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Kenyan Protests, Part One: The political education of President William Ruto

Lessons on the difficulties of governing during turbulent economic times after campaigning as an anti-establishment populist.

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#OccupyParliament Protests Against Kenya’s Finance Bill

This is the first of a three part series on the current economic and political crises in Kenya. Part One will address the political foundations of the crisis. Part Two will tackle the real economic challenges that the current administration inherited, and arguably made worse. Finally, Part Three will conclude with some thoughts on the set of bad options on the table for the administration.

I: Reaping what he sowed

Over the last two weeks I have struggled to understand why President William Ruto has turned out to be a much worse politician than Candidate William Ruto. For someone who won the presidency on a populist message, he completely misjudged the months-long simmering public anger over proposed new taxes amidst the rising cost of living, public sector corruption, in-your-face flaunting of opulence by corruption officials on social media, deteriorating public services, and generalized erosion of government legitimacy.

So far his reactions suggest that the events of June 25, 2024 — when countrywide anti-tax protests culminated in the storming of Parliament in Nairobi — caught him by surprise. Forget the polls that highlighted public discontent with his tax measures in the 2024 Finance Bill, myriad op-eds in the papers, online chatter, and discussions on TV and radio talk-shows.

Anti-tax protesters invade Parliament in Nairobi right after legislators approved the 2024 Finance Bill (taxation measures). Source: AP

Perhaps he thought that he had sufficiently demobilized the opposition and neutered mass opposition to his aggressive tax policies after he cut a “cease fire” deal with former Prime Minister Raila Odinga (and officially nominated him to head the African Union). Or perhaps he made a cynical calculation that his new taxes were most salient among a sliver of Kenyans (~3m) who principally operate in the formal economy, and so wouldn’t come with that big of a political cost as long as he had the countryside onside — this also fits with his administration’s ongoing embrace of class war rhetoric to shut down those with a contrary opinion. He could also have been distracted by the adulation he has been receiving from foreign governments and organizations since entering office — as of early June 2024 he had made 62 visits to 38 countries within just 20 months.

What Ruto failed to notice, however, is that his own presidential campaign had fundamentally shifted the political economy of (fiscal) policymaking in Kenya. He castigated Uhuru Kenyatta (and Odinga) for presiding for excessive borrowing, high taxes, wasteful subsidies, poor services, and a raft of anti-poor policies in an economy that was rigged to favor the establishment (forget that he was part of the administration as Deputy President). His anti-establishment populism (dubbed the “Hustler Movement”) mobilized countless unemployed or underemployed young voters and made them feel like the government owed them a working economy. These “hustlers’’ believed that their material fortunes would change under Ruto, and became invested in public policy — as witnessed by the unprecedented levels of public interest in minutiae of economic policymaking over the last two years.


Candidate Ruto’s 2022 populist mobilization essentially destroyed the social bases of political power in parts of the country where he won by undercutting establishment political figures in favor of loyal and dependent newcomers. While this was most vividly evident in the wider Mt. Kenya region, it was also true in other parts of the country where the UDA wave proved unstoppable. Instead of working with the usual established ethnic kingpins, Ruto largely operated through ambitious young political entrepreneurs, religious leaders, and direct populist appeals to voters.

The shift in style of political mobilization, increased salience of economic policy, and sky-high public expectations demanded a different politics of governing. Yet once in power Ruto quickly moved to demobilize the very wave that got him into power and surrounded himself with a larger-than-usual share of individuals intent on plundering public resources and less interested in competent service delivery. Perhaps he may have gotten away with this during good economic times. But in 2022 the Kenyan economy was teetering on the edge. Ruto inherited a mess of an economy following a decade of mismanagement under Kenyatta. The debt binge under Kenyatta and ballooning deficits demanded fiscal consolidation. A sovereign default wasn’t entirely off the cards given upcoming lumpy payments. The shilling was under pressure, a fact that increased inflationary pressures. The country was just recovering from a drought that had depressed agricultural output and pushed up food prices. Jobs were increasingly scarce. And real incomes had stagnated for the better part of a decade.

The manner of Ruto’s victory and personnel choices limited his ability to adequately address these myriad challenges. In Parliament, his populist wave yielded a majority of political lightweights who, despite occupying important leadership positions, are more interested in singing his praises than voicing their constituents’ grievances. Within the executive, individuals with neither experience nor expertise in public administration landed critical jobs. Furthermore, an air of vindictiveness towards the establishment that had rejected him in 2022 foreclosed on the possibility of seeking constructive feedback or support on important policy questions. The administration more or less declared war on institutions and firms that opposed his candidacy, including the media.

All this meant that the administration was primed to dismiss initial murmurs against the 2024 Finance Bill as middle class re-litigation of the 2022 presidential election. The hope was that online anger would not translate into offline political action and that any organized opposition would be negotiated with and bought off — just like happened last year when faced with anti-tax and cost-of-living protests.

Except this time was different. There were no ethnic kingpins to negotiate with or ethnic groups to scapegoat — the Gen Z protest movement branded itself as “leaderless” and “tribeless.” Public interest in the bill made it impossible for the administration to spin the tax measures as principally targeted at the “spoilt” middle class (everyone eats bread, it turns out). There were few social means of managing public anger left. Churches had become discredited as willing recipients of looted public resources in fundraisers. Ruto’s arriviste coalition members were more interested (more than typical establishment figures, I’d argue) in plundering public resources than doing grassroots political mobilization in support of his janus-faced fiscal consolidation efforts (more on this in the next post). If anything, their TikTok videos flaunting proceeds of graft fueled public anger at the administration.


It is astonishing how little the administration invested in selling the 2024 Finance Bill to the public. Legitimate critiques were dismissed as anti-Ruto delusions of the middle class. The government lacked any credible evidence of improvements in public services to justify further increases in taxes. The Treasury’s Principal Secretary and the National Assembly’s Finance Committee chair showed up for media availability unprepared and could not provide any coherent rationale for the proposed tax increases. All this fueled public perception that the Finance Bill was written in Washington by the IMF (International Monetary Fund) as part of Kenya’s fiscal consolidation program — further eroding already threadbare government legitimacy.

All this to say that Ruto should have known better. Most reasonable commentators would agree that in 2022 his campaign elevated public discourse over policy in Kenya to a higher plane. He commendably diminished the role of ethnicity in elections. In promising to equalize the economic playing field he spoke to millions of Kenyans who had been disenfranchised by Kenyatta’s cronyism. Unfortunately for Kenyans, it appears that all he sought to do was destroy the old system but lacked any plans to build something new. And now he is reaping the rewards of that oversight.

II: A snowballing crisis of legitimacy

After two weeks of protests, on July 2, 2024 President William Ruto’s administration finally showed its hand on how it intends to end the anti-tax protests. Police brutality, abductions, and a mounting death toll did not work in persuading protesters to stay home. The threat to deploy the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) was instead met with relief. Unlike the politicized and indisciplined police, the KDF is a professional force beloved by Kenyans. On July 2, 2024 the administration deployed a new tactic: letting hooligans who had opportunistically joined the protests loot shops and destroy private property while police watched. Administration officials and their amplifiers then gleefully shared images of the emerging chaos to discredit protesters, followed by official statements in the same vein.

It is a cynical approach that might just work. Businesses that already have been losing money on protest days are loathe to lose their inventory to looters. The chaotic images from the protests might also scare enough people to call for restoration of order, even if it means little to no further reforms from the administration.

But it also comes at enormous risk. First, it is unclear how protesters will react. They might create their own anti-looters protection squads. The last thing the country needs are running battles among civilians in the streets during protests (there are credible reports that politicians allied to the administration are sponsoring some of the looting to discredit protesters). Second, police inaction has been met by organized civilian protection squads in parts of Nairobi and elsewhere. Should the protests persist, these entities will likely acquire a life of their own and pose future challenges to state power and authority. Finally, the cynicism of an administration unleashing violence on its own people will only further erode government legitimacy.

In my view, the question of legitimacy is core to the Ruto administration’s current political problems. It is fair to say that he entered office with a significant deficit of legitimacy. He was party to Kenyatta’s economic mismanagement, having personally been implicated in several scandals as Deputy President. Before that he had been indicted by the ICC for allegedly mobilizing murderous ethnic militias during the 2007-08 post-election violence (the case collapsed, in no small part, because witnesses kept disappearing or turning up dead). And even before that he had a raft of corruption scandals to his name and a reputation for political shadiness going back to the 1990s.


To be fair, Ruto is not an atypical Kenyan politician. Neither is he a 21st century reincarnation of Daniel arap Moi, as his detractors like to say. For example, Kenyatta, too, was an ICC indictee for the same alleged crimes and has loads of corruption scandals to his name. The difference is that, as an outsider, he dared challenge the establishment and win. For that reason, he faces a higher level of scrutiny than would be the case were he from a different background. To be blunt, he will always face more flack for the same things that happened under Kenyatta — extra-judicial killings, grand corruption, police brutality, deteriorating public services, negative political ethnicity, etc.

In light of this reality, Ruto’s biggest weakness so far has been to react defensively and vindictively to his legitimacy deficit. His biggest selling point during the campaigns was that he is a competent teetotaler who would work 18 hour days for Kenyans (in contrast to the inebriated Kenyatta). Yet after 22 months in office his administration has been far from competent — besides avoiding default (which is a big deal) there is not a single major policy win he can point to. Rather than composing a competent Cabinet to whom he could delegate duties, he appointed incompetent loyalists in the hopes of being able to micromanage everything from State House. Instead of making peace with the establishment (as is common in Kenyan politics), he has continued to pursue a vindictive policy of undercutting their businesses in favor of his preferred newcomers. Both of these approaches have led to a deterioration in the quality of public services and stifled broad-based economic recovery.

They have also focused all blame and attention on the personal of the president. By micromanaging everything (or giving that impression), he has made it nearly impossible to share blame with his incompetent Cabinet Secretaries. It will take deliberate action for the president to exit this self-reinforcing cycle of insecurity.

Consider the current moment. The specific failures of his administration that are fueling the protests are abundantly clear. Yet his administration prefers to chase shadows and come up with risky clever-by-half schemes to suppress or discredit protesters. Here, Nanjala Nyabola is precisely right:

You are […] witnessing an insecure administration responding to a legitimate political challenge with disproportionate force. The president should have deescalated after the violence of the 27 June protests – instead he doubled down, calling protesters treasonous and deploying the military. Soldiers are not police officers. They are not trained to operate in civilian contexts and the choice only makes Ruto appear weaker – a president unable to govern using the civilian architecture and who must now rely on force.

The many policy failures and scandals over the last 22 months have reinforced the idea that Ruto is a different breed of leader and led to a snowballing loss of legitimacy. As was painfully clear in a recent TV interview, he has built a solid reputation as a deeply cynical operator that cannot be trusted. His tone deaf response to the protests (including an inexplicable inability to show empathy to grieving families of killed protesters) reinforced narratives that he is not bothered by the economic pain currently being felt by Kenyans and that he cares little about human life.


To reiterate, Ruto is not an atypical Kenyan politician. I believe that attempts to paint him as an aberration often miss the fact, lacking easy name recognition and a wealthy family to lean on, he had to be a lot more openly transactional during his rise as a national figure. The main problem for Ruto is that most of his defensive and vindictive actions so far (borne of insecurity, no doubt) have simply reinforced what many people wanted to believe about him.

For the sake of Kenyans, it would be ideal if he got over the insecurities that haunt him and prioritized competent service delivery and economic management. He ought to remember that competence was the currency that put him into office.

III: Conclusion

If he is to succeed at fixing Kenya’s fiscal problems and presiding over broad-based economic growth and development, Ruto must first fix his legitimacy problem. He must instill competence in the administration. Critical ministries (e.g., agriculture, education, health, trade and industry, infrastructure, finance) must be staffed by competent people who can deliver quick wins. He must make it abundantly clear that the sacrifices he is asking of Kenyans are worth it and shared across the board (including by politicians). Doing so would go a long way in reducing the cost of policy enforcement and buying the administration goodwill as it pushes through unpopular reforms. Understandably, he will not win over everyone in the editorial rooms or on Twitter. There are people who will never get over his past. But to succeed he must grow out of his apparent deep insecurity.

It is also fair to say that obstinacy and giving in to a siege mentality would be catastrophic for Kenya. From the administration’s perspective, the choices at this juncture are clear: cynically suppress and defuse the protests with Potemkin reforms and move on, or tangibly commit to competent service delivery and accountability. Given the quality of human capital around the president, I would not be surprised if he chose the former route. But that would be a mistake. Further erosion of government legitimacy so generated would only accelerate exit from politics and the formal economy.

Under the circumstances, Kenyans of goodwill would be correct to ask themselves: if not even the invasion of Parliament can make the president and his coalition members listen to their grievances, what can?


Without shoring up his personal legitimacy as well as that of the government, Ruto will struggle to get anything done for the rest of his term. Plummeting tax morale will upend his plans to achieve fiscal consolidation via better tax enforcement and make it virtually impossible to implement much-needed development plans. Increasing reliance on feckless praise-singers and bad actors both inside Parliament and in the Public Service will only worsen the quality of legislation, public policy, and service delivery — thereby forcing even more Kenyans to exit politics and the formal economy.

This article originally appeared on An Africanist Perspective and it is republished here with the permission of the writer. No changes were made to the original article.

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