Writing in the New York Times earlier this month, Alex de Waal aptly described the way that governing many African states has become something of a mission impossible, paraphrasing the late Meles Zenawi about how governing Ethiopia was like running in front of an avalanche, and noting that “democracy can’t survive if it can’t deliver results.” De Waal’s piece used the coup in Niger as a hook, but his broader point—that the demands of African populations far outstrip the supply of public policy solutions—holds true in many different contexts.
Take one of the region’s most economically dynamic states, Kenya, for example. In many ways, not least political history, these states are wildly different. Kenya ranks thirty-seven places above Niger on the Human Development Index. Its economy is about $100 billion larger than that of Niger. It is not at risk of a military takeover, but the mismatch between the needs of the population and government capacity to meet those needs is just as challenging in the Kenyan context, and the stakes for the state itself just as dire.
William Ruto emerged triumphant from a bruising campaign in 2022, claiming the Kenyan presidency after polling that saw desultory turnout from young voters fed up with the self-serving practices of Kenyan political elites. He did so by convincing just enough of the population that he not only understood their daily economic struggle, but would deliver concrete help to what he deemed “the hustler nation.”
But in light of the country’s serious debt burden exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and devastating drought, it turned out there was a great deal of need but very little fiscal space for largesse in Kenya. The much-vaunted and undeniably popular “hustler fund,” intended to help improve access to credit for Kenyans at the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid, started off far too small to move the needle for many citizens and faces sustainability challenges. The Ruto administration removed subsidies on fuel and flour to try to rein in government spending, but had to reverse course this month to ease the cost-of-living pressure that helped fuel deadly protests in July. New fuel taxes and a housing levy enacted by government also agitated popular frustration as the government look for ways to raise revenue.
The July protests were so disturbing that they drove the country’s newspapers to issue a joint appeal for calm, warning that the country could “tip into full-scale genocide or civil war.” The protests had a political overlay to be sure; veteran opposition leader Raila Odinga and many of his supporters never fully accepted the legitimacy of Ruto’s victory. But competitive politics will always seize on popular grievances to attack incumbents and call for change.
If grievances cannot be addressed, if substantive change is impossible to deliver, and if public trust in the state has so eroded that citizens see no hope in strategies that cannot bear immediate fruit, the state will always be on a knife’s edge. That context will either lead to a great deal of political volatility, or a tremendous amount of state-sponsored repression as it becomes clear to leaders that meeting popular expectations simply cannot be done. Kenya is far better placed than most states in the region to manage through these dangers, but the choppy waters will not recede anytime soon. Popular protests are on hold pending talks between the government and opposition leaders, but there is no magic formula to ease the economic distress felt so keenly by so many Kenyans.