‘Tone deaf’: Are Kenya’s protests, and its president, at a crossroads?Wed, 03 Jul 2024 14:35:05 GMT

Kenya has seen peaceful marches mostly led by Gen-Z youth against now-scrapped tax hikes descend into violence, with dozens killed in clashes with police as protesters accuse “goons” of hijacking demonstrations.What does this mean for the movement, and what next for President William Ruto?- What happened? -Protests broke out two weeks ago, sparked by proposed tax hikes included in the annual finance bill, and took Ruto’s government by surprise. Initially peaceful and organised on social media, the protests spiralled into violence in the capital Nairobi and elsewhere, with demonstrators ransacking the partly ablaze parliament complex and police firing live rounds at crowds last week.At least 39 people have died, according to rights groups.A planned march on Tuesday again descended into violence, with the police later announcing the arrests of nearly 300 people for “engaging in criminal activities in the guise of protesting”.- How has the president reacted? -Following last week’s unprecedented scenes showing parliament in chaos and partially on fire, Ruto pulled the finance bill and called for dialogue with the protesters.But he also likened some of the demonstrators to “criminals”, while praising the police for having “done the best they could”, further inflaming the situation, analysts said.”There is a general feeling that Ruto is tone deaf to both public concern and the magnitude of this crisis,” Declan Galvin, managing director of Exigent Risk Advisory, told AFP.”Without a change in course in the coming days, Ruto’s spectacular rise and political career could be derailed.”- Are the protests still going? -It’s complicated. Many prominent demonstrators are sharing posters for fresh peaceful rallies and calling for Ruto to resign. But the situation on the ground is another story.On Tuesday, what were billed as peaceful marches degenerated into running battles between stone-throwing young men and tear gas-firing cops. There were also multiple instances of looting in Nairobi and the port city of Mombasa. As images of the chaos hit Kenyan TV channels, one prominent protester said the rallies had been infiltrated by “goons”.Another rally is planned for Thursday but some demonstrators told AFP on Wednesday that they were confused about what was happening and were not sure if they would hit the streets again — with one suggesting the movement might migrate entirely online.- Surely this is good news for Ruto? -Not really. The protests have tapped into long-running issues that Kenya is grappling with, say analysts.Chiefly sparked by a cost-of-living crisis and corruption, public anger then shifted to the heavy-handed police response. And late Tuesday, when news broke of MPs poised to receive an annual salary hike, it added yet another dimension to the movement.”The protest movement across Kenya is evolving from social and economic grievances associated with the Finance Bill into something more anti-government,” Galvin noted.- What can Ruto do? -Galvin said the Kenyan leader could de-escalate the situation by organising a cabinet reshuffle, while announcing tax cuts in line with demonstrators’ demands.But Gabrielle Lynch, professor of comparative politics at the University of Warwick, said Ruto — a political outsider with a profound sense of faith — has a history of succeeding despite adversity.”There’s a sense that God has willed it, and he should be there,” she told AFP. “It doesn’t look like he’ll change how he’s behaving… he seems to think that he’ll weather the storm, and he’ll see this decline in the protests as evidence of that.”- What happens next? -People are waiting to see what happens on Thursday.Even if fewer people show up, Lynch said the strength of the movement should not be underestimated.”I think it is a signal of deep-seated issues that are going to come back and again and again,” she said, suggesting it was also building on last year’s opposition protests against the previous finance bill. “They might go away for a few months or even a year, but that won’t mean that popular anger and a sense of empowerment will have gone.”Galvin agreed and also pointed towards the upcoming Saba-Saba protest on Sunday, an annual march on July 7 in memory of the 1990s movement calling for multi-party democracy.”There is no end in sight,” he said.