Democratic Socialist Movement

For Struggle, Solidarity and Socialism in Nigeria

By - DSM

IMF Austerity | Mass Protests Force Kenyan Government to Retreat 

Mass protests in Kenya have forced the government to withdraw unpopular tax increases. These amounted to a massive attack on the living standards of the middle class, the working class, the poor and young people. On Tuesday, 26 June, a mass protest forced its way into parliament, setting it alight, and preventing the finance bill from being passed. Politicians had to flee through tunnels to escape the anger of the masses. This was just the latest in a series of attacks by President Ruto, now nicknamed the ‘tax collector’, and his government, who previously removed fuel subsidies and levied new taxes. 

By Deji Olayinka, Socialist Party (CWI in England & Wales) & Sean Figg, Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI)

Huge protests in the previous week prevented the finance bill from being passed early and forced the government into a partial retreat. Ministers promised to cancel, for example, the planned tax increases on local nappies, cooking oil and bread. This partial victory showed the potential to win more, emboldening protestors to continue with ‘7 Days of Rage’, and go further at the acts next reading, this time entering parliament itself. The protestors estimated correctly – Ruto has been forced into a humiliating climbdown. On 26 June he denounced the protests as “treasonous”. Barely twelve hours later he shelved the finance bill in the face of the overwhelming popular opposition and mass mobilisation. 

The protests are being driven by youth in the towns and cities. Protests were reported in all forty-seven of Kenya’s counties on 26 June. Social media calls, using Tik Tok in particular, have been used to initiate protests, including the 26 June #OccupyParliament march. These calls received a ‘spontaneous’ mass response reflecting the depth of anger and opposition to the government. Journalists on the ground report how protests have completely bypassed the existing political parties and there is no identifiable leadership. Some commentators drew parallels both with the rapid growth and the bloody repression of the 2020 #EndSARS protest in Nigeria. 

As has been seen before the state has unleashed severe violence against these protests. Public critics have been abducted from their homes. The police and even the army have been called in and protestors have faced tear gas, water cannons and indiscriminate shooting resulting in several people being killed and countless more being seriously injured. Already last year over 100 people were killed by the police. Previously, Ruto himself was charged at the International Criminal Court over his involvement in the death of over 1,200 people after the 2007 general election, charges which were dropped after witnesses changed their statements (New York Times, 10 September 2022). Now, in the course of the 26 June mass protests the death toll has reached twenty-three and 300 have been injured.

This repression further enraged protestors and appears to have provoked some questioning within the state forces of their role. One video shows a policeman quitting after finding out that his brother had been killed during the protests. This shows that while the state may order the police and army to act against the protests, these officers are not separate from their communities. Sections can split away and play a role in supporting the movement. The army has now been deployed to ‘reinforce’ the police. 

The movement must continue to be built through organising in local communities and workplaces. The development of youth-led ‘spontaneous’ protests continues to be a feature in the neo-colonial world in this era of capitalist crisis – in Chile in 2019 and Sri Lanka in 2021, the latter forcing the president to resign and flee the country. The scenes of Kenyan youth audaciously storming the parliament building were reminiscent of the scenes of Sri Lankan youth brazenly occupying the Sri Lankan president’s residence. 

The lessons of these other protests need to be urgently studied by Kenyan protestors. The demand that the entire government go had begun to emerge in the Kenyan protests – but what would replace it? In Sri Lanka, the lack of organisation, leadership and a clear program in the mass movement meant that the Sri Lankan ruling class was able to bide its time, regather its forces and move to try to re-secure its position. There a deposed prime minister even came back as president! Ruto, his government, the pro-capitalist MPs and the Kenyan ruling class will now do the same. They will attempt to ride out the storm and reintroduce their attacks on the living standards of the masses under a new cover. Ruto is already laying traps, proposing a ‘dialogue’ with youth on future austerity, and fostering the false idea that we “are all in it together” by saying austerity can begin with cuts in the office of the presidency. Today Reuters news agency summed up Ruto’s plan with the words ‘Dialogue, Austerity are the next steps’.

It is crucial that the movement continues and that it develop strong and democratic organisation. This can begin amongst the youth currently spearheading the movement making the call for the formation of democratic committees in the schools and universities. These should be extended into the wider working class and poor communities and the workplaces to draw in the mighty social power of the working class. That the call for a general strike emerged from the protests shows that there is an understanding of the need to do this amongst some sections of the protesters. This call should be repeated in the days and weeks ahead. It could initially be organised as a one- or two-day shutdown of the country. This would be an important demonstration of the power of the mass movement and have as the aim drawing in and galvanising new layers of society – especially the working class. 

Kenya, like nearly all African countries, has national and tribal divisions. This was shown in the last elections where tribal identity was pushed to the fore in the campaigns. But it seems like this movement has cut across national divisions which is an important development. However, capitalist politicians will try to exploit these divisions, especially as they try to secure their position, hoping that Ruto’s retreat has bought them the space and time to do so. A conscious policy for united struggle across tribal and national divisions needs to be adopted in the protest movement. 

During his election campaign, President Ruto claimed he would have a  “bottom-up” approach and improve the lives of ordinary Kenyans. But since coming to power he has done the bidding of the capitalist class and imperialist powers in hiking taxes to balance Kenya’s budget, guaranteeing debt repayments. These measures are aimed at compliance with an IMF programme that demands the government increases its revenues and cuts spending, both of which hit living standards. Kenya confirms that the question of sovereign debt in the neo-colonial countries can be the trigger for political crises, protests and uprisings. The indebtedness of neo-colonial governments has worsened massively in recent years, especially under the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The Kenyan ruling class has grown in its importance to the Western imperialist powers in recent years. As a regional power, Kenyan armed forces have played a key role in UN operations in Sudan and in recent days Kenyan police have been deployed to Haiti. While coming from a poor background and once being a bit of a populist, Ruto is now tied by a thousand threads to the interests of Kenyan capitalism and world imperialism. Just three days ago, on June 24, US president Biden formally made Kenya a major US ally. 

Ruto has retreated. The idea that “this government must GO!”, now that it has been unleashed, will not easily disappear. The question is then posed of what kind of government can replace Ruto’s, and on the basis of what programme it would govern. On 27 June, some protesters have declared that only Ruto’s resignation will satisfy them. That is a good demand, but then an answer has to be given as to what will replace him? 

Only a government of the working class and poor, armed with a socialist programme that breaks with capitalism and imperialism, can transform the mass anger and opposition to Ruto and his government into a positive programme for the development of Kenya solving the crises of unemployment, wages, living standards etc. The working class, the poor and the youth will need a party to help organise this struggle – this must urgently be introduced into the debates on the way forward for the struggle in Kenya as the movement takes stock of its latest victory and looks to what it will be possible for mass action to achieve in the future. 

  • Don’t pay the debt! IMF out of Kenya! Nationalise the Kenyan banks and financial system under democratic workers’ control. 
  • No to austerity in any form – no tax increases and no wage or spending cuts! Organise mass struggle against each and every policy that attempts this. For price controls on all basic commodities determined democratically by communities. 
  • Continue the protests! Organise linked-up committees of struggle in communities, workplaces, universities and schools to democratically organise and plan the movement’s next steps. 
  • Ruto must go! Against all pro-capitalist, pro-imperialist and pro-IMF political parties, politicians and MPs. Start to build a mass party of the working class armed with a socialist programme to break with capitalism and imperialism. For a government of workers and the poor.