Kenya’s loud media are normally fierce rivals. But on Thursday they put aside their competitive instincts to issue an urgent plea for calm as Kenya descended deeper into chaotic anti-government protests that have claimed at least 31 lives in recent weeks and pose the most serious challenge yet to President William Ruto’s nearly year-long rule.
“Save Our Country,” read an identical banner headline on the front pages of the Daily Nation, The Standard and other major newspapers.
Kenya risks sinking into “a dark and dangerous abyss”, according to the joint article, if its leaders fail to resolve a boiling crisis that has destabilized one of Africa’s strongest democracies.
Police clashed with protesters on Thursday during the second of three days of planned nationwide protests against soaring food and fuel prices and steep tax hikes. Two people were killed on Thursday, according to local media, during protests in Kisumu, a western town and opposition stronghold. On Wednesday, six people in the country were killed in clashes when police fired live ammunition, and around 300 were arrested.
Clouds of tear gas and black smoke from burning tires drifted over the capital, Nairobi, and several other towns, where ongoing battles between police and protesters forced businesses and schools to close on Wednesday. On Thursday, the police seemed to take over and some shops and schools reopened.
The UN human rights office, citing reports that Kenyan police killed 23 people during protests last week, called for an investigation into “the disproportionate use of force”. Protests erupted in 13 of Kenya’s 47 counties on Wednesday – fewer than last week, said a Western diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
The protests are being led by Raila Odinga, the opposition leader defeated by Mr Ruto in last August’s presidential election – a defeat he still refuses to formally accept, even though election monitors and Kenya’s Supreme Court upheld the result.
Since March, Mr. Odinga has periodically held mass rallies accusing Mr. Ruto of rigging the election and mismanaging the economy. It taps into a deep source of public frustration over the rising cost of living, with wheat prices up 30% and sugar up 60% in the past year.
“The president is tough on us,” said Anne Gakoi, a basket seller, at her roadside stall on the northern outskirts of Nairobi. She rattled off a list of items that had become too expensive: sugar, corn flour, her daughter’s school fees, sisal to make her baskets.
Then Mr. Ruto imposed an unpopular new tax to build more housing. “We can earn our own money and build our own houses,” she said. “He’s not fair to us.”
But while Mr Odinga’s largely impoverished supporters, including many from his Luo ethnic group, have clashed with armed Kenyan riot police in the streets, privately his representatives are issuing demands that focus more narrowly on personal political interest, diplomats and analysts said in interviews. Mr. Odinga is seeking a number of concessions, including a high-level post at the African Union.
Some members of Mr Odinga’s team are looking for a new “handshake” – a reference to the political truce he struck with former president Uhuru Kenyatta in 2018, which effectively neutralized Kenya’s parliamentary opposition for the next four years.
There has been no sign of Mr Odinga this week, leading to speculation on social media. Wednesday, his daughter Winnie said in a Tweet that he was “fine”. Mr. Odinga’s aides privately told Western officials that he had the flu.
Much of Kenya’s economic woes are the product of global headwinds beyond Mr Ruto’s control, such as the war in Ukraine and rising interest rates. Kenya’s president, who was previously vice president, inherited a national debt that quadrupled to $61 billion over the past decade.
But Mr Ruto has also stoked popular anger by inflicting harsh economic medicine on his own supporters and taking a hardline stance on critics.
“Listen to me carefully,” Mr. Ruto said in a speech Friday in which he pledged to crush protests. “You cannot use extrajudicial and extraconstitutional means to seek power in Kenya. Wait until 2027. I will beat you again.
Kenyan religious and business leaders, as well as foreign diplomats, said they had reached out to both sides in recent days in a bid to broker a deal to end the protests. The specter of post-election clashes in 2007 and 2008, which left hundreds dead and nearly pushed the country into civil war, looms large.
The protests have cost the country around $20 million a day, not including lost foreign investment, according to Kenya’s national statistics agency. While Kenya has long been seen as East Africa’s economic engine and main tourist destination, some investors are now looking to neighboring Tanzania, for decades its poor neighbour, as a more attractive option.
The focus of the protests is a tough new finance bill, signed into law by Mr Ruto last month, which includes a deeply unpopular 1.5% levy on salaried workers for a housing and jobs fund. A Kenyan court recently blocked the law, citing constitutional irregularities. Despite this, Mr Ruto has pursued other measures, including doubling the fuel tax to 16% – a move that has hit his own constituents hard.
In last year’s elections, Mr Ruto cast himself as the champion of Kenya’s ‘scammers’ – young people who, like him, came from humble backgrounds and were striving to get ahead. But now many of these hustlers, feeling betrayed, are taking to the streets.
“We should never take it for granted that we can never descend into full-scale genocide or civil war,” Kenya’s editors wrote on Thursday. “We all need to take a step back and look at ourselves long and hard.”