Menu Close

Ruto’s presidency shaken by protests in Kenya

Add to my bookmarks

Share This Article:

A protester throws back a teargas canister at police during a nationwide strike to protest against tax hikes and the Finance Bill 2024 in downtown Nairobi on Tuesday.The celebrity President, William Ruto, whose roaming eye has been more fixed on international affairs than domestic ones, is facing the ire of young Kenyans who last week took to the streets in protest against the 2024 Finance Bill, the writer says. – Picture: Tony Karumba / AFP / June 25, 2024

By Kim Heller

Just a month ago, President of Kenya, William Ruto, was flying high. He received a VIP welcome, in the United States, from President Joe Biden. Red carpets were laid out and gala dinners organised for an African President who appears to have acquired a penchant for the world stage.

He has become a firm favourite among Western powers with a taste for African riches. Dubbed the “Flying President”, Ruto has made close to fifty trips internationally since he came to office in September 2022. The globe-trotting Ruto now faces great turbulence in his own country.

The celebrity President, whose roaming eye has been more fixed on international affairs than domestic ones, is facing the ire of young Kenyans who last week took to the streets in protest against the 2024 Finance Bill.

The Bill which taxes basic necessities, including bread, fuel, nappies, and sanitary pads, has created widespread discontent. Ruto has tried to sell the new taxes to citizens as a short-term sacrifice for the long-term wellbeing of Kenya.

But the youth of Kenya are not buying into this justification. With a 40 percent unemployment rate among 18 and 34 years, and living costs spiralling out of control, discontent is on the rise in Kenya. The Bill, which aims to raise $2.7bn in additional taxes was proposed by the International Monetary Fund as a mechanism for Kenya to reduce its ever-skyrocketing debt burden.

“Occupy Parliament”, “Reject Finance Bill 2024”and “Kenya is not IMF’s lab rat”, have been part of the rallying call of Kenyan’s young and disgruntled citizens, both in the streets of Kenya and across social media platforms.

Last week, peaceful protests across nineteen of Kenya’s forty-seven counties were held despite protesters facing tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets. Two lives were lost in last week’s protests and over 200 people were injured and there are reports of the abduction of activists.

The government made some changes to the proposed Bill in response to criticism and protest. The proposed 16 percent tax on bread and annual 2.5 percent tax on motor vehicles was withdrawn. But it is not enough to appease angry Kenyans who are fighting a losing battle against high living costs.

On Tuesday, the protest escalated as thousands headed towards Parliament, where the Finance Bill was being debated. Many protesters called for Ruto’s resignation. Parliament road was transformed into a site of citizen outrage as protestors stormed Parliament, and some buildings were burnt. In a haze of teargas and bullets, approximately fifty people were injured and several killed.

Despite the groundswell of remonstration against the Bill, from citizens and the official opposition, Kenyan MPs passed the 2024 Finance Bill on Tuesday.

It is a rocky road ahead for Ruto who is steering Kenya at a time when the economy is under considerable distress. Sky-high foreign debt repayments continue to hamper economic recovery, sovereignty and sustainability. For Ruto, balancing the harsh loan conditions of key investors and citizen wellbeing is no easy task.

When Ruto was inaugurated as the fifth President of Kenya in September 2022, he spoke lavishly about how he would reduce the cost of living for ordinary citizens and improve their lives.

Mussa Billegeya, programme manager at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s East African Regional Office in Dar es Salaam wrote how during the 2022 elections, Ruto promised voters “a land of milk and honey” which would be “the best it has ever been for poor, unemployed young men and women.” She wrote of how Ruto “rebranded himself around his own humble beginning as a poor street chicken seller”.

Throughout his election campaign, Ruto spoke of his impoverished childhood, and how he rose from peasant to president. He captured the hearts of Kenya’s young electorate. But he has failed to uplift young Kenyans. Less than two years later, young Kenyans are rising up against Ruto.

Last week, Gathoni Wamuchomba, an MP, “The Gen Zs in the streets are aware that we have skewed economy where the “haves” have everything and “have-nots” are deprived. They have decided to change the equation. Their struggle has no class, no tribe and no region. They want to regularize the system such that every child has access to university education irrespective of your background”,

Wamuchomba commended the highly organised nature of the protests and coherency of voice. She urges the government to listen to the protesters rather than snuff out their cries through force. She writes, “Don’t send police; it will only agitate them. Don’t underrate them, don’t ignore them. Don’t demean them. Rather involve them, engage them and appreciate them”.

In Kenya where the median age of the population is nineteen years, the youth constitute a vital voting bloc.

Commenting on last week’s protests, former President of the Supreme Court, Willy Mutunga said; “The uprising is on the horizon. The youth know their material interests and they have embryonic radical movements and political parties. There’s a growing consciousness among the global youth that they have a common enemy in their respective ruling classes”

It looks as if nothing will stop the youth of Kenya from their mission. On Sunday, President Ruto said he would “have a conversation” with young Kenyans so that “together we can build a great nation”. On Tuesday after the protests outside Parliament, the President’s tone was less reconciliatory.

Speaking at the State House in Nairobi on Tuesday evening, President Ruto said, “We must separate Criminals from people exercising their constitutional right of Expression”. He said he had directed all organs of the country’s national security to deploy measures to thwart any attempts by dangerous criminals to undermine the security and stability of Kenya. The President said, “As the people of Kenya go to bed tonight, I give you my assurance that the safety of your families and properties remains my utmost priority”.

But less than a day later, Ruto, clearly pressured by mounting discontent has announced that he will withdraw the Bill. He has committed to engaging with young people in the nation to “listen to their issues and agree with them on their priority areas of concern”. He has proposed that a multi-sectoral, multi- stakeholder engagement be held in the next two weeks to chart the way forward on “matters relating to the content of the bill as well as auxiliary issues raised in recent days on the need for austerity measures and strengthening our fight against corruption. This is an important step, albeit too late to spare the lives of those who perished in the recent protests.

The President would do well to acknowledge the discontent of young Kenyans whose grievances extend beyond the Finance Bill. The youth are struggling in an economy that has long been distressed and cannot afford them adequate employment or promising opportunities to develop and thrive. For many, there is little to lose, and this should give the President sleepless nights. State oppression and violent responses to the protests are likely to fuel rather than end the conflict. In the words of John F. Kennedy, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” The President needs to listen to and address the concerns of young Kenyans. How President Ruto navigates through this crisis, will influence the trajectory of Kenya as well as his Presidency.

For now, Ruto’s blue-sky vision to create a better life for the people of Kenya, especially the poorest and most marginalised, has failed to translate into material reality. His promise to focus on developing Kenya’s youth, has drifted into the distance and all but disappeared. Whether the President will now pause his celebrity world tour to attend to the crisis brewing at home, will be a tell-tale sign of both his integrity and interests. For now, protests continue. And the youth seem determined to fight to the bitter end.

* Kim Heller is Political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa.’

** This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.

*** The views expressed in this article are the writer’s, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The African