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What’s behind Kenya’s protests?

Gathanga Ndung’u examines Kenya’s cost of living protests and the long history behind the unrest

6 to 7 minute read

Protestors in Kenya during the 2023 cost of living crisis

Later this year, on 12 December 2023, we Kenyans will mark 60 years since independence from the brutality of British white supremacy and settler colonialism. It’s a time to celebrate. But it’s also a moment to pause. To reflect on the challenges we’ve had, the betrayals we’ve participated in and the skeletons in our closet.

Today maandamano (protests) against a massive cost of living crisis are a weekly and bloody affair. The Kenyan police, already known for extrajudicial violence and corruption, have killed scores of protestors. Whilst anger spills on the streets, many are not surprised at people’s struggles and concerns. In the words of J.M Kariuki, who fought in the Mau Mau liberation struggle, how have we managed to produce fifty millionaires and fifty million beggars? Why can we not feed our population? Where is the land and freedom our mashujaa (heroes) fought for? 

This year, as a part of the Social Justice Movement, Mathare Social Justice Centre, Revolutionary Socialist League, and Ukombozi Library among other allied organisations, we have been working to renew the pledge of our freedom fighters—for land, food, and freedom—in our grassroots campaigns, including via African Liberation Day,  Saba Saba (7 July) commemorations, and (Dedan) Kimathi Day. 

Kimathi, leader of Mau Mau, was executed in 1957, six years before independence was finally achieved. The British hid his remains and burial site; they never wanted him becoming a symbol of resistance or a site for would-be resurgent organising.  Yet today Kimathi’s struggle remains painfully relevant—a struggle we want to ensure people remember as they take to the streets.

Cost of living crisis under Ruto

Today the majority of Kenyans face an unprecedented cost of living crisis, shrinking civic space, continued evictions, and landlessness. Increasing numbers of people live under the poverty line. Vast tracts of land are owned by an elite ruling class; the rest are squeezed onto small parcels of land or live as squatters—including our independence heroes. Meanwhile, the grip of international capital over Kenya remains strong. Global tech companies, and start-ups have a powerful presence here. The international aid sector has a huge presence in the country, using Nairobi as a base to get to other African countries. Tourist safaris continue to proliferate but ordinary Kenyans do not reap the benefits. 

The current Kenyan government, headed by William Ruto of the United Democratic Alliance, came into office in August 2022. Ruto’s campaign was run on populist rhetoric of ‘bottom-up’ economics and a ‘hustler versus dynasties’ narrative. Ruto, previously a chicken farmer, claimed himself as an ‘African revolutionary,’ not a part of the ruling dynasties that President Uhuru Kenyatta (in power 2013 to 2022) and Raila Odinga (in power 2008 to 2013) represented as sons of former post-independence leaders.

The reality is, however, that neither Ruto’s party, nor that of the opposition, have a clear ideological position, radical or otherwise. Most ride on the whims and interests of corporations, business interests, and the wealthy and work to protect their own intra-elite class interests, upholding the status quo. The current protests are also being fuelled by the political opportunism and agitation of a coalition of opposition forces, Azimo La Umoja, which includes Odinga, who contested the 2022 election results. 

Kimathi’s struggle remains painfully relevant—a struggle we want to ensure people remember

A few months into office, Ruto reversed all policies, programmes, and initiatives that were in place to cushion ordinary citizens from the economic aftershocks of the Covid-19 pandemic. This includes the scrapping of fuel subsidies, Kazi Mtaani (community work) for youths, doubling fuel levies, and increasing taxes on basic commodities. Inflation is sky high, and while goverment employees are receiving a 14 per cent salary increase, Ruto insists that the prices of basic commodities are not that bad.

In Kenya the social justice movement is growing. Built around community movements, especially of young people, in informal settlements who organise against police violence and poor living conditions, these movements establish spaces (social justice centres) to support their efforts. Throughout the current political crisis, the social justice movement has remained true to its cause, offering grassroots political education to citizens and residents. A radical political education remains our main tool in organising as we try to create a conscious base that understands and agitates against our political system.

Debt traps and food insecurity

The current crisis has, of course, been long in the making.  The increase in prices of basic commodities has been going on for ten years, driven by reckless overborrowing, corruption, and a punitive taxation regime. Other countries on the African continent, including Nigeria, South Africa, Malawi, Rwanda, and Ghana have seen similar trends. Much of this is a direct result of the even longer-term negative impact of financial institutions, situated in the Global North, that have trapped countries in the South into a new imperialism—for which the conditions will only get worse. 

Governments and multinationals in the North are also becoming more aggressive as they try to neutralise China’s growing influence in the continent. But African governments are in a debt trap because of misleading advice from international/North-based ‘experts’. The World Bank Report 2020 said Kenya was a lower-medium income country, but the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation’s world report says 81.1 per cent of Kenyans are unable to afford a healthy diet. 

Neither Ruto’s party, nor that of the opposition, have a clear ideological position, radical or otherwise

Today the country is at risk of defaulting on loans. To enable the government to stay afloat, the 2023 Finance Bill targeted common citizens with aggressive tax hikes—all with the support of the US government. This has come with structural adjustment policies akin to those introduced in the 1980s in Kenya and other African countries attached to loans from (un)development partners—all of which are fuelling the conditions for protest, unrest, as well as, simply, despair. 

Under these conditions, the food crisis in Kenya today is growing. Agriculture is the backbone of many African economies with land providing the primary means of production. But multinationals, such as Bayer, a German pharmaceutical and biotechnological company, in collaboration with Kenyan elites and capitalists, have been pushing through their ‘experiments’ on crops citing greater ‘productivity’ and, in the process, sideline indigenous food systems and entrench Kenyan food insecurity.

As farmers become increasingly dependent on the seeds and agrochemicals of companies like Bayer, multinationals appear to be gradually taking over the sector. In the near future, food sovereignty and security are going to be solely dependent on them and not on the millions of farmers in Africa.

What is freedom for Kenya and Africa?

The ongoing protests are an important moment for those who are interested in justice and freedom in Kenya and beyond. At the Social Justice Movement, we are organising and working to offer people routes to political education in which they can understand and articulate their discontent—and organize around it. This will move us beyond a ‘Ralia versus Ruto’ intra-elite power struggle, this story is much bigger than these two leaders. 

Other African countries are also entangled in this neoliberal and capitalist imbroglio. The colonialist ‘divide and conquer’ strategy has had lasting effects—the division of Africa into Lusophone, Anglophone and Francophone remains a barrier, whilst North African Arab centrism and desires for proximity to whiteness at the expense of black Africans is palpable. Meanwhile an elite African class has no interest in changing the current situation. 

As a continent, from which the power of Julius Nyerere and Kwame Nkrumah’s vision of Pan-African liberation emerged, we must interrogate and introspect: what does freedom mean to us today? Is it freedom of the rich to exploit the poor as Pio Gama Pinto lamented? Or its freedom for the masses? 

This year, we will celebrate our strides as a country and continent, but the people’s liberation is yet to come. As Dedan Kimathi said, ‘I would rather die on my feet than die on my knees,’ but today we appear helpless. It is only if we organise, educate, and agitate that our condition will change.

Gathanga Ndung’u is an activist and human rights defender with Mathare Social Justice Centre, Kenya Organic Intellectuals Network, and Revolutionary Socialist League, Nairobi

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