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Monday, December 11, 2023

On protests, the government must listen to, not dictate terms, to Kenyans


The tenor of the current protests is no longer just political – it is a socio-economic uprising that bullets and force cannot stop.

President William Ruto is between a rock and a hard place: demonstrations over the high cost of living are set to continue this week, with the Azimio coalition calling on Kenyans to turn up between Wednesday and Friday to protest the high cost of living. Meanwhile, business and religious leaders are pushing for a truce to end the latest political unrest, but Ruto and his allies seem unmoved. “We will not allow any more anti-government protests,” Ruto declared last week.

Last week, widespread protests over the high cost of living and increased taxes left more than 10 people dead and scores injured, largely shutting down the economy in the major towns and cities. Police shot at least six people of deceased during demonstrations staged to coincide with the Saba Saba Day, informally marked every July 7 to celebrate the achievements of the pro-democracy movement that agitated for an end to the single-party rule.

The Azimio One Kenya Alliance coalition has called for more protests from Wednesday to Friday this week to ramp up the pressure on the Ruto administration to lower the cost of living, review the taxes introduced through the Finance Act and address its grievances over electoral justice.

As both sides of the political divide take hardline positions, businesses are concerned that continued economic shutdowns and the ensuing uncertainty will cause an economic collapse – lobbies estimate losses from closures and looting last week alone at Sh3billion.

Last week’s protests were the worst in terms of their effect on the economy on a single day. Kenyans in at least 20 counties engaged in demonstrations, with some areas witnessing ethnic fighting, such as those seen between Kericho and Kisumu Counties, where at least two died.

Last week and going into the weekend, the president addressed public meetings in parts of his political strongholds in the Mt Kenya region where ruling party politicians called for the arrest and imprisonment of Mr Odinga. The president himself charged that he would not tolerate further demonstrations. However, speaking at a separate event in Homa Bay, the president struck a different note, noting that dialogue was not off the table.

Meanwhile, the United Nations said it was “very concerned” about the widespread use of violence by police against protesters. It called for “prompt, thorough, independent and transparent investigations into the deaths and injuries.

“The policing of protests must seek to facilitate peaceful assemblies, and the principles of legality, necessity, proportionality, and non-discrimination must guide any use of force. Firearms should never be used to disperse protests,” UN Human Rights Office spokesperson Jeremy Laurence said.

Mr Odinga has sworn to press on with the protests, noting in a press release on Sunday that Azimio’s is a liberation struggle, and nothing short of a repeal of the Finance Act 2023 and a proper way forward on electoral reforms will stop the protests.

Religious, civil and political leaders are calling on Ruto to stop chest-thumping and listen to the woes of Kenyans. Given the president’s penchant for listening to his counsel and ignoring advice, including court orders – his administration defied the court order and increased tax on fuel prices, which has led to a rise in the cost of transport and staple goods – it remains to be seen whether he will budge.

Article 37 of the Constitution of Kenya provides for freedom of peaceful assembly. It states that ‘every person has the right, peaceably and unarmed, to assemble, demonstrate, picket, and present petitions to public authorities. Declaring that protests of any form are banned is nothing short of declaring civil war on Kenyans. He would be well advised to listen.

The economy, meanwhile, is sliding into dangerous territory. Oil dealers, for example, have said they are selling at a third of their capacity following the doubling of VAT on fuel. During the demonstrations last week, public transport operators, truckers and long-distance hauliers started a go-slow to protest what they termed as punitive policies by the government.

The country is battling a daily weakening of the shilling, tax shortfalls, some occasioned by the Finance Act 2023, and rising interest rates; prolonged political unrest could push Kenya’s economy to the edge.

As Dr Ukuru Aukot put it in a tweet, the government has no right – none – to stop legitimate protestors from exercising their constitutional right to picket. The tenor of the current protests is no longer just political – it is a socio-economic uprising that bullets and force cannot stop.

No one, not Odinga or Ruto, should chest thump; dialogue must reign supreme; this is the whole point of picketing. But, even with the Opposition coalition’s sometimes outrageous demands – which the Kenya Kwanza coalition is justified to ignore – the onus ultimately is on the government to listen to the people, not dictate terms to Kenyans.

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