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Economic reforms, not teargas, will solve unrest

Azimio protestors run for their lives after police lobed a tear gas during their demonstration along Moi Avenue in Nairobi on March 20, 2023 over high cost living. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

Kenyans never disappoint. During the recent demonstrations called by the opposition, some protesters complained that the police used expired teargas and even shared evidence online.

To a researcher that is good evidence that Kenyans have been peaceful for a long.

What's the shelf life of tear gas? How much does a canister of tear gas cost? What's the chemical formula for tear gas?

Jokes aside, what do the demos portend for our 60-year-old country? What are the unintended consequences?

The key grievances include the high cost of living which is a clever grievance. It touches everyone and has no easy solution. We can't do much about the price of oil or the strong dollar. The grievances have lots of political undertones - a follow-up from 2022 polls.

Other grievances include a fast reorganisation of the government with lots of new faces.

Opening of servers to show who won and the composition of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). On the illegitimacy of the government, that's a long shot.

We can ask soberly: What's the end game?

Let's accept that Raila Odinga is exploiting a vacuum. If we had a vibrant opposition, he would be less inclined to lead demos. For now, there is no political safety valve. There is a need to have a vibrant opposition, it's part of democracy and human nature shows that if left unchecked any government will go to the extreme.

Raila was probably calculating that by piling pressure there would be a rethinking in appointments for big posts like Cabinet Administrative Secretaries (CAS). It seems to have not worked.

Would he derive a handshake from that pressure? Every president since the founding of the republic had to deal with an Odinga, for 60 years.

Will President William Ruto avoid that? The handshake with Arap Moi led to the demise of KANU. The handshake with the late President Mwai Kibaki was preceded by chaos.

The handshake with retired President Uhuru Kenyatta partly led to the defeat of his coalition. It's still an open question of who would have won if there was no handshake.

If Raila and Uhuru had underwritten another candidate, he or she could probably have won. They should have sponsored a hustler to counter the unstoppable hustler narrative. It is unlikely that Ruto will go for a handshake, he has quickly consolidated his power to negate the need for that.

It's still a matter of conjecture why Uhuru agreed to a handshake when he had "vanquished" Raila on the ballot box and on the streets. Was the pair really in touch with political reality on the ground?

The demos key players are hustlers, the same constituent that gave Ruto power. They are disappointed by promises made by Dr Ruto regarding the high cost of living.

But to be honest, even if Raila won, he would be facing the same problem. The suggested solution - subsidies are just first aid - the real solutions to rising prices are more complex and will take time.

When will the Ukrainian war end? When shall we wean ourselves off fossil fuels? When shall our harvest become independent of rain? How can we ensure no cartels along the key supply chains?

What next? President Ruto will probably let the demos go on till they fizzle out and its leaders lose steam. If chaos erupt, the government could play tough.

Is his visit to Germany next supposed to send a message to his opponents, that: "I am in charge and can even afford a trip abroad."

One unintended consequence of these demos is giving President Ruto a raison d'etre to consolidate power, he is under "threat." Remember the late President Daniel Arap Moi after the attempted coup d'etat?

Demos are also giving the government a very good excuse for not solving economic problems. They are being distracted. You heard the DP saying the economy was just picking then came demos?

It's a catch-22. The demos are about the high cost of living and joblessness which will be made worse by the same demos! Will that lead to a compromise between the two leaders? They are saying no, my hunch tells me otherwise.

The demos have 2027 in mind. Do you recall talks of a one-term president in the run-up to the 2022 polls? The demos could be intended to deny the president economic credentials remember the 2022 polls were fought on the economy.

The Kenya Kwanza government must revive the economy by 2027 without restricting the democratic space. Hungry people are hard to democratise. Kenya Kwanza must build bridges between the winners and losers.

On Monday I drove to Nakuru and back, then to the city Centre in the evening around 7 pm. There were no demos on this route. And around Westlands too. Clearly the demos and tear gas exposed the big socioeconomic divide, and a political divide too.

Eastlands had the tear gas and police. The affluent suburbs had their peace. I even found someone selling flowers around Sarit Centre. The political divide was evident too with areas that voted the current regime peaceful.

It's this economic and political divide that we must confront head-on with or without demos. It has persisted for 60 years of our republic. How do we open economic and political opportunities to all? How do make losers and winners feel at home? How do we make citizens feel that their political affiliation is not a liability?

Even developed countries that have not addressed this divide have lived to regret. This divide drives political extremism if not addressed.

The alternative is suppression which kills the economy. Freedom and economic growth go together. Even when there are no violent demonstrations on the streets, there are demos in our minds which stop us from making our full contribution to economic growth.

Remember how freedom catalysed growth during the Kibaki era?

The Kenya Kwanza government says things will get worse before they get better. That's unusual political boldness. What will hustlers do before things get better? Don't we give patients first aid? What is Kenya Kwanza's economic first aid? Subsidies?

Tear gas is not the solution, it's concrete reforms that will put money into our pockets.

That's why there were no demos in affluent suburbs. Demos are a political expression of economic frustrations. We must address the root cause.

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