Kenya’s Protests: Opposition Grandstanding or Popular Uprising?

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With the cost of living rising and President Ruto’s government hiking taxes, cracks are beginning to emerge—or deepen—in Kenya’s democracy. While international analysts celebrated Kenya’s mostly peaceful presidential elections in 2022 and newly elected President Ruto’s commitment to “economic orthodoxy,” Kenyans feel increasingly pessimistic about their standard of living and the ability of their government to improve it. Polling firm Tifa, for example, found this month that 56% of Kenyans think their country is headed in the wrong direction. Kenya’s recent unrest is perhaps the best embodiment of this feeling, as thousands have taken to the streets in recent weeks in protests organised by Azimio, Kenya’s main opposition grouping, led by presidential runner-up Raila Odinga. Hundreds have been arrested and at least 31 have been killed, as Kenya’s police and security forces responded in typically heavy-handed fashion.

What do these protests say about Kenya’s democracy? Some outlets, like the New York Times, label Kenya’s demonstrations as “anti-government” and “opposition” protests. Indeed, Kenyan analyst Patrick Gathara argues that the protests are a result of “Ruto … coming up against the limits of his power.” However, I argue that the protests are – at least in part – about more than discontent with one administration, instead representing the deep disconnect between Kenyan citizens and their political elites, and the growing “deficit” in the ability of its political institutions to respond to the economic needs of the people.

Kenyans are not just upset about President Ruto’s tax hikes, or Odinga’s claims of political marginalization, but about the system that enables powerful elites like Ruto and Odinga to direct the state’s resources toward their own interests while ignoring the “hustlers” that continue to struggle. In this sense, the protests perfectly embody one of the core tensions at the heart of Kenyan politics, as Odinga seeks to direct and exploit popular discontent to leverage his own personal political ambitions, placing his own interests above that of “the street.” This is one reason that protests have extended beyond the “usual suspects” to other parts of the country. Following hot on the heels of similar popular movements in Malawi and Zambia, events in Kenya are a powerful reminder of the need to evaluate democracy from the bottom-up as well as the top-down.  

What Kenya’s Protests Mean

Kenya’s protests indicate that what their citizens want is not simply elections and freedoms, but a government responsive to their basic needs through prudent economic management and the distribution of public services. As many scholars have noted: “democracy must deliver” for it to be consolidated as “you can’t eat democracy.” With cost of living increasing at the same time as taxes in Kenya, this social contract is under pressure, with citizens unhappy with their political system, however “democratic” their formal institutions.

Speaking with people across Kenya’s coast in recent days, I heard a variety of views on the recent protests. Many Kenyans I spoke to sympathized with the cause of the protests, as they bemoaned the rising cost of living, particularly the increase in food and fuel prices. They felt betrayed by President Ruto, who said he was for “hustlers” but instead has raised taxes that will impact on all Kenyans. Many are upset about the disruption the protests cause to their daily lives, including school and business closures. I spoke to shop owners and TukTuk drivers who complained alike about not being able to work or business being slow during protest days. Indeed, polling data has found that two-in-three Kenyans oppose the protests, and so it is important to be careful presenting this as a “popular” movement. Others I spoke to felt the cost was worth it to raise awareness to the plight of ordinary Kenyans to the government. “Sometimes it is necessary to cause disruption to show how bad it has gotten and how desperate we are,” a resident in rural Kilifi told me.

“Indeed, polling data has found that two-in-three Kenyans oppose the protests.”

No matter which “side” they were on, however, all the Kenyans I spoke to expressed an “exhaustion” with their political system. “There is so much violence because people feel they have nothing left to lose,” a small business owner in Mombasa told me. Most protestors, according to those I engaged with, are not political activists, but simply desperate individuals taking the opportunity to “cry for help,” which is one reason that protests have at times tipped over into looting and violence. It is not a coincidence that the worst of the unrest has occurred in poor informal settlements like Kibera, rather than on opposition friendly university campuses.

This motivation suggests that reading the protests as purely an opposition-led phenomenon would be a mistake. Most protestors are not hoping for a newly empowered Odinga – and some are openly critical of his leadership – but rather for the state to do a better job of providing for their basic economic needs like food, fuel, and housing. Indeed, many Kenyans feel that legitimate grievances have been hijacked by leaders like Odinga who are more interested in their own interests than that of ordinary Kenyans. “We don’t see any man who can stand up for us. We only see Raila,” complained an urban transport worker in Mombasa. “When that man defends us, he always wants something. When the president offers him power, the two of them will return to being brothers, but he will soon forget about us struggling.”

Indeed, the New York Times recently reported that Odinga’s private demands, in contrast to his public posturing about the cost-of-living, “focus more narrowly on political self-interest … including a top posting at the African Union.” For this reason, the Kenyans I spoke to noted the large gap between their democratically-elected leaders and their constituents. Many complained of politics as an “elite game” where power shifts between individuals whose only interest is in staying in power and reaping the personal benefits. Raila Odinga, for example, is the son of independence leader Oginga Odinga and has run in the last five elections, with his coalition identity shifting with the political currents. He is hardly a product of the street.

The government has reinforced these perceptions in its heavy-handed response to the protests and criticism of the protestors. Instead of addressing their demands, Ruto has argued “protests will no longer take place in our nation of Kenya,” while condemning protestors for “sabotaging the economy.” In this government position, the protests are framed as the result of a power-hungry opposition, a deliberate attempt to obscure the underlying causes of economic distress and poor service provision that have enabled their success. “These protestors are just lazy,” a senior security-sector official told me. “They don’t want to work to provide for themselves, so instead they are spending all day complaining in the streets. They should just go to work.”

A Mismatched View of Democracy

In this sense, Kenya’s protests highlight the gap between formal and substantive democracy. As defined by István Meszaros, a substantive democracy is one that is representative and inclusive of its people. Moving away from a Western rights-based framework, substantive democracies are not only strong in their electoral and legal institutions but also the results they deliver for their people in terms of political participation and economic and social rights. In Kenya, the protests echo this yearning for a government that is more responsive to people’s interests, but also a desire for reduced corruption and infighting and stronger economic management. Kenyans do not just want to live in a more “democratic” state but also a stronger one, a more prosperous one, and one that is better able to provide services for the public. 

This serves as an important reminder that we need to think about – and measure – democracy from the bottom up as well as the top down. At present, the main democracy indices largely overlook the significance of substantive democracy. Only 8% of Freedom House ratings are determined by economic rights, with the rest concerned primarily with political freedoms and other civil liberties. However, as Professor Ken Opalo notes, “Surveys show that voters’ assessment of political institutions and processes is closely tied to perceived impacts on material outcomes.” In the case of Kenya, Opalo’s research demonstrates that Kenyans’ voter preferences favor relationships of “clientelism” whereby voters reward politicians that provide “direct constituency service” over “institutional efforts” like legislation. 

Freedom House, in its 2023 ratings, considers Kenya as “partly free” with a score of 52. While still lacking, Kenya’s score is among the ten highest in sub-Saharan Africa. Kenya regularly holds elections and its most recent results, although disputed by the opposition, were upheld peacefully by an independent electoral commission and Kenya’s Supreme Court. By Freedom House’s measure, Kenya’s democracy is improving, with its rating ticking up four points from one administration to the next. In a joint statement by western governments in 2022, they hailed Kenya’s demonstration of “a strong will and commitment to have free, fair, and credible elections,” noting that “Kenya’s has made huge democratic progress.”

This picture heavily contrasts with the view many Kenyans have of their own political system. While many recognise devolution and the creation of the Supreme Court as real steps forward, in the latest Afrobarometer surveys (2021-2022), only 10% of Kenyans said that their country was a “full democracy”. There are many reasons for this low rating, including that Kenyans enjoy freedom of speech and good access to diverse media sources, and have become increasingly demanding of their political system and politicians. But it is also rooted in the fact that satisfaction with democracy is strongly related to perceptions of the government’s performance, not just the quality of democratic systems. As Opalo writes, “The failure of electoral politics to produce tangible improvements in living standards risks pushing voters … to consider alternative forms of government.”  Indeed, Kolnn and Aarts (2021) find empirically that satisfaction with democracy is strongly related to economic factors. The very strengths of democracy—including opposition parties and free media—magnifies this risk by highlighting areas the government has failed.

Kenya’s protests should serve as a wake up call for Kenyan political leaders, democracy scholars, and Western countries seeking to strengthen democracy abroad. Protecting democracy and maintaining political stability is as much about delivering what citizens want as it is about building strong and independent institutions. Remedying the gap between expectations and reality in Kenya requires helping democracies deliver on improving the quality of public services, strengthening the rule of law, reducing corruption, and investing in inclusive economic development. It means recognizing that elections are not a substitute for the work of improving state capacity, which must go hand-in-hand for democracy to succeed. It means viewing democracy from the bottom-up instead of the top-down—not just mediating the spats between leaders like Ruto and Odinga, but listening to the demands that emerge on the street. 

Benjamin Oestericher is a student at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service studying African Regional Studies and International Development. He has previously interned with Mercy Corps, the US Department of State’s Bureau of African Affairs, and the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Africa Program. 


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