Kenya Returns To Sporadic Protests


Photo source: Reuters

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

There have been appeals for calm and political dialogue after anti-government protests in March 2023 in Kenya turned violent as looters had gone on a rampage, instilling fear in local businesses and forcing them to keep shut. As a response by the police, the tear gas shells were also dispersed at many places in Nairobi and beyond. It all started when the opposition leader Raila Odinga called for protests every Monday and Thursday, accusing President William Ruto of ‘stealing’ the election and failing to control the cost of living. Ruto’s win, however, was upheld by Kenya’s highest court, which sent tremours to Kenya’s opposition.

Hundreds of looters had also descended on former president Uhuru Kenyatta’s farm, situated on the outskirts of Nairobi, stealing sheep and cutting trees before setting a portion of the property on fire. Gangs had also targeted Odinga’s gas company Spectre International Ltd. Some of the fiercest scenes happened in Nairobi's Kibera settlement, a poor neighbourhood with a strong history of supporting the opposition. The people there had demanded subsidised maize and well-paying and respectful jobs.

To understand this turmoil, one must go back to the election campaigns of August 2022. When then-President Uhuru Kenyatta politically side-lined his deputy William Ruto and endorsed and campaigned for the opposition candidate Raila Odinga in the elections, a seismic shift occurred in the Kenyan political landscape. This ultimately played into the hands of William Ruto, who eventually won the national election.

Ruto’s win was mostly attributed to his humble background. He convincingly embellished himself as the candidate of the poor, a man who walked to school barefoot and sold chicken on the roadside. That’s why his life story resonated with the majority of Kenyans, as he claimed to be a simple hustler who was being politically sabotaged by the political dynasties of Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga – two scions of the founding fathers of Kenya. In the end, William Ruto won the elections with a slim margin – he had beaten the odds, but destiny was not kind to him, as now there are many Kenyans who believe cronyism is back in the government. Even frequent power cuts are making them frustrated as they can't live a stable life at home. All this also raised an alarm in civil society which directly prompted questions about the sanguine narrative that many used to characterise the 2022 national election.

Moreover, Ruto’s populist hustler versus dynasties narrative was advantageous to his campaign. His campaign slogan was ‘Freedom is coming’. This was a ‘freedom’ from the Kenyattas and the Odingas and the exclusive and detached political elites.

In Modern Diplomacy, Abdirashid Kalmoy presented a complex picture of elitism always knocking on the doors of Kenyan politics with a historical impression of politicians from relatively poorer backgrounds. He wrote: ‘Since independence, there has been an arena where the political elites and their descendants jockeyed for power and influence. And indeed, few were able to “invade” this upper-class, exclusive and secluded political stratum of Kenya’s social structure. One would remember the humiliations and indignities unleashed upon the late George Saitoti – a man who herded cattle as a small boy in Maasailand and rose to become Kenya’s Vice President – in the run-up to President Daniel Arap Moi's succession politics.’

In the aftermath of Ruto’s win, he had been successful in persuading many opposition figures to join his coalition with a mix of incentives and pressure and to negotiate with him. But what happened in the March 2023 riots is not exclusively about Ruto. Transport costs and quality of life are other reasons which are making many Kenyans protest on the streets, reflecting that elites are busy catering to their interests in the Kenyan political lobby, as nothing much has been done about public demands. The appointment of fifty Cabinet Administrative Secretaries will also dent a big hole in taxpayers' money. The chaos in Kenya also shows that protests there can be easily institutionalised and can’t be easily controlled, showing a dangerous predicament.

In Council on Foreign Relations, Michelle Gavin wrote: ‘Ruto’s campaign promised Kenya’s “hustlers” that they would enjoy more economic opportunity under his leadership, but delivering on that promise has proved difficult. Many Kenyans declined to participate in the last election at all—but that does not mean they are apathetic about their living conditions or their futures.’

The state’s heavy-handedness response to protests is likely to further weaken trust in the police, who are already viewed by the majority of Kenyans with a certain incredulity.

To allay the mood, the Kenyan Human Rights Commission has called for an investigation into the excessive use of force in response to the demonstrations. Along with the looted and burned businesses, churches, and mosques, the former President-turned-Odinga-ally Uhuru Kenyatta has been attacked as well, as has a political party office associated with Ruto’s coalition. Journalists, too, have also been assaulted by security forces.

Many observers reacted to the last Kenyan elections with respite, thankful that the complex election exercise unfolded peacefully and would result in disputes being taken up by the courts smoothly. They were even optimistic that common Kenyans would not be litigated in the streets as before. All this was certainly positive initially, but it was only a part of the unfortunate story that unfolded later. ‘Violence in service of political ends, selective enforcement of the law, and a profound disconnect between the governing and governed continue to be part of Kenya’s reality,’ further wrote Gavin.

Regarding global powers like the United States, Kenya’s success and leadership in a volatile region are extremely important. While championing all the promising and progressive innovation happening in the Kenyan private sector, the United States must maintain a clear-eyed position on the whole scenario so that the situation does not drive out of hands time and again. The latest unrest is a reminder that Kenya’s peace can no longer be taken for granted.



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