Mass protests in Kenya win concessions after government shoots down protesters

At least 39 people have been shot dead in a wave of mass protests in Kenya, forcing the Western-backed government of President William Ruto to scrap its planned Finance Bill 2024.

The bill would have increased taxes on daily items for Kenyan workers and young people who are already battling a serious cost of living crisis. With the bill defeated, protesters are now taking aim at the corrupt government; back in the streets with a new slogan: Ruto Must Go.

The protests began on 18 June as thousands of mainly young workers and urban poor took to the streets in the capital, Nairobi, and other cities across Kenya. The protests escalated significantly after parliament gave its final approval to the bill. Hundreds of thousands mobilised across the country. Protesters in Nairobi stormed parliament and set part of it on fire.

In response, Ruto unleashed the full force of the state on the protesters. By early July, 270 had been arrested, 361 injured and at least 39 killed, the youngest just 12 years old. Some protesters are still missing after Kenyan security forces abducted around 35 people from their homes who were suspected of leading the protests.

Ruto’s brutal repression has only deepened the crisis for his government as protesters continued to brave tear gas, water cannons and the threat of death to take to the streets demanding his resignation and justice for those killed.

One protester told Reuters, “People are dying in the streets and the only thing he can talk about is money. We are not money. We are people … if he can’t care about his people then we don’t need him in that chair.”


The bill would have placed heavy taxes on basic commodities, including a 16 per cent tax on bread and an “Eco Levy” that would have increased the price of items that produce waste such as nappies or mobile phones. Recent reports suggest that nine out of ten Kenyans are earning the same or less than they were making at the start of the pandemic, as prices have continued to rise.

Despite the severe economic crisis facing Kenyan workers, last year the government spent more money paying off its debt than all other measures in the budget combined. Kenya is wracked by $82 billion of debt. Rather than cancelling the debt or cutting MPs’ and public service executive salaries, Kenya’s rulers want to push through cuts or new taxes that make workers pay.

In this, they are backed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Around the world, the IMF has offered loans to states facing debt crises. But IMF loans always come with punitive conditions attached that shift the burden of the crisis onto ordinary people.

In Ruto’s Kenya, this has meant the suspension of subsidies on fuel and fertiliser, the Finance Bill 2023, which saw taxes increased on homes and fuel, and now the failed Finance Bill 2024.

Ruto’s government has been rocked by protests against IMF-backed reforms since he came to power in 2022 but this uprising is proving to be the most significant challenge to his government yet.

Western backers

Ruto promised a government run in the interests of “hustlers”—ordinary Kenyan workers—instead of the “dynasties” in the wealthy political elite that have run the country for decades. But, like other Kenyan rulers before him, he has continued to govern only in the interests of the Kenyan ruling class and his backers in the West.

Ruto’s relationship with the Western powers goes beyond just his willingness to roll out IMF reforms. He is a close ally of Joe Biden and US imperialism as the only major non-NATO ally in sub-Saharan Africa.

His government has consistently backed the continued bloodshed in Ukraine, participated in the US-led Operation Prosperity Guardian in response to Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, and has sent 1000 police to crisis-wracked Haiti as part of a US-backed intervention to restore power to their preferred president, Ariel Henry.

Importantly, having a relatively stable, allied government in Africa is seen by the US as a way to counter Chinese and Russian influence. US troops were forced to withdraw from Niger and Chad earlier this year after their respective militaries came to power and began moving away from the US and towards Russia.

The protests have stopped the finance bill and seriously shaken Ruto’s government. But to topple Ruto and bring more fundamental change, the protest movement will need more coordination and focus more decisively on strikes and the power of the organised working class.

By Angus Dermody


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