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Kenya's Ruto issues warning to opposition over protests

Andrew Wasike | Isaac Kaledzi
July 19, 2023

The opposition in Kenya has again called for protests over the rising cost of living and tax hikes. But the government has publicly warned that it clamp down on protesters who cause any harm during rallies.

Kenya's President William Ruto during a speech in Nairobi
Kenyan President William Ruto has criticized calls for protests from the political oppositionImage: Monicah Mwangi/REUTERS

Shortly before Kenya's political opposition resumed a series of anti-government protests in the country on Wednesday, Kenyan President William Ruto issued a stern warning to opposition leaders over the demonstrations. He said his administration will not tolerate opposition leaders exploiting constitutional provisions to hold opposition rallies as a pretext to incite violence and jeopardize the safety and stability of the nation.

"It is not going to be business as usual, and we are not going to [allow the use of] certain provisions of the constitution to cause mayhem, to cause anarchy, to destroy property, to destroy lives merely because we are hiding behind certain provisions of the constitution," Ruto announced late last week.

"The same constitution mandates government to protect lives, property, and interests of all other Kenyans," he added.

The opposition organized three days of protests, which resumed on Wednesday, over recent tax hikes. The capital city Nairobi witnessed pockets of tension between demonstrators and the police as protestors burned tires and hurled rocks at officials in the Kibera neighbourhood. Security forces were seen firing tear gas in response.

As a result, schools and many businesses in central Nairobi were closed the next day, with police erecting checkpoints on all roads leading to the State House.

Cost of living protests immobilize Kenya

Opposition leader Raila Odinga, for his part, said Kenyans should all get involved in the anti-government protests. Rather than one protest a week held on Mondays, as was originally planned, the protests have been expanded to three-day affairs every Wednesday to Friday.

Odinga explained that the decision to prolong the protests was a direct response to the overwhelming public demand for change.

"As Kenyans, we have a duty to liberate ourselves as we have always done. It has never been easy, it will not be easy, but it has been done," he told followers.

The escalating cost of living and the implementation of new taxes on petroleum products have been a source of growing worry for many Kenyans who have expressed disappointment at Ruto's government, which took office last September.

Martin Oloo is one of them. The Nairobi resident told DW that he would join the protests to voice his dissatisfaction with the living conditions in Kenya, but added that he is worried about a potential crackdown on protesters by security forces, whose actions he referred to as a provocation.

"They [police] cannot come here to remind us about peace. Why should they come here and provoke our peace? We know very well that we will be peaceful, so they shouldn't come here and provoke us," he said.

Kalonzo Musyoka, one of the leaders of the protests, told DW that the protests this week were intended to be peaceful.

"[We] insist on peaceful demonstration in accordance with the law of the land, and the supreme law of the land is our constitution, which guarantees the freedom of peaceful demonstrations," he said.

Protests against tax hikes: DW spoke with people in Nairobi

But last week, similar protests across the country claimed at least 15 lives and injured many others, authorities said.

Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki has urged both the police and protesters to maintain law and order in the country, stressing that anyone committing what he referred to as "monkey business" would face serious consequences.

Calls for dialogue

A number of churches and civil rights groups have called for an end to the protests, urging President Ruto and opposition leader Odinga to resolve their differences through dialogue.

"It is not too late for [Odinga's opposition alliance] Azimio to halt the planned protests and give talks another shot in the wider interest of the country," said Stephen Kipchumba Cheboi, chairman of Kenya's National Council of NGOs. 

Several foreign embassies expressed similar sentiments: "We recognise the daily hardship faced by many Kenyans and urge all parties to table their concerns through a meaningful dialogue," they said in a joint statement on Tuesday.

However, many Kenyans reject that notion of entering a dialogue, as Ruto's decision to increase taxes  — with which the government hopes to tackle its growing debt repayments  — flies in the face of his personal brand as a champion of the interests of the poor.

Many of those who voted for him last year say they feel disappointed, while those who supported the opposition feel reaffirmed in their conviction  — and are willing to take to the streets for the prospect of change.

Did Raila Odinga use protests for political interest?

Edited by: Sertan Sanderson