Protests and clashes between demonstrators and security forces have gripped Kenya for the past two weeks, disrupting economic life, raising alarm in civil society, and prompting questions about the sanguine narrative that many used to characterize last year’s elections. The protests have been led by longtime political opposition leader Raila Odinga, who claims that substantial irregularities marred last August’s polling in which he was bested by President William Ruto. On April 2, Odinga complied with Ruto’s request to suspend protest activity, but clearly expects some concessions from government to result.
Odinga may wish to press his election grievances and force Ruto’s coalition—which has been successfully persuading opposition figures to join their coalition with a mixture of incentives and pressure—to negotiate with him; but what is happening in Kenya is not exclusively about the elections, nor Odinga. It appears that what initially brought many to the streets in Kenya is mounting frustration with the high cost of living, as food and transport costs have been rising while employment prospects and quality of life have not. Ruto’s campaign promised Kenya’s “hustlers” that they would enjoy more economic opportunity under his leadership, but delivering on that promise has proved difficult. Many Kenyans declined to participate in the last election at all—but that does not mean they are apathetic about their living conditions or their futures. Dissatisfaction and a sense that elites cater to their own interests rather than those of the public create fertile ground for political leaders to stir up unrest. Although, whether those same leaders can effectively harness popular frustration going forward remains to be seen. Just because young people can be instrumentalized does not mean that they can always be controlled.
The state’s heavy-handed response to the protests is likely to further weaken trust in the police, who are already viewed by a majority of Kenyans with skepticism. The Kenyan Human Rights Commission has called for an investigation into excessive use of force in response to the demonstrations. Along with the looted and burned businesses, churches, and mosques, properties belonging to both Odinga and the former President-turned-Odinga-ally Uhuru Kenyatta have been attacked, as has a political party office associated with Ruto’s coalition. Journalists have also been assaulted by security forces.
Many observers reacted to the last Kenyan elections with relief, grateful that the complex exercise unfolded peacefully and that disputes were taken up by the courts, not litigated in the streets. All this was certainly positive, but it was also only part of the story. Violence in service of political ends, selective enforcement of the law, and a profound disconnect between the governing and governed continue to be a part of Kenya’s reality. For the United States, Kenya’s success and leadership in a volatile region is extremely important. While championing all the real and promising innovation happening in the Kenyan private sector, it is important that the United States maintain clear-eyed perspective on the whole picture. The latest unrest is a reminder that the country’s peace cannot be taken for granted, that counting on Kenya requires far more progress on job creation, and that Kenya’s human rights defenders, independent journalists, and champions of the rule of law deserve sustained U.S. support.