Why Monday's protests have rattled government, businesses

Police on patrol at Kisumu Bus Park after protestors allied to Azimio la Umoja and Kenya Kwanza Alliance clashed on March 19, 2023. [Washington Onyango, Standard]

This morning I woke up in a curfew

Oh God, I was a prisoner, too

Could not recognise the faces standing over me

They were all dressed in uniforms of brutality

How many rivers do we have to cross

Before we can talk to the boss? Yeah...

We must have really paid the cost

The lyrics to Bob Marley's hit Burnin' and Lootin' perhaps capture the feeling among Kenyans today.

The government today appears to be out of touch with the reality in Kenya, and perhaps Bob Marley's question as to 'how many rivers do we have to cross before we can talk to the boss?' could be apt.

The Kenya Kwanza administration appears insensitive to the plight of Kenyans, running a bloated government, whose expenditures on luxuries are out of control while millions of Kenyans are in need of relief food owing to a long drought.

The prices of basic commodities too are beyond the reach of many. Despite promises of lowering the cost of living last year, President Ruto's administration appears to pull all stops to further escalate the cost of food, energy and other essentials.

And while this might give credence to Monday's planned demonstrations, the protests are causing jitters, with opinion divided.

Many fear protests might weigh more on the economy which is yet to fully recover from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and last year's general elections, which generally slowed down the economy. Others however feel the government is numb to the hardships Kenyans are going through and that suppressing picketing would be akin to sweeping these challenges under the carpet.

This is even as the economy continues to reel from multiple shocks that include the ongoing drought, the high cost of essentials, including food and energy and a dollar shortage that has hit businesses hard including import-focused small-scale traders whose livelihoods are now on the line. The hardships have moved the country's opposition, which now vows to conduct mass rallies around the country until the government addresses the high cost of living.

Analysts note that Kenyans are likely to suffer the effect of the protests especially if they persist beyond Monday and, as has been the case with past protests, take a violent turn. Dr Sam Nyandemo an economist and lecturer at the University of Nairobi noted that both President William Ruto and opposition chief Raila Odinga needed to approach the matter soberly.

He noted that if both continue to take hardline positions, it would be the vulnerable Kenyans who would suffer. These Kenyans, he noted, are currently unable to make ends meet due to the dire shape of the economy.

"They (government and opposition) need to start from the understanding that the economy is in a very bad shape and this is aggravated by the high cost of living especially the high prices of fuel, essential products such as unga, sugar and the likes and more importantly, the dismal performance of the government that has been in power for the last six months," he said, adding the most affected by the economy's bad shape are vulnerable groups.

"Nevertheless, the anticipated protests can be managed through both parties coming to a common desk and see the best way of sorting all these issues that are being raised and prevent the situation from getting to the worst point," he said.

Migori Town residents demonstrate over the high cost of leaving. [Caleb Kingwara, Standard]

"If we move to demonstrations, it will aggravate the point and make matters worse. Both sides must swallow their egos and come to a common table and if need be look for well-known dignitaries to assist in arbitrating and navigating the matters, failure to which the situation will worsen."

Nyandemo noted that other than the issues that are unique to Kenya, the country has to grapple with global challenges such as the shortage of the US dollar, which are likely to further drive up the cost of imported goods. "This needs wise counsel. It does not need chest-thumping by either party," he said.

"When two bulls fight, it is the grass that suffers and the grass here is the Kenyan vulnerable groups. Let Ruto and Raila swallow their egos ... missing the point might aggravate the situation."

He noted that Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) should be duly constituted and this should be done by following due process, which is among the issues that the Azimio leaders are protesting against.

Dr Nyandemo also urged senior officials in the Kenya Kwanza administration to do their job and stop blaming the bad state of the economy on the Jubilee Administration and former President Uhuru Kenyatta. "Uhuru is no longer in government. When you are telling us about the past, you are failing in your responsibility and also denying yourself as the man in power to put things in order by camouflaging under past deeds," he said.

"This country is for all of us, we need each other, we need to have sober minds at this delicate tie and we need to balance the equation."

Odinga made the declaration for mass action at the Jeevanjee Gardens in Nairobi on February 22.

The planned protests, according to the opposition chief, are meant to pile pressure on the Kenya Kwanza administration to address the rising cost of living crisis and the disputed last August presidential polls.

Squeezing consumers

Kenya's inflation rose to 9.2 per cent year-on-year in February from 9.0 per cent a month earlier, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Standards (KNBS), largely driven by food, transport and energy prices further squeezing consumers hard.

Interior CS Kithure Kindiki. Police have assured Kenyans of security ahead of Azimio la Umoja protests set for March 20, 2023. [File, Standard]

Traders fear any unrest that could disrupt business activities would cast a dark cloud over their operations and the local economy, which is already facing several local and external shocks.

The government has however assured businesses that it will not allow matters to get out of hand.

Interior CS Kithure Kindiki said the government would respect the rights of the protestors to picket but also sternly warned that public disturbance would be met with the full force of the law.

"I have no business with those who are doing maandamano (demonstrations), actually I don't care, on one condition, they keep law and order. The day they try to break the law, breach the peace or incite public disorder, that is the day the full weight of the Ministry of Interior will come on them," said Kindiki.

"They can hold rallies and picket, they can demonstrate as far as they do not disrupt businesses, they do not force people who are not aligned to them to listen to them by force."

"There is a political space where other people either from the government side or the other side can engage." Among the measures in place include not letting the protestors into the central business district.

Manufacturers say while they remain apolitical and are not affiliated with any political movement, they voiced fears of the possible negative impact of unrest on businesses.

They, however, maintained that while picketing is guaranteed in the Constitution, any ensuing chaos that could disrupt businesses should the mass action turn violent, must be avoided at all costs.

Under the aegis of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM), however, they urged the government to heed calls to address the persistent cost of living concerns being aired by the opposition.

KAM Chairman Rajan Shah said the constitutionally guaranteed clamour for the State to address the biting cost of living affecting Kenyans should not derail business operations which are already facing many headwinds.

"The constitution guarantees freedom of association but this should be done in a civilised manner and in a way that does affect businesses," Mr Shah told The Standard in a recent interview. The country defied projections of political unrest to enjoy relative peace following the disputed August polls and was tipped to be boosted by the tailwinds from the peace dividend this year.

Political unrest, shock and the rising polarisation and political uncertainty in the economy are likely to deal a fatal blow to the struggling economy, analysts said.

"Economic confidence dropping, or uncertainty rising, are a severe negative in the current environment of forex shortages, rising food prices and drought conditions," said Deepak Dave of Riverside Advisory.

"The poorest will be hit the hardest, and give the government even more licence to print money or borrow more to try and placate factions with monetary benefits." Unrest could also undercut tourism, players said. The sector's earnings jumped 83 per cent in 2022 to Sh268 billion.

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