Economic challenges, protests, and the need for productive dialogue

Due to inflation, a weakening Kenyan Shilling, higher taxes, an unsustainable debt burden, rampant corruption and a lack of accountability, Kenya is facing a cost of living crisis. The initial Finance Legislation proposed by the government, which has been suspended pending a challenge in the Constitutional Court, is expected to impose significant tax increases. These tax hikes will directly impact salaries, petrol prices, and other services and commodities such as transportation and production.

Senator Okiya Omtatah and politician Jimmy Wanjigi allege Kenya’s current economic predicament is due to borrowing without parliamentary approval as the law requires. If it is true, it means that a substantial portion of revenue is used to repay illicit loans instead of investing in development and social amenities.

Azimio has announced weekly protests for lower taxes and electoral justice. Incidents of unlawful policing marred last week’s protests commemorating “Saba Saba” Day. Several people were killed and injured, property was damaged, and robberies were committed. As a result, some see protests as criminal and disruptive, and others perceive law enforcement as oppressive and human rights violators.

On Wednesday, residents in Siaya peacefully exercised their right to assemble for over an hour. It is likely that in places like Siaya, where protests occurred peacefully, senior police officers adopted community policing measures as required by law. In the opposite direction, there were running battles, looting, mugging, and vandalism on Mbagathi Way and Nairobi Expressway. The death toll was nine across the country.

According to the law, everyone can peacefully and unarmed assemble or protest for any reason. Furthermore, the government must facilitate, promote, protect, and fulfil every human rights. Therefore, the police play a crucial role in enabling the right to protest by ensuring the security of those exercising this right. Arrests, the use of force, and firearms should be used legally, in a responsible manner and only as a last resort. Any use of force must be necessary and proportional, with lethal force permitted only when a police officer’s or others’ lives are at risk.

During the “Saba Saba” protests last Friday, many were dismayed by the teargassing of former Chief Justice Willie Mutunga at Central Police Station in Nairobi while he was attempting to negotiate the release of protesters, some of whom had sustained injuries. Video clips on social media showed some of those arrested were not engaged in violence. They were commemoraing33 years since the historic Saba Saba that ushered in multi-party democracy and the freedoms we enjoy today and take for granted.

There is growing concern that the chaos, injuries, violence, and looting will further harm the struggling economy. As business owners choose to close their businesses and people do not get to work for fear of insecurity, poverty and livelihood challenges will be exacerbated. As a result of this week’s protests and politicians’ remarks, our stability appears bleak and threatened.

Currently, the government and opposition are talking at each other instead of talking and listening to each other in productive dialogue. We have experienced the detrimental consequences of rigid stances, leading to deadly consequences.

Bad economic times are dangerous for sitting governments because they are dealt a bad hand. People become susceptible to populist appeals and blame government for their problems even if they began under the previous regime. In such times, all executive members must tread a tightrope and avoid appearing contentious, dismissive, and aloof of the people’s plight. The journey ahead will be painful, and government needs to communicate this reality effectively.

First published in The Standard on 14th July 2023. Kindly reproduced here with permission from The Standard.

Demas Kiprono is a human rights lawyer and a Campaign Manager at Amnesty International Kenya. He writes in his personal capacity. Email: [email protected]