Protestors take cover as anti-riot police use water canons to disperse them during the anti-tax protests on June 20, 2024. [Denis Kibuchi, Standard]

Rex Masai should not have been killed. May his soul rest in peace, and may his family find strength during this difficult time. His death, after reportedly being shot by a plainclothes policeman, was a tragic development in the ongoing protests against the Finance Bill. It was also a reminder that the Kenya Police Service is stuck in autocratic mode. The widespread brutalization of protestors was bad enough. That one of them allegedly killed Masai is beyond the pale.

Masai’s murder presents a clear moral test to the government. First, his family and the general public deserve a swift investigation and punishment of those responsible. Protesting is a constitutional right. State agents should not casually murder protestors. In addition to the question of individual responsibility, there also must be an institutional reckoning within the Police Service. In better-run jurisdictions, by now the head of the Service should have tendered his resignation.

Second, it would be wise for President William Ruto and his administration to see the protests for what they really are: a slow but steady snowballing of all manner of grievances against the prevailing operationalization of Project Kenya. Our social contract and the moral economy that underpins it are broken. The economy no longer works for ordinary Kenyans. Government officials keep stealing our money with arrogant entitlement. The government barely works, with critical sectors like agriculture, education, infrastructure, and health in total disarray. Simply stated, without appreciable improvements in service delivery, the government lacks the legitimacy to raise taxes.

The administration likes to remind us that their revenue measures are simply the consequences of the rampant corruption and waste under President Uhuru Kenyatta. That is true, but also not the complete picture. All leading individuals in the current administration were key participants in the theft and waste. The least they could do is right the wrongs of their former partners in crime. Instead, they have continued the same levels of theft and waste, while asking Kenyans to tighten their belts and pay more taxes.

This is simply untenable. The breakdown of the moral compact between citizen and government is a recipe for rampant tax evasion. Reasonable people understand that we must live within our means (tax revenues) and service our debts. Yet this arrangement only works if the country’s leadership makes reasonable effort to honor the social contract.

The writer is a professor at Georgetown University