(MENAFN- iCrowdNewsWire) By andrew firmin
Credit: Donwilson Odhiambo/Getty Images
LONDON, Aug 15 2023 (IPS) – Protests against the high cost of living in Kenya have been met with police violence. Talks are currently underway between government and opposition – but whatever results will fall short unless it brings accountability for the catalogue of human rights violations committed in response to protests.
Economy under the spotlight
President William Ruto came to power in a narrow election victory in August 2022, making much of his relatively humble origins. He portrayed himself as the candidate of the 'hustler nation', on the side of struggling people, despite having accumulated great wealth . He promised to deal with the high cost of living.
That appeal may have helped him get over the line in a vote he won by a margin of only 1.6 percentage points, with stronger turnout in lower-income areas. But despite his pledges, the cost of living has just kept rising. Shortly after coming to power, Ruto axed subsidies on energy, fuel and maize flour . Electricity prices rose in December and again in April – despite Ruto saying in January that they wouldn't.
On top of that has come a package of tax increases in the Finance Act passed in June. Income taxes have increased for higher earners, but other tax rises are regressive, in the form of indirect taxes that disproportionately affect people on lower incomes. Chief among these is the doubling of duty on petrol, diesel and other petroleum products, further pushing up the price of essential goods and transport.
Ruto says the tax hikes are the only way of cutting the government's debt. Growing debt repayments led to speculation that Kenya might default on its debt, as Ghana and Zambia have in recent years. The petrol tax rise was reported to be a condition of International Monetary Fund support, with a circa US$1 billion package provided in July, on top of a US$1 billion world bank loan approved in May.
The defeated presidential candidate, Raila Odinga, who refused to accept the election result, has sought to capitalise on and mobilise economic anger. In January, his political row with Ruto reignited when an anonymous alleged whistleblower from the electoral commission provided what they said was evidence of fraud, supporting Odinga's claims of a rigged election. In March, Odinga called for weekly protests.
A violent response
Differing opinions on how Ruto should manage Kenya's economy are understandable. Spiralling living costs driven by Russia's war on Ukraine are a problem in many countries. A much bigger and urgent international debate is needed about how the global financial system can be restructured so that global south states aren't trapped in debt and conditions imposed in support packages don't put more strain on struggling people. But there should be no room for debate about how protests are policed.
In Kenya, the routine response is security force violence. Live ammunition has been used on a number of occasions, along with teargas and water cannon, a reaction entirely out of proportion to incidences of protesters burning tyres and throwing rocks. By 20 July, the overall death toll had risen to at least 30 . Some victims have reportedly been shot at close range and in the back, indicating that they were running away from the police, and some shot in their homes.
Even those not involved in protests have been affected: in Nairobi's Kangemi district, over 50 children had to go to hospital after a teargas cannister landed in their classroom. The Kenya Medical Association said it had responded to hundreds of injuries. There have been numerous arrests, including of opposition politicians. Some people have been held for several days in remote locations, in defiance of the law. But Ruto praised the police, congratulating them for 'standing firm'. A ruling party politician has even introduced a bill proposing to strengthen protest restrictions.
Journalists have been targeted by both police and protesters while reporting on protests. There have been multiple instances of detention, harassment, threats and physical violence against media workers simply doing their job.
Media companies have also faced the state's ire. On 24 March, the media regulator threatened to revoke the licences of six media outlets over their protest coverage. A ruling party politician called on Ruto to 'crush' the media.
A systemic problem
The authorities may have felt entitled to take a harsh line because they saw these as opposition-driven protests exploiting the cost-of-living issue to undermine the government, particularly given Odinga's continuing rejection of the election results. But polls suggest this goes beyond party politics: most kenyans think their country is headed in the wrong direction.
But it doesn't matter whether people were protesting in support of Odinga or against high inflation and new taxes: they would have the same rights to protest peacefully. Even if some protesters committed acts of violence, police force should have been the proportionate last resort rather than the disproportionate first response.
As Kenya's vibrant civil society has pointed out for years, the state's violent reaction isn't unusual: regardless of who's in power, there's a longstanding pattern of protest repression, media restriction and police violence. Identical violations were seen at earlier cost-of-living protests in the run-up to the 2022 election, and many times before.
The problem doesn't lie with the law, but rather with entrenched malpractice. Under the Public Order Act, protest organisers are only required to give the authorities three days' notice of a protest; in practice, law enforcement officers interpret this as letting them deny permission for protests without explanation – and then violently repress those that go ahead.
It can only be hoped that the current dialogue leads to a solution that begins to ease the very painful conditions people are living in. But the problems of violence, repression and impunity that preceded the current crisis aren't on the agenda – and they should be. Ruto can show in one vital way that he's truly different from his predecessors: by upholding the rights of people to express their disagreement with him.
Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for civicus lens and co-author of the state of civil society report .