Kenya’s President William Ruto has found himself between a rock and hard place as business and religious leaders push for a political truce to end the latest wave of political unrest while hawkish politicians in his ruling party demand the jailing of opposition leader Raila Odinga for his role in the anti-government protests.
Widespread protests over the high cost of living and increased taxes on Wednesday left more than 10 people dead and shut down the economy in the major towns and cities.
At least six people were shot dead by police last Friday during the demonstrations staged to coincide with the Saba Saba Day, informally marked every July 7 to celebrate the achievements of the pro-democracy movement that agitated for an end to the single-party rule.
Mr Odinga’s Azimio One Kenya Alliance coalition has called for more protests on Wednesday next week to ramp up the pressure on the Ruto administration to lower the cost of living, review the taxes introduced through the Finance Act and address its grievances over electoral justice and defections by opposition Members of Parliament to the government side.
But business lobbies are concerned a prolonged period of protests and uncertainty may cause the economy to collapse, estimating losses from closures and looting on Wednesday alone at Ksh3 billion ($21 million).
Wednesday’s protests were the worst in terms of their effect on the economy on a single day and national security since March when Mr Odinga’s Azimio One Kenya Alliance coalition launched its civil disobedience programme.
Demonstrations were witnessed in more than 20 of the country’s 47 counties while sections of the Mombasa-Nairobi highway used by truckers to transport goods to Kenya’s landlocked neighbours such as Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Southern Sudan from the port of Mombasa were blocked for the better part of the day.
They also sparked a flare-up of ethnic tension at the border of Kisumu and Kericho counties where media reports said at least two people were killed in bow and arrow attacks.
A religious leaders’ forum, bringing together clergy from the Catholic and Protestant churches, on Thursday warned that the new wave of social unrest threatens the country’s political stability and appealed to President Ruto to review the new tax policies.
“We fear that the growing sense of hopelessness will push the country into instability and possibly violence,” said the clergy in a statement signed by representatives of the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Council of Churches of Kenya.
The clergy, who alongside US Senator Chris Coons played a crucial role in the initiation of bipartisan talks to end the March protests, also called on Mr Odinga to reconsider the mass action.
But President Ruto finds himself in a similar situation to the one in April when he said a number of his political allies opposed any rapprochement with the veteran opposition leader, whom he beat by a narrow margin in the August 2022 election.
The radical wing of his United Democratic Alliance (UDA) party opposed to the truce gravitates around Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua.
On Thursday, the president addressed public meetings in parts of his political strongholds in the Mt Kenya region where ruling party politicians, including Mr Gachagua, told him never to consider any truce with Mr Odinga and called for the opposition leader’s arrest and imprisonment.
Will president Ruto ignore them a second time? The ruling UDA has warned that it will mobilise its supporters to counter anti-government protests next week.
However, Azimio la Umoja leadership has vowed to shut down the economy next week, announcing that the protests will be held for three consecutive days — Wednesday, Thursday and Friday to inflict maximum pain.
The violence that was witnessed on Wednesday has raised alarm among the business community who lost millions of shillings due to looting and destruction of property, among them the expressway, which motorists pay toll charges to use.