Kenya’s President William Ruto has had a bad week after a court declared his appointment of 50 chief administrative secretaries (CASs) unconstitutional, another court extended a freeze on the enforcement of new taxes and the opposition joined forces with civil society groups to foment a new round of civil disobedience in the country.
On Friday, protesters took to the streets in Nairobi, Mombasa and a number of other upcountry towns to voice their grievances about punitive taxes and the high cost of living, putting the pressure on the government to prevent an escalation into widespread social unrest.
Opposition leader Raila Odinga — who called for the protests to coincide with the July 7 Saba Saba Day informally marked to celebrate the efforts of the 1990s pro-democracy movements against one-party rule — has warned of a sustained civil disobedience to force a review of the taxes and lowering of the cost of living.
Unlike the mass protests between March and May that caused economic shutdowns in Nairobi and a few towns in western Kenya, the Saba Saba demonstrations were wider in scope, with the port city of Mombasa among those hit by unrest.
And the government lawyers have moved to appeal the two High Court decisions, with the one suspending the implementation of the new Finance Act considered particularly urgent because it has the effect of blocking billions of shillings in tax collections a day and shaking up the administration’s spending plans.
The petition challenging the legality of the Act on grounds the initial Bill was not exhaustively processed through the proper legislative system, including the Senate, and that some clauses were irregularly sneaked in is set to come up for hearing again on July 10.
But even if the judges grant the government its wish in both cases, the temporary legal setback would still be a cause of concern for President Ruto who would be loath to see the courts emerge as the new checkpoint for his administration’s decisions.
Citizen litigation was a thorn in the flesh for the administration of his predecessor Uhuru Kenyatta, with the courts most famously blocking the push to change the Constitution at a referendum through the government-backed Building Bridges Initiative reform proposals.
Kenyatta’s relationship with the Judiciary particularly got sour during his second term in office following the landmark Supreme Court that nullified his re-election victory and ordered a repeat election in 2017.
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His critics accused him of retaliating by squeezing the Judiciary budget and stalling and cherry-picking on the appointment 41 judges nominated by the Judicial Service Commission.
President Ruto was seen to be keen to mend fences, having moved to appoint the six judges overlooked by Kenyatta on his first day in office and instructing the exchequer to give the Judiciary more funds. The opposition alleged, without giving any evidence, that the president’s decisions were part of a scheme to capture the public accountability institutions after defections handed him control of Parliament.
He has yet to publicly comment on the court rulings on the CAS appointments and the Finance Act -- the latest major legal setbacks for his barely 10-month-old administration after a court in November last year suspended the government’s plan to import genetically modified organisms (GMO) products.
But politicians affiliated to his ruling Kenya Kwanza coalition and social media bots linked to government propaganda machinery have attacked the courts for allegedly acting against public interest and being used to undermine the President.