holding the government to account and challenging any form of impunity by those in authority? If he does, he will serve his country well as Kenya has been asking for just such an opposition figure who does not add personal interests into the calculation.