Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Protests in Kenya - a sign of the times in Africa

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After weeks of anti-government protests led by disgruntled youth, Kenyans are demanding greater accountability and an end to failed economic and security policies. Are the ruling elite listening?

The pressure that culminated in the deadly street protests in Nairobi had been building for weeks. Triggered by the introduction of a controversial finance bill, Kenyan youth had had enough. Kenyans viewed the legislation as adding insult to injury to the crushing cost-of-living crisis. Social media activists took to TikTok and X to stir opposition to the legislation arguing that, once again, the government had little regard for its suffering people.

The controversy began when the government proposed a $2.7 billion tax hike to reduce the budget deficit. Early versions of the bill taxed household staples like bread and cooking oil. Other provisions included taxes on financial transactions, vehicle ownership and an “eco tax” on materials that contribute to waste and harm the environment. The eco tax included mobile phones, cameras and recording equipment. For many Kenyans, these products are essential for their participation in the digital economy.

Thirty-nine people were reportedly killed during the protests. The notoriously violent Kenyan police are responsible for the deaths, having fired live rounds of ammunition at unarmed, peaceful protestors. Ironically, the disturbances began just days after President William Ruto returned from his official state visit to Washington, D.C., where President Biden feted President Ruto with a state dinner and hailed him as the new voice of progressive, forward thinking African leadership. The Biden administration also thanked Ruto for agreeing to send a contingent of the same violent Kenyan police to Haiti on a security assistance mission.

One can only wonder what the Biden White House and US Ambassador to Kenya, Meg Whitman, were thinking while watching televised recordings of Kenya’s heavy-handed response on the streets of Nairobi. Up until the demonstrations, President Biden hoped Ruto would help resurrect his own flagging Africa strategy. Meanwhile, Ambassador Whitman, one of Ruto’s biggest boosters, must have gone into damage control over the violence. During Ruto’s visit she had hosted events in Silicon Valley featuring many of the tech industries’ heaviest hitters. She has surely had to field questions from potential investors in Kenya’s tech sector.

As president, Ruto carefully cultivated the image of Kenya as a stable, secure, and prosperous democratic state. The storyline features Kenya as east Africa’s economic and political giant and the West’s most reliable African anchor state (Algeria, Nigeria and South Africa being the others) for foreign direct investment, trade, and security. Kenya is classified as a lower-middle income country with plans to become an industrialized nation by 2030. Agriculture, energy, financial services, manufacturing, real estate, and tourism are among the key drivers of Kenya’s economy. Ruto and Kenya were riding the wave of Africa’s growing importance in the world. It’s youthful population, critical minerals, and votes at international forums harbored new beginnings for an often-beleaguered continent.

The violence in Kenya is a cautionary tale about the contradictions facing African leaders’ ambition to transition and transform the continent. Many countries face lingering challenges from the COVID-induced economic downturn, high debt service payments, and slow economic growth. High youth unemployment and population growth only highlight the inability of many leaders to produce jobs, opportunity, and provide basic human services.

President Ruto learned the hard lesson that being celebrated in Brussels, London, and Washington does not equate to being admired in Nairobi. Transformation is hard work that requires planning and shared sacrifice. For decades, ordinary Kenyans have suffered while corrupt elite squandered taxpayer’s money and bank loans. Now, when the same monies are needed for infrastructure investments, schools, hospitals, and roads, the coffers are empty. International creditors require repayment, often at the expense of needed social services. Today, loans are more expensive and harder to obtain. This is the combustible mix of problems the finance bill ignited on the street. President Ruto was wise not to sign the legislation, however, calls are growing for his resignation. While unlikely, the protestors’ demands should be met with dialogue, not bullets.

In coming years, other African states are sure to experience increased civil unrest as governments transition through transformation with new reforms. This will undoubtedly test existing social contracts between government and the governed. Civil society is impatient and clamoring for change. This may explain why there is popular support for military juntas in the Sahel, and why former Senegalese President Maky Sall was prevented from running for an unconstitutional third term. There is tremendous stress on the existing order and the ruling elite must adapt or watch their countries descend into chaos and dysfunction.

Observers can only hope that leaders of today and tomorrow are closely watching President Ruto’s learned lessons. Transformation should include the informed consent of civil society. Western leaders should learn to develop separate and sustained relations with civil society to understand the diversity of opinions relating to Africa’s transformation. Africa need not remain a volatile risk, so long as all the important players monitor the winds of change and focus on inclusion and cooperation.