Raila, Malema take supporters to streets, protest high cost of living

Monday March 27 2023
Julius Malema (left) and Kenya’s Raila Odinga

South Africa’s Julius Malema (left) and Kenya’s Raila Odinga. On March 20, 2023 they were at the centre of protests that went on concurrently in their respective countries. PHOTOS | EMMANUEL CROSET YASUYOSHI CHIBA | AFP


Kenya’s Raila Odinga and South Africa’s Julius Malema, born in different backgrounds and at different times, are not political allies, but last week were at the centre of protests that went on concurrently in their respective countries.

They rode on popular frustrations of the poor in their respective countries, unsettling authorities with massive street demonstrations. In the end, at least 325 people had been arrested in both countries.

In Kenya, Inspector-General Japhet Koome said 238 people had been arrested for looting, attacking the police or participating in illegal protests in Nairobi and Kisumu. South African National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure (NatJOINTS) said 87 people mainly in the Gauteng metropolis had been arrested, even though the protests there had been largely peaceful.

People run for cover after police threw tear gas

People run for cover after police threw tear gas at protestors in Nairobi, Kenya on January 20, 2023. Opposition leader Raila Odinga had called the protests to pressure the government to deal with the rising cost of living. PHOTO | WILFRED NYANGARESI | NMG

‘Criminal’ elements

In both Kenya and South Africa, police blamed “criminal” elements among protesters but also assured the public of continued vigilance. Mr Odinga has since declared continual protests every Monday and Thursday, “in response to public demand.”


“It is of utmost importance that we rein in the runaway high cost of living for the benefit of ordinary citizens of our nation. This issue motivates us and keeps us going,” Mr Odinga said this week.

The two countries weren’t the only ones registering protests. Tunisia, Nigerians and Senegalese had had running battles with the police too, with groups generally protesting the high cost of living, alleged electoral theft, overreaching government and joblessness. In nearly all cases, police responded with brutality, teargassing or arresting participants.

Police officers block protestors in Kibera, Nairobi

Police officers block protestors in Kibera, Nairobi on March 20, 2023 during demonstrations called by Kenya’s opposition leader Raila Odinga. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NMG

Demos on one day

How did the demos fall on one day? George Kegoro, executive director of the Open Society Foundations Initiative East Africa thinks the protesters, facing similar economic conditions, have been rallied by opposition movements in contact with one another in some way.

“These countries have an impact on the neighbouring regions and the fact that they took place on the same day, whether we deny it or not, there is an element of co-ordination between actors responsible for organising those demonstrations,” he told The EastAfrican on Wednesday.

“This seems to be the beginning of an era, possibly, where opposition forces are going to be involved in greater coordination. The drivers of grievances that are fuelling these protests are economic in nature, and are seeing people rising up to say we are poor, we have always been poor and for the first time people are saying being poor is a problem and that we don’t accept that being poor is a natural condition, and that the government or those in authority have to do something.

Police on horseback patrol a street in Nairobi

Police on horseback patrol a street in Nairobi on March 20, 2023 as protestors lit bonfires during protests called by Azimio la Umoja leader Raila Odinga. PHOTO | WILFRED NYANGARESI | NATION


The protests happened as experts converged at a workshop organised by the UN Economic Commission for Africa. They agreed that persistent poverty and inequality are likely to undermine prosperity, peace and security in Africa unless governments embark on innovative and people-centred development models. Some of those insecurities will manifest in street protests.

“It is becoming increasingly unlikely that African States will achieve many of the targets set out in the Sustainable Development Goals by the 2030 deadline,” said Hanan Morsy, Deputy Executive Secretary and Chief Economist, Economic Commission for Africa (ECA). She spoke generally of Africa’s situation, without reference to specific political situations, but she did suggest countries are carrying the can for global crises.

“Global shocks have wiped out more than two decades of progress the continent had made on poverty reduction. We need sustainable interventions,” she said at the 55th Conference of African Ministers of Finance, Planning and Economic Development (COM 2023) to discuss actions to help member states lessen their economic and social vulnerabilities and inequalities.

As such, experts think African governments have faced pressure to deal with rising poverty, making it difficult to fulfill pre-election promises. Idyat Hassan, Director for the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), a governance watchdog in Nigeria, says the protests were a good sign of “people power” where frustrated youth take to the streets to demand services.

A woman holding a cooking pot during protest

A woman holding a cooking pot during opposition protests in Nairobi on March 20, 2023. PHOTO | WILFRED NYANGARESI | NMG

Arab Spring

“We have seen this in Tunisia, since the Arab Spring, and in Burkina, Mali, and even Nigeria where the President lamented the people wanted to remove him from power,” she told The EastAfrican on Tuesday.

“These protests, in some way, reflect the renewed citizenship participation,” she said. In Kenya, Mr Odinga initially began by demanding reforms at the electoral body, IEBC, which he argued had stolen his vote.

His Azimio One Kenya Alliance coalition had, however, failed to prove the theft before the Supreme Court, which dismissed his petition and approved the election of Dr William Ruto as new President.

Azimio protests

Police use tear gas to disperse protesters in Nairobi CBD on March 20, 2023. PHOTO | SILA KIPLAGAT | NMG

Changed tack

Mr Odinga has since changed tack to attack the government’s failure to address rising cost of living, something which masses now support. In South Africa, Mr Malema demanded resignation of President Cyril Ramaphosa for failing to address poverty among majority blacks. In Tunisia, people are protesting the cost of living and changes to the legal structures of the country which saw President Kais Saied fire judges and dissolve parliament.

The street demos, however, do not always go as planned. In Sudan in 2019, Omar al-Bashir was ousted following months of protests, but it is the military which took over, worsening the situation.

“In Mali, people pushed for better governance and elections. It gave room for the military to seize power, that is on one hand. On the other hand, is that even where it has led to democratic elections, the kind of governance that Africans desire have continued to elude them,” Ms Hassan told The EastAfrican, referring to coups in the West African country. It has been unable to establish a civilian-led government.

“It is one thing to have elected officials but it is another altogether for these leaders to deliver the democratic dividends. This is what is missing, and this is why we continue to see more and more protests. We have to find a middle ground where democratic elections lead to good leaders and with citizens holding them to account.”

With an equally frustrated police force, however, finding that middle ground can be tricky. Instead, Hassan said this can likely see a radicalised public against the government, creating a vicious cycle, until at least countries build stronger institutions that delivers goods and services to the people.


Members of the the Economic Freedom Fighters gather at Church Square in Pretoria, South Africa on March 20, 2023 during a "national shut-down" called by their party to bring the country to a halt. PHOTO | AFP

Protestors freed

Last week, those arrested in Nairobi and South Africa were mostly freed a day later after appearing in court. Kegoro says the idea of clampdown is to intimidate protesters, without addressing the causes. “What that means is the arrests and use of force to those demonstrations is a spurious response,” he said.

“What is needed is a relook at what the constitutions mean when talking about rights and how they can protect people in times of social, political and economic anxieties and to make demands that will make the government address the demands of the people.”