As the cost of living skyrockets, protesters are demanding the government in Nairobi take action
By Mussa Billegeya*
Last week, protests shook the Kenyan capital Nairobi and other cities. At least one person was killed and circa 200 were arrested. The protests marked the beginning of the now twice-weekly recurring protests rocking the nation and the culmination of political infighting following the August 2022 elections, which were won by William Ruto, a self-made millionaire, against Raila Odinga, a 78-year-old former prime minister and seasoned politician.
Prior to last year’s elections, Ruto was a close ally and Deputy President to the preceding President Uhuru Kenyatta, before the latter turned his back on him and built an alliance with their long-time political rival Raila Odinga, who, at that time, was planning to run for the top job for a fifth consecutive election. Odinga, leader of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) and often called Baba (“father”) by his followers, is regarded by many as the father of democracy in Kenya due to his contributions in the fight for reintroduction of multiparty elections and the subsequent constitutional changes. After failing to win a majority in the election, it seems Odinga is intent on winning a majority on the streets.
Accusations and Ultimatums
The current tensions in the country date back at least several months. A week after the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) announced that Ruto had won the election, Odinga appealed to Kenya’s High Court, challenging the results. Several weeks later, the High Court rejected Odinga’s appeal and upheld Ruto’s victory.
In January of this year, the opposition leader announced he received a dossier from an IEBC whistle-blower showing that the election results were falsified before being announced. The dossier, he claims, shows that he actually won the election by more than 2.2 million votes. The official results showed Odinga losing by a narrow margin of about 230,000 votes.
Soon after, Odinga began organizing rallies in different parts of the country declaring the election to be a fraud and denouncing the government in power as illegitimate. He called for the IEBC servers be opened up to reveal the vote tampering, while also criticizing the government’s ongoing recruitment of more IEBC staff.
Up until the beginning of the year, most Kenyans declined to take his calls seriously — including president Ruto himself, who publicly ridiculed his opponent’s rallies and calls. He brushed aside Odinga’s claims as attempts to force a “handshake” that would force the government into a power-sharing arrangement — something he was not open to.
Given the current economic, social, and political conditions in the country, Ruto’s government may not be able to withstand more of these sustained assaults from his opponent.
All the while, something more critical was unfolding in the background, as the cost of living continued to rise in Kenya due in part to long spells of drought and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy. The situation grew worse after Ruto came to power, as he scrapped the subsidies on key commodities and food staples introduced by the previous president in a move that many viewed as being politically motivated.
The removal of the subsidies immediately led to price hikes on key commodities like fuel and maize flour and, by extension, the general cost of living — leaving millions in need of food support. UN statistics show that up to 37 percent of the Kenyan population lives below the international poverty line, while up to 4.4 million people (9 percent of the population) face high levels of acute food insecurity. Poor families spend up to 36 percent of their income on food, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS).
This rise, particularly as it was the direct result of a government decision, represented the total opposite of what many of Ruto’s supporters had expected from his government. During the campaign, Ruto marketed himself as a “hustler” — someone who knew how Kenya’s poor struggled to make ends meet — and promised he would be their president and bring real socio-economic change to the country.
Consequently, the rising cost of living quickly became a hot-button political issue in the country, and Raila swiftly moved to incorporate it into his agenda alongside his list of political demands. The rallies quickly gained more traction, as he finally managed to capture the attention of many ordinary people — including many former Ruto supporters — who felt abandoned and betrayed by the new administration. Many now see Odinga as the leader who could organize them to take on the government and hopefully effect change.
The Government Beats a Retreat
In February, Odinga gave the government a 14-day ultimatum to bring down the prices of key commodities by cutting taxes and reintroducing subsidies. When the government failed to heed his warning, he called for mass action in the form of demonstrations on Monday, 20 March.
Thousands responded to that call, mainly in the capital city Nairobi, where a march to the State House was planned, and in Kisumu and Homa Bay, his home region and political stronghold. Many businesses and offices remained closed on that day for fear of violence and looting by demonstrators. Odinga, seeking to build on the momentum, announced that the demonstrations would continue on Mondays and Thursdays every week until the government heeded his demands.
Odinga knows how to use his mass following to put even more pressure on the government and force it to the negotiating table.
When Odinga first threatened mass action, the president and his government ignored him and vowed never to bow to his blackmail. But as it became clear that many people were planning to respond to his call, the government began toning down its response. A day before the planned demonstrations, Kenya’s Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua pleaded with Odinga to call off the planned rallies, insisting they would further damage the already ailing economy.
This change of tone from the government represents an underhanded acknowledgement of how much support the opposition leader still commands in the country. Ruto himself is familiar with this tactic, as Raila organized similar continuous demonstration dubbed “teargas Mondays” in the run-up to the 2017 general elections, when Ruto was Deputy President. Those rallies ultimately forced the government to make changes to the electoral commission, and also exerted pressure on companies with direct connections to politicians in power by calling on supporters to boycott their products.
Is Change Coming?
When it comes to political power and public influence, Odinga is a cult-like figure in Kenya — the “father” of Kenyan democracy and godfather of his tribe, the Luo. Kenyan politics is largely organized along ethnic lines, and Odinga commands a large following among many people and ethnic groups, mainly in the western parts of the country and Nairobi, where many residents also belong to his tribe. According to national figures, the Luo are the fourth-largest tribe in the country, accounting to more than 10 percent of Kenya’s entire population of roughly 50 million people spread across 42 ethnic groups.
Odinga knows how to use his mass following, especially in Nairobi, to put even more pressure on the government and force it to the negotiating table, where his demands can be formally listened and attended to. Statistics show that more than one fifth of the country’s GDP is generated in Nairobi alone, where his influence is particularly strong. His twice-weekly protests are likely to put more pressure on the government by hurting the economy and cause even more people distress. This is an opportunity for Odinga, as the mastermind behind the protests, to force political concessions from the Ruto administration.
Given the current economic, social, and political conditions in the country, Ruto’s government may not be able to withstand more of these sustained assaults from his opponent, considering the slim margin of support by which he won the elections last August. On the other hand, thanks to the watchful eye of the international community, the government finds itself limited in terms of how much force it can apply to crush the opposition. This fact is to be welcomed in a country still attempting to leave its dark history of post-election violence behind it, and where local civil society is often overshadowed by political partisanship.
*The author, Mussa Billegeya, is a Programme Manager at RLS East Africa Office, Dar es Salaam