Kenya is at a historic juncture – historical but not decisive. Food prices are at an all-time high, unemployment is the middle name of more than half of Kenya’s youth, and despite several recent mega-pronouncements from the government, millions of Kenyans remain discontented with their prevailing material conditions and state of affairs in the country. Protests over the past few weeks have given way to a ceasefire for now – but how long will this ceasefire last? In which direction should we move as a people?
In August 2022, Kenyans went to the polls to elect new leadership in what was basically a contest between two factions of the ruling class. On one side was veteran politician and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga of the Azimio Coalition who had the support of incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta, and on the other side was former Raila-ally and then Deputy President William Ruto of the United Democratic Alliance(UDA).
At the end of the electoral process, Wafula Chebukati, chairperson of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, declared William Ruto’s ‘victory’. Such are the stories of victories devoid of victors – especially in the context of bourgeoisie elections in the neo-colonial state.
William Ruto’s UDA Party rode to power on the back of an election fuelled by populist rhetoric. “Tutaunganisha stima, tutajenga barabara, tutaunda serikali na mama mboga na watu wa bodaboda”, are some of the oft-repeated slogans that assaulted the ears of Kenyans from loudspeakers at every twist and turn during the campaign period.
Millions of Kenyans clutched on these slogans with enthusiasm, viewing them as an opening out of the wretchedness they have historically been condemned to by the colonial enterprise and successive regimes in post-colonial Kenya. Simultaneously, millions of Kenyans knew these were just empty statements – a usurpation of progressive and working-class rhetoric by people with zero progressive tendencies or histories.
In the midst of this darkness, one lesson we can draw from the 2022 elections is how these slogans and phrases resonated with large segments of Kenyans – affirming that working-class language and organising have the power and appeal to move the masses if deployed intensively and repeatedly.
Neoliberalism & deregulation of the Kenyan state.
No sooner had the current regime been sworn-in at the beginning of September 2022 than it launched an assault against the lowest economic strata, the hustlers on whose names and backs it rode to power. This assault was multi-pronged – targeting education, healthcare, food, petroleum products among other basic necessities. Between September and December 2022, the Ruto government scrapped fuel subsidies that had insulated many Kenyans from rising transport and commodity prices. His regime concurrently scrapped food subsidies – whilst allowing for the cultivation and importation of genetically modified maize.
The scrapping of fuel subsidies in December resulted in a 15% increase in electricity prices. Three months later, in March 2023, the Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority (EPRA) approved higher electricity prices at a time when most Kenyans were already hurting from an already-unbearable high cost of living. The March increment means that base power prices for the domestic lifeline category – those Kenyans consuming below 30 units – have risen from Ksh 10 to Ksh 12.22 per unit, a 22.2% increase in the cost of electricity. 6.3 million Kenyans, or 71.3% of electricity consumers in Kenya fall in this category. Kenyans consuming between 30 and 100 units are contending with a rise in the cost of electricity from Ksh.10 per unit to Ksh. 16.3 per unit, which translates to a 63.3% increase in the cost of electricity. Those consuming more than 100 units of electricity have seen the cost of electricity rise from Ksh 15.8 to Ksh 20.97 per unit, a 32% increase. Of all the price bands, the 6.3 million Kenyans who consume less than 30 units feel the pinch most for conditions now dictate that they spend greater proportions of their income on household consumption to the detriment of other needs and expenditure.
In February 2023, a report of the Presidential Working Party on Education Reform recommended an increase of university fees from Ksh.16,000 to Ksh. 52,000. Days after the release of this report, the Biennial Universities Funding Conference also recommended a tuition fee increase for government-sponsored university students from Ksh.16,000 to Ksh.48,000 shillings – a threefold increase in the cost of education.
The proposal to increase the cost of education comes against the backdrop of a national economy that is in tatters. A weak Kenyan shilling, meanwhile, has led to astronomical price increases for most imports further exacerbating the crisis. A weak currency does not bode well for any net-importing economy, like Kenya’s.
In March, the Cabinet approved the Privatisation Bill(2023), which is now set to be forwarded to Parliament for debate. This bill seeks to repeal the Privatisation Act (2005) in fundamental ways, giving power to the National Treasury to privatise public-owned enterprises without the approval of Parliament. Some of the entities the state wants to divest from include strategic companies like Kenya Ports Authority, Kenya Pipeline Company, East African Portland Company, the Agrochemical and Food Corporation, National Bank of Kenya, Consolidated Bank and the Development Bank of Kenya. State-owned sugar milling companies like Miwani, Chemilil Sugar, Muhoroni, South Nyanza and Nzoia are also lined up for sale. Kenyans who lived through privatisation of state-owned enterprises, especially in the 1990’s and 2000’s might recall that only a handful of well-connected Kenyans benefitted – mainly through unscrupulous means such as by buying government enterprises at prices much lower than their actual value.
But what is behind all these happenings and the figures behind them?
In April 2021, Kenya took a 38-month $2.34 billion (Ksh. 276 Billion) loan from the International Monetary Fund(IMF). This loan was to be disbursed in tranches over a period of 38 months – meaning part of the loan taken under Special Drawing Rights (SDR) would be disbursed to the previous government and part of it to the current regime.
A week to the August 2022 elections, as the country was in a heightened campaign frenzy, the IMF threw a spanner in the woodwork, imposing three new conditions to the April 2021 agreement. These three conditions, known as structural benchmarks, include implementation of national tax policy, scrapping fuel subsidies and a push for Kenya Power to fully bridge its fiscal gap by 2023.
The new conditions went largely unnoticed because a huge proportion of the population was simultaneously struggling for survival, consumed by populist campaign rhetoric and distracted or distanced enough from the IMF-imposed conditions whose implications would reverberate for years to come. The ruling class on both sides of the divide did not mention the new IMF-imposed conditions in the course of their campaigns despite the fact that these conditions stood in opposition to their lofty campaign promises. Up to date, the role played by the IMF and World Bank in fomenting the cost-of-living crisis remains at the margins of Kenya’s national discourse.
Kenya’s economy has historically been structured and modelled to exist in service of the global capitalist economy, which today manifests within the neoliberal order. Neoliberalism is generally marked with economic liberalisation, and characterised by privatisation, deregulation, austerity and reduction in government spending – thereby increasing the role of the private sector in the economy. The neoliberal order brought us the Structural Adjustment Programmes whose effects were felt across the Global South from the 1980’s onwards.. One of the most anti-people conditions the SAP’s imposed-then was cost-sharing resulting in reduced government expenditure on education and other social sectors.
In coming years, as the Kenyan economy struggles more and more, and with no clear plan to get it out of this rut, Kenyans are likely to witness more borrowing from multilateral institutions like the World Bank and IMF translating to more structural conditions imposed on the Kenyan economy. Though the SAP’s and other conditionalities might today appear under different names like ‘structural reform’ or ‘poverty reduction’, the most important thing is to examine and analyse the logic and ideology behind them.
History will also not absolve the previous regime – the UhuRuto government which is at the heart of the origins of the economic crisis Kenya finds itself facing today – for it basically subsisted on an economic philosophy of beg, borrow and steal. Economically-speaking, the Ruto government which is today broke and unable to meet its basic obligations after spending billions of shillings on non-essential expenditure is a continuation of the previous economic regime, if not an exacerbation.
The Consumer Price Index, Inflation & Wages
The Consumer Price Index (CPI) is a measure of the average change in the price paid by typical consumers over time for a basket of retail goods and services. Kenya’s CPI is at the highest point over the past one year. According to data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), CPI stood at 131.18 in March 2023 compared to 120.14 in March 2022.
Inflation, on the other hand, is the percentage change in the prices of commodities over a given period, and is arrived at through the calculation of percentage change in CPI over a given period. A calculation of the percentage increase in CPI using the figures above indicates that year on year inflation stood at 9.2% as of March 2023, meaning that commodity prices have increased by 9.2% over the last year. Many Kenyans are struggling, for despite the increase in commodity prices, their incomes have remained stunted, if not diminished in real terms.
The Uhuru regime gave 3 wage increases during its lifetime – the first in 2015, the second in 2017, and the last one in 2022. On May 1, 2022, during his last labour day celebrations, Uhuru announced a 12% increase in minimum wage, effectively raising it from Ksh 13,572 to Ksh. 15,201 for workers in the largest cities – Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu. The minimum wage in towns and other municipalities was raised to Ksh.14,025, while the minimum wage in other areas(rural) now stands at Ksh. 8,109.86 which is about $60 in the current exchange rate.
The May 2022 wage increase was supposed to cushion workers against the vagaries of inflation since the last tangible wage increase which happened in 2017 – but commodity prices have since then shot through the roof, meaning any short-term relief gained through the 2022 wage increase has already disappeared. In any case, the wages that the least-paid workers currently receive after taxation and deductions are not liveable wages.
With the current government now struggling to pay salaries, it is becoming increasingly clear that there will be a sharpening of contradictions in the foreseeable future, marked by potential retrenchments in the public sector. The unbearable cost of living means there will be an increase in instances where workers across various sectors of the economy withdraw their labour, especially where progressive unions still exist.
According to a past Oxfam report, less than 0.1% of Kenyans population (8,300 individuals)own more than the bottom 99.9% (more than 44 million). This blatant inequality – when taken into account alongside prevailing income disparities in a country where legislators earn above Ksh. 1 million ($8,278) monthly while monthly minimum wage for millions of rural workers is Ksh. 8,110 ($60) – is a pointer to the crisis of capitalism which is at the centre of the economic conundrum we find ourselves in.
The current conjuncture: Crisis and crossroads.
Amid nationwide concern over the rising prices that had put food and other basic commodities out of reach for many Kenyans, the Raila led Azimio Coalition called for protests beginning March 20th. Azimio’s demands also included calls to reform the electoral commission, grievances around discrimination in state appointments, the incompetence of the current government, among other issues.
Smaller numbers initially witnessed across various towns swelled as the protests escalated with every successive round. Different people went to the streets for different reasons. Some Kenyans were protesting unfair electoral results, with the political opposition threatening a march to State House. Most Kenyans, however, were protesting over the high cost of living.
At the end of March, the opposition was calling for mega-protests on Monday April 3rd – while government functionaries were issuing a string of threats, warning protesters that this would be their last demonstration ever. Given the events of the previous weeks of demonstrations when protesters were met with raw violence, all looked set for what was going to be a mega-showdown, an earth-shattering encounter between the conveyor belts of state violence and those with nothing to lose but their hunger.
On Sunday April 2nd, William Ruto convened a press conference at State House early in the evening, calling for the establishment of a bipartisan parliamentary process to look into only one of the issues raised, namely the reconstitution of the IEBC. Moments thereafter, Raila Odinga called another press conference where he acknowledged Ruto’s call to dialogue, agreed to a balanced parliamentary process co-chaired by both sides, and called off protests slated for the Monday, April 3rd, 2023.
This was a retreat from a decisive moment. The de-escalation of protest and establishment of a lengthy parliamentary process means that the people’s immediate demands around the high cost of living face a high likelihood of being relegated to the periphery.
Many Kenyans feel betrayed by this recent turn of events, a repeated betrayal of the masses of our people by a political elite that retreats at key moments which demand that it provides leadership to peoples’ struggles.
Kenya’s political elite will retreat at different times in history for different reasons. Significant retreats from hitherto hard-line positions mostly happen when their collective class interests are threatened; when the interests of one faction within this elite that create a basis for contestation are met or protected by the other faction, or when they are ordered to fall into line by their masters across the ocean.
In this scheme of things, the masses are cannon fodder, the usable and dispensable majority that is aggrieved by the historical and ongoing denial of its dignity. This social stratum – the forgotten, unseen and unemployed – are always ready to express their frustration, including through protest. The state visits them with violence throughout their lives, and they are thereafter beaten and killed in protests.
The lumpenised, meanwhile, after being sold hot air during the 2022 campaigns, still live in humiliating conditions and remain susceptible to being used after elections to paint legitimate protests as chaotic. The prevailing slow but steady slide into sponsored anarchy will have a domino effect in coming years.
An important element of human psychology is ideas and their evolution, for ideas produce and reproduce action. Once an idea of what was once deemed unthinkable in the minds of the masses, for instance the recent invasion of the Kenyatta-owned Northlands farm by hired goons is materialised, it becomes capable of creating a domino effect. This could mean more invasions and occupation of idle land by the historically dispossessed – including the occupation of land controlled by today’s ruling class or the transnational corporations that dominate the Kenyan economy. Recent events in Naivasha, Narok, Kilifi and Nakuru should serve as pointers to this.
The recent protest period was marked with accusations, threats, intimidation, harassment, arrests and loss of lives. But perhaps of more significance are some of the statements made. Pronouncements such as those declaring all forms of protest illegal point to a steep slide toward the dark days of the KANU regime, a chapter of Kenya’s past that only deserves to exist in the dustbins of memory and history. Kenyans must at this point stand firm, for such KANU-esque pronouncements are likely to become commonplace in the coming years.
Kenya twendapi? What way forward?
In 1968, 22 year old Abdilatif Abduallah wrote a pamphlet titled, Kenya Twendapi?, which loosely translates to ‘where is Kenya headed?’. The pamphlet earned him a three-year jail term between 1969 and 1972 for simply asking questions that any patriot would have asked out of love for their people and motherland. Such was the brutality of the dictatorial Jomo Kenyatta regime.
We again find ourselves at a juncture when we must ask ourselves and all those around us, Kenya twendapi? What direction is Kenya headed? What lessons have we learnt from both distant and recent history to objectively engage with the internal and external forces at play? And who, beyond the political elite, will organise the forward march of our people?
The judiciary, one of the few institutions which has stood with Kenyans over the past decade, currently has its loyalty to the people and their constitution in question. Its legitimacy in the eyes of the people has greatly been eroded in recent times given the trajectory of its pronouncements.
Parliament, meanwhile, is in the pockets of the regime and there is nothing to write home about it today.
Mainstream Civil Society lost its ability and capability to mobilise and organise in mass proportions years ago. It has largely been reduced to conferencing, press statements, production of lengthy reports and whatsapp-group brawls. Huge segments of it are alienated from the concrete conditions that inform our people’s struggles, or have capitulated. Only a handful of individuals and organisations in this sector have consistently maintained a firm stance against injustice and oppression – history will judge them kindly.
The labour unions, which have historically stood at the forefront of the ‘bread and butter’ issues for the working class, including during the struggle for national liberation in Kenya have greatly been weakened by schisms and factionalisms instigated by successive regimes since independence. At this historic moment when millions of workers are unable to afford the most basic of commodities, the unions only seem to be going through the motions, choosing to remain as silent as a startled reptile. Membership dues accrued through the time, energy and sweat of workers today finance the indolence and associated lavish lifestyles of union leaders as workers struggle against unprecedented forms of economic violence. Here again, a few exceptions exist.
The progressive left, the organisations and movements from below, on the other hand – find themselves in a debilitating position. Opportunistic tendencies and infiltration by both internal and external state agents have left many of these organisations incapable of carrying the mantle of peoples’ struggles. Lack of a concrete analysis of the concrete conditions, coupled with donor funding and self-interest have resulted in sectarianism and factionalism – reducing many of our movements to shells of what they aspire to be.
Consequently, Kenya finds herself in a historic but not decisive moment. This conjuncture is marked by objective conditions that are ripe, as they have been for the past few years: and less-developed subjective conditions occasioned by the collective inability of progressive forces to effectively conduct political education and organise the people in their mass-based dimensions. This reminds us of the popular saying by Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist Philosopher, to explain the conjuncture of such a crisis, “the old is dying and the new cannot be born’
It’s been a minute. As I end this critique of everything, I ask us to remind ourselves that there have been repeated calls for left unity these past few months. While very important, all calls for unity must be anchored within the reality we find ourselves in. Calls for unity must arise from among the progressive movements and organisations if they are to be sustainable. They must be devoid of sentiment, and anchored on science and reality. Lastly, they must be anchored on organisational and intellectual honesty, for our only loyalty is to our people.
*Sungu Oyoo is a writer and organiser at Mwamko, a Pan-African popular pedagogy collective. He is also the national spokesperson for Kongamano la Mapinduzi, a political movement in Kenya.
This article originally appeared on Ukombozi Review on 14 April 2023 and it is republished here with the permission of the writer. No changes were made to the original article.