Kenya’s roaring news outlets are usually fierce rivals. But on Thursday they put aside their competitive instincts to issue an urgent call for calm as Kenya plunged deeper into chaotic anti-government demonstrations that have left at least 29 people dead in recent weeks and pose the most serious challenge yet to the nearly year-old rule. by President William Ruto.
“Let’s save our country,” read an identical banner headline across the front pages of the Daily Nation, Standard and other major newspapers.
Kenya risks falling into a “dark and dangerous abyss”, the joint article said, if its leaders fail to resolve a simmering crisis that has destabilized one of Africa’s strongest democracies.
Police clashed with protesters in Nairobi on Thursday in the second of three days of planned nationwide protests against rising food and fuel prices and steep taxes. Police, sometimes firing live shots, killed at least six people in clashes on Wednesday and arrested around 300, including a prominent opposition politician who was expelled to a police station 60 miles from the capital.
Clouds of tear gas and black smoke from burning tires drifted over the capital, Nairobi, and several other cities, where running battles between the police and protesters caused businesses and schools to close on Wednesday. On Thursday, the police appeared to gain the upper hand, and some stores and schools reopened.
The United Nations Human Rights office, citing reports that Kenyan police killed 23 people in protests last week, required investigation in the “disproportionate use of force”. On Wednesday, protests broke out in 13 of Kenya’s 47 counties — fewer than last week, a Western diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
The protests are led by Raila Odinga, the opposition leader defeated by Mr Ruto in last August’s presidential election – a loss he still refuses to formally accept, although election observers and Kenya’s Supreme Court validated the result.
Since March, Mr Odinga has periodically held rallies accusing Mr Ruto of rigging the election and mismanaging the economy. He taps into a deep source of public frustration over the rising cost of living, with wheat prices up 30 percent and sugar up 60 percent in the past year.
“The president is hard on us,” Anne Gakoi, a basket trader, said at her roadside stall on the northern outskirts of Nairobi. She reeled off a list of the now too expensive items: sugar, cornmeal, her daughter’s school fees, the sisal to make her baskets.
Then Mr Ruto rammed through an unpopular new tax to build more housing. “We can make our own money, and build our own houses,” she said. “He is not fair with us.”
But as Mr. Odinga’s mostly poor supporters, many from his ethnic Luo group, have faced armed Kenyan riot police in the streets, privately his representatives are making demands that focus more narrowly on political self-interest, diplomats and analysts said in interviews. Mr Odinga is seeking a number of concessions including a top post at the African Union.
Some in Mr Odinga’s team are looking for a new “handshake” – a reference to the political truce he agreed with the former president, Uhuru Kenyatta, in 2018, which effectively neutered Kenya’s parliamentary opposition for the next four years.
There was no sign of Mr Odinga this week, leading to speculation on social media. On Wednesday, his daughter Winnie said in a Tweet that he was “fine”. Mr. Odinga’s aides privately told Western officials that he had the flu.
Much of Kenya’s economic problems are the product of global headwinds beyond Mr Ruto’s control, such as the war in Ukraine and rising interest rates. The Kenyan president, who was previously vice president, inherited a national debt that quadrupled to $61 billion in the past decade.
But Mr Ruto has also stoked popular anger by administering harsh economic medicine to his own supporters and adopting an uncompromising stance towards critics.
“Listen to me carefully,” Mr Ruto said on Friday in a speech in which he vowed to crush the protests. “You cannot use extrajudicial, extraconstitutional means to seek power in Kenya. Wait for 2027. I will defeat you again.”
Kenyan religious and business leaders, as well as foreign diplomats, say they have contacted both sides in recent days to try to broker a deal to end the protests. The specter of the post-election clashes of 2007 and 2008, which caused hundreds of deaths and nearly plunged the country into civil war, looms large.
The protests cost the country about $20 million a day, not counting lost foreign investment, according to Kenya’s national statistics agency. While Kenya has long been seen as East Africa’s economic powerhouse and top tourist destination, some investors are now looking to neighboring Tanzania, for decades its poor neighbor, as a more attractive option.
The focus of the protests is a tough new finance bill, signed into law by Mr Ruto last month, which includes a deeply unpopular 1.5 per cent tax on salaried workers for a housing and employment fund. A Kenyan court blocked the law recently, citing constitutional irregularities. Even so, Mr Ruto pushed ahead with other measures, including doubling the fuel tax to 16 per cent – a measure that hit hard with his own voters.
In last year’s election, Mr Ruto painted himself as the champion of Kenya’s “cosmadistas” – young people who, like him, came from modest backgrounds and tried to get ahead. But now many of those hunters, feeling betrayed, are taking to the streets.
“We must never take for granted that we can never tip over into full-scale genocide or civil war,” Kenya’s editors wrote Thursday. “We all need to step back and take a long, hard look at ourselves.”