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Between elite infighting and state violence, Kenyan masses forge their own struggle

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Picture: @SamuleAtandi/Twitter – Thousands of people took to the streets in Nairobi again this week to protest the government of President William Ruto. The protests have been called for by opposition leader Raila Odinga, who has tapped into public anger against rising costs of living.

By Tanupriya Singh

Gunshots could be heard into the night in the Kenyan city of Kisumu on Monday, March 27, following a day of anti-government protests, which also saw scenes of chaos in the capital of Nairobi. Defying the recent ban on protests, thousands of people took to the streets in the second week of unrest against a growing cost of living crisis.

A young man was shot dead in Kisumu on Monday, the second death reported in the protests so far. The first was a 21-year-old university student who was killed after police fired live rounds in the city on March 20.

Monday’s demonstrations were part of the bi-weekly protests called for by former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, the current leader of the opposition Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya Coalition, pushing for the resignation of incumbent President William Ruto. Odinga has challenged the outcome of the 2022 presidential election, which saw him lose narrowly to Ruto.

Protesters lit bonfires and burned tyres on roads on Monday, amid a heavy deployment of police who used tear gas and water cannons to clear protests in parts of Nairobi and Kisumu. In a statement, the Kenya Editors’ Guild condemned attacks by police against journalists covering the protests in the capital.

Police had also blocked Odinga’s motorcade in Kawangware and Kibra in Nairobi, where the leader had arrived to speak to the protesters.

There were also reports of separate attacks on properties linked to Odinga’s family and that of former President Uhuru Kenyatta, who had supported Odinga in the election instead of his own deputy president at the time, Ruto.

Of ‘hustlers’ and hunger

“The majority of Kenyans are very angry with the current government because it reflects the neoliberal policies that dominated our county in the 1980s (the era of Structural Adjustment), including austerity and retrenchments that led to the deaths of many workers,” Booker Ngesa Omole, the National Vice-Chairperson and Organising Secretary of the Communist Party of Kenya (CPK), told Peoples Dispatch.

Economic conditions have steadily worsened for the majority of Kenyans. Year-on-year inflation soared to 9.2 percent in February, primarily driven by rising costs of food and transport. Kenya has also been facing a severe drought, with 5.4 million people at risk of being food insecure between March and June 2023.

Higher fuel prices have contributed to a rise of 10 percent in electricity costs, while the value of the Kenyan shilling has depreciated significantly.

The country’s foreign exchange reserves fell to US$6.8 billion in February, enough only to cover less than four months of imports. The country is also facing a debt crisis, with repayments already eating up nearly half of the government’s total revenues.

Although he had campaigned on a pro-poor stance, Ruto’s policies once in power were aligned in the opposite direction, beginning with the scrapping of fuel and maize subsidies in line with the diktats of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

“Now the IMF and the World Bank are pushing for national tax policies, the government is talking about expanding the tax base without talking about taxing the rich, which means that they will increase taxes that affect the majority of poor people. The tax department has already implemented excise duties that have affected the majority,” Omole said.

There is already a hiring freeze in Kenya’s public sector under a 2021 IMF arrangement, with the Fund also pushing the government to restrict public sector wages.

These policies are being implemented under a president who has championed the ideal of free enterprise.

“The President has borrowed this talk of a ‘trickle down’ economic model, presenting it as ‘bottom-up’, and domesticated it to reflect what he calls a class war between the ‘hustlers,’ or the poor majority, against the ‘dynasties’ (the wealthy and politically influential minority).”

Ruto firmly positioned himself as the former, having arisen from the peasantry, despite the fact that “he accumulated most of his wealth from state-sanctioned corruption. He was the main prop of the Moi dictatorship (Daniel Arap Moi was in power from 1978 to 2002 and considered a key ally of the West). That is how Ruto rose up the ladder and accumulated billions,” Omole said.

“What he told the poor in Kenya was that he sold chicken and eggs to earn his billions, and that they could do the same. This is the rhetoric that he whipped up and got substantial support among Kenyan youth across tribes, for the first time.”

This was also infused with religious statements, Omole said, with Ruto even receiving support from the Evangelical far-right in the US. “Religious propaganda is particularly strong in poor neighbourhoods, where people have been alienated from the basic means of life.”

Shortly after assuming office, Ruto launched the “Hustler Fund”, allocating KSh 50 billion (US$ 379 million) over a five-year period for millions of Kenyans to be able to start their own businesses. However, given the prevailing economic crisis, people are borrowing from the Fund not to set up a business, but just to buy maize.

The privatisation push

On March 21, the Kenyan Cabinet approved the government-sponsored Privatisation Bill, 2023, authorising the National Treasury to privatise state-owned entities without approval from parliament. Among the entities slated for sale include public universities and banks. Ruto is seeking to privatise 10 state firms within a year.

“The Privatisation Bill is the stealing of public resources through what they are claiming is ‘lean management’,” Omole said. “Our constitution is one of the most progressive, and as such, it is very difficult to privatise state resources legally, which is why the government has to bypass oversight institutions.”

While the Privatisation Bill represents a more overt attempt to do so, the privatisation of key state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in Kenya has taken place through other, more indirect means as well.

“One of the key resources that SOEs have is ownership of valuable land. Once these enterprises are run down, they are bought at close to nothing. One example is Safaricom (a telecom company), it was bought from the government under the pretext that it was running losses, only now they are celebrating its successes when it is to the benefit of a minority of people.”

“The narrative is that SOEs are failing because they are state-owned, but that is not the truth. They are failing because they are deliberately mismanaged.”

Another way that state resources are being effectively stolen, Omole added, was through Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) — “The government is giving away public land to multinationals under the pretext that this land is unusable, and that these companies will deliver jobs and development. What these companies are actually getting is free land, to construct what is essentially a labour camp to exploit the people.”

“The third tactic is that of partial privatisation, and an example of that is Kenya airways, the national carrier. KLM (Royal Dutch Airlines), which has bought shares in Kenya airways, always makes sure that they declare profits elsewhere and losses in our country, and then the public emotion is whipped up saying that the national carrier is failing, and it needs to be bailed out.”

“This just means stealing public money and putting it into private hands.”

SOEs have also exchanged hands in the opposite direction. “Sometimes when a SOE has been privatised and robbed of important resources, it is claimed that the State needs to buy it back out of public interest.”

Kenya’s National Assembly is currently in the midst of investigating a KSh 6.1 billion (US$ 47 million) deal with private equity firm, Helios Investment Partners, by which the State re-acquired telecommunications provider Telkom Kenya at the end of Uhuru Kenyatta’s term in 2022. The acquisition had been sanctioned by the National Security Council (NSC), which is chaired by the president, citing security risks.

Telkom Kenya had first been privatised in 2007, with a majority share sold to France Telecom (also known as Orange), who then sold it to UK-based Helios in 2016. There were reports of asset stripping then, as Telkom Kenya listed 17 properties for sale valued at KSh 1 billion shortly before Orange’s exit.

“The Kenyan working class must be hostile to any attempt to privatise SOEs,” Omole stressed.

All power belongs to the Kenyan people

While Raila Odinga has been able to galvanise support against the Ruto administration, it is clear that the neoliberal policies being advanced in the country are not the exclusive project of the current administration.

“In the run up to the 2022 election, there was a massive demonstration in Nairobi against the high cost of living. The government that was in place then, the same actors are still there, both in the main opposition and also in government. Our main enemy in Kenya is the comprador class, and now two factions of this class are disagreeing with each other based only on their personal interests,” Omole said.

“This has happened before, and what will happen now is that mainly poor people will die in the streets, and once they die, a deal will be brokered by foreign governments to try and create ‘stability.’ Ruto and Odinga will have a handshake and the majority of Kenyans will have nothing to take home from this arrangement.”

He said, “At the moment, Odinga is in the opposition so he can weaponise the current realities of Kenya to get the government to negotiate, or even lead it to its eventual fall. But it is not as if conditions are going to be any different — Odinga and Ruto may be different in form, but in terms of their substance and their class position in the Kenyan economy, they are incapable of representing the majority of this country.”

As such, the present challenge for the CPK and other organisations on the ‘broad Left’ is to present the Kenyan people with a clear alternative.

“Ruto’s presidency has brought in certain contradictions, poor people are wondering how is it that their plight has remained the same even as the government has changed?”

Omole said, “What we are pushing for is systemic change. Everything we have gotten, even from the previous government, has been a product of struggle.”

This systemic change includes a fundamental restructuring of the economy, Omole noted, including the nationalisation of land, putting an end to the speculative real estate market, and the mechanisation of agriculture and industrialisation for the benefit of the people, not exports.

At the same time, there is also an emphasis that the “roots of the problems of Kenya [and other countries like it] are not located in the Global South, rather in the exploitative relationship that persists between the Global North and the Global South,” and the co-option of national government to serve the interests of capital and the West.

Tanupriya Singh is an author at Peoples Dispatch

This article was first published on the Peoples Dispatch