Even though Kenya, a vibrant country in East Africa, has been grappling with the challenge of a high cost of living in recent years, the situation has even become severe in the past several months and getting worse by the day. As of June 2023, according to Kenya National Bureau of Standards, Kenya’s inflation rate was at 9.4% down from 10.1% in May. The honest, sad truth is that these figures mean little to nothing to the common mwananchi (citizen). What matters to the Wanjiku (grassroots people) in the community is the price of maize flour which is currently retailing at KES 250 (about 1.6 Euros) for 2 kgs.
This is a sharp contrast to the situation just weeks to the August 2022 general elections where the price of maize flour dropped to about KES 100 (€ 0.6) from KES 205 (€ 1.3) for a two-kilogram packet in a deal with millers aimed at diffusing public outrage over the high cost of living. By then, this government move that was highly criticized by most politicians allied to now president William Ruto saying that it was aimed at hoodwinking Kenyans to vote for Azimio la Umoja – One Kenya presidential candidate Raila Odinga. As it stands right now surviving on a dollar a day is a far-fetched reality.
On 30th June 2023 the High Court suspended the Finance Act 2023 a day before it was scheduled to come into force amid uproar over tax proposals including the doubling of Value Added Tax (VAT) on fuel that would see a substantial rise in the prices of essentially everything making it even harder for the common mwananchi to survive. The court order effectively stopped the government from levying any taxes under the new Act, including the 8 per cent VAT increment on fuel. This suspension was however lifted by the appeals court a month later to give the government a greenlight to forge ahead with implementation of one of the most controversial finance laws in the country.
Beyond economic woes
The high cost of living in Kenya is increasingly becoming a significant matter of concern not just because of micro and macro-economic consequences, but even worse that it is now metamorphosing into a social and security crisis. Its real life and experiential effects on the ground are far more severe than are reported even in national, let alone international media. Women and children are by far the most affected by this unfolding phenomenon by being targeted by robbers and criminal gangs looking to make ends meet – particularly in the slum areas like Kibera and Mathare where hundreds of thousands of people reside.
Mueni* (not her real name) - woman from Lindi area in Kibra recently reported that she was stripped naked and physically assaulted by a group of young, male criminals in broad daylight. Her fault was simple: that she did not have a smartphone or any other valuables that could be of benefit to the thugs, she did not have money as well. Over and above her ordeal, Mueni recounts that what gave her chills was the statement from her aggressors who were considerate enough to make a confession to her that ”it’s not personal, maisha ni ngumu (life is hard)” as they left her languishing helplessly in the streets. What is even more alarming is that this woman’s nightmare is not an isolated occurrence. Not just women slum dwellers who are being targeted or victimized through this time bomb in the country – particularly in the capital Nairobi.
In another instance, a highly ranked female inspector of police was physically and sexually harassed in Mathare by an angry mob during the ongoing demonstrations. This attack, even though it may have happened recently and in the context of protests against high costs of living, it however goes further to shed light on the grim reality that women have always had to survive and live through in Kenyan cities. Findings of an earlier research in 2021 that was published in the International Journal of Current Aspects “showed that female officers (in Mathare) are at a higher risk of being assaulted than male officers due to the societal perceptions towards the female gender”.
These are just some of the many heart-wrenching stories brought about and in some cases aggravated by the high costs of living. Many more voices however remain unheard and their stories and calls for help go untold.
All this begs to ask the question on where we are as a nation on implementing the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on protecting women. This resolution, adopted back in October 2000, remains to be a landmark resolution on women at the global level as it addresses the impact of conflict on women and promotes their meaningful participation in peace processes. It acknowledges the disproportionate effects of conflicts on women and girls while recognizing the crucial role women play in conflict prevention, resolution, and peace building through the inclusion of women in decision-making and peace negotiations. The question that remains is why are we, as a nation, still so disproportionately affected by systemic inequalities, 23 years after the Resolution?
Further to all that, the high cost of living is also having a toll on many people’s mental health. Frustration is boiling up for many parents who are struggling to feed their kids and that has been reported to have been escalating into child abuse. In Busia County, Western Kenya, a case of a woman burning her son for eating leftover food which was supposed to be taken for dinner has been making rounds in social media in the country. And again, this is not an isolated event of child abuse due life hardships. Myriads of sexual harassment cases on women and the LGBTQI+ going unreported during demonstration is yet another evidence of an ongoing dangerous trend of victimizing minorities.
Avoiding the head, appealing to the heart
"Be patient with this new government, its only a few months since it came into office” is a tune that has for some time now been sung by government officials. On record is the first lady Rachel Ruto appealing to Kenyans to have faith in her husband-led administration arguing that the country will be back to its feet in two years. Well, our patience is running out – and doing so fast. How do you tell a hungry person to be patient when all the government is doing is overtaxing its people with no regard on how it disproportionately affects them while sarcastically “praying” for corruption to end?
In response to the high cost of living and over taxation by the government, human rights defenders, CSOs, social justice activists among some members of the general public in Kenya on 7th July 2023, announced mass protest in major towns in Kenya dubbed #njaarevolution (hungerrevolution). These otherwise peaceful demonstrations were however met with unlawful arrests, brutal handling and detainment of 70 comrades across the country.
Close interaction with a comrade Kevin* (not his real name) who still nurses injuries from the demonstrations is a testament of how there was excessive use of force by police - facts that are still being denied by the government besides videos making rounds on social media on the severity of the matter. According to UN Human Rights Office spokesperson Jeremy Laurence 23 people have been killed so far during the ongoing protests, scores injured and nursing bullet wounds.
As human rights defenders, we understand that the constitution accords us the right to picket as stated in article 37, if we are to be heard by a silent government that is seated on a high horse and refuses to listen to wananchi (citizens). A national survey in December 2022 by Twaweza East Africa confirmed that the most pressing issue plaguing the country is the high cost of living, with 49% of citizens highlighting it as the primary concern. In this regard we demand that the government lowers the cost of living and relooks the key aspects of the finance bill that if implemented will increase burden on an already burdened wananchi. In addition, as human rights defenders, we express concern over the police killings, arbitrary arrests, criminalization and detentions reported in the demonstrations and urge the policing watchdog; IPOA to investigate and prosecute officers found guilty.
Political demonstrations, often led by the opposition side, have become a frequent occurrence in Kenya. While demonstrations are a legitimate means of expressing grievances, they can turn violent, leading to loss of life and property. The increased crime rate during these events further compounds the challenges faced by Kenyans, already burdened by the high cost of living.
Even though the Kenyan government responded to the UN Human Rights body’s statement on the number of people killed and injured during protests by accusing it of relying on third party information, the fact remains that third party or not, one life lost is way too many. Blaming the opposition stance and protests is a mere excuse by the current government’s attempt to turn a blind eye on the ongoing unjustifiable extra Judicial killings.
It is crucial for the Kenyan government to adhere to the constitution and protect the rights of all citizens. Through upholding constitutional values, the government must ensure a just and fair society for all Kenyans, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation or socio-economic background.