Kenya opposition protests pause for talks: All you need to know

Two weeks of protests against the high cost of living and alleged electoral rigging have been paused for bipartisan dialogue.

Anti-riot police officers react to the effects of tear gas after one of their canisters fired at protesters was lobbed back at them during confrontations at a mass rally called by opposition leader Raila Odinga, in Mathare, Nairobi, on March 27, 2023 [Tony Karumba / AFP]
Anti-riot police react to tear gas after one of their canisters fired at protesters was lobbed back at them during confrontations at a mass rally called by opposition leader Raila Odinga, in Mathare, Nairobi, on March 27, 2023 [Tony Karumba / AFP]

Nairobi, Kenya – On Sunday evening, Kenya opposition leader Raila Odinga suspended biweekly nationwide protests over soaring living costs and the alleged rigging of the 2022 presidential election, to allow for dialogue with the government.

The move came after President William Ruto had urged Odinga earlier on Sunday to halt demonstrations which he said have led to three deaths and more than 400 injuries, including to security personnel.

Odinga accepted Ruto’s invitation for dialogue but warned that the strikes could resume within a week should the talks fail.

Here’s all you need to know about the protests and what happens next.

Why have there been protests?

Since January 23, Odinga has held a series of countrywide rallies calling on his supporters to reject the current government.

He gave the Ruto administration a 14-day ultimatum on February 22, to address increases in living costs and publish data from the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) server for the August 2022 vote. After the period elapsed without the government complying with his demands, he announced March 20 as the first day of civil disobedience.

Thousands of Kenyans heeded the veteran opposition leader’s calls for anti-government protests on Mondays and Thursdays and held three rallies – despite a government ban on demonstrations.

There have been two main reasons for the protests: soaring living costs and alleged electoral malpractice in the August 2022 vote.

Soaring costs of living

Odinga has criticised the government for removing existing subsidies on basic products like fuel and maize flour, Kenya’s dietary staple, describing it as “reckless and heartless”.

“The subsidies must be restored, and the cost of basic commodities and taxes must come down in the next 14 days,” Odinga said during one of his rallies.

Ruto’s decision to remove the subsidies after assuming office has partly led to a rise in the cost of basic products and he has maintained that he will not reintroduce them.

“It is economically unsustainable and meant to benefit the well-connected business class, but not suffering Kenyans,” he said. “We have saved our economy huge amounts of money by removing subsidies, we will not go back to subsidies.”

The president instead proposed fertiliser subsidies to boost food cultivation and eventually bring down the cost of production.

Electricity costs have also risen by 63 per cent after the energy regulator approved higher tariffs. Taxes have also been increased.

“We have complained about rising taxes and talked about children dropping out of school for lack of fees,” Odinga has said.

Alleged electoral malpractice

Odinga’s loss to Ruto in August 2022 was the 78-year-old’s fifth defeat at the polls. Odinga disputed the results and moved to the Supreme Court, which upheld the election outcome.

He has refused to recognise Ruto’s presidency, insisting that there was electoral malpractice, citing a split in the IEBC and whistleblower evidence.

The opposition has been demanding reforms to the IEBC.

On Sunday, Ruto said a bipartisan committee to select new IEBC commissioners could be formed in the national assembly, in line with the opposition’s demands.

Odinga agreed but insisted the committee be established immediately.

“This committee should be composed with immediate effect with strict deadlines for resolving the crisis facing the country. We stand down our demonstrations for Monday but in doing so we want to emphasise that we reserve the right to call for demonstrations should this process bear no fruit,” Odinga said.

Odinga also demanded the release and halting of the prosecution of anyone arrested during the protests.

On Monday, the country’s Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Noordin Haji withdrew a case against opposition leaders charged with participating in the illegal demonstration and malicious property damage.

Publishing of IEBC server data

In January, Odinga said he received a leaked dossier from an IEBC whistleblower indicating that he polled 8,170,355 votes ahead of a reported 5,919,973 votes for his rival.

According to official results declared by the IEBC boss Wafula Chebukati, Ruto garnered 7,176,141 votes against Odinga’s 6,942,930 votes.

Odinga now wants IEBC’s server results to be made public.

He said his team had conducted thorough research and gathered enough evidence on the electoral irregularities.

During the declaration of the presidential results last August, four IEBC commissioners distanced themselves from the results, saying the verification process was opaque.

Afterwards, three resigned while the last was removed on the grounds of abuse of office.

A process of re-forming a panel to recruit new commissioners started but the opposition distanced itself from the process, saying the ruling party was packing it with supporters.

Odinga made other demands, including ensuring ethnic and regional balance in state and civil service appointments; and permanently discarding plans to import genetically modified foods and seeds.

What has been the effect of protests?

Ruto’s statement on Sunday mentioned the effect of the protests in the country, saying unnamed people had taken advantage of the demonstrations to create havoc.

He said three Kenyans, one of them a police officer, died during the protests. Human rights groups say at least six people were killed in Kisumu, Odinga’s stronghold city – alone. More than 400 Kenyans were injured in the protests, including at least 60 security officers.

Two houses of worship were burned down. Shops, supermarkets and a mortuary were looted, and police vehicles were torched or hijacked.

The country’s economy was hit hard as many businesses remained closed throughout the protest days.

What has the government done?

On Sunday, Ruto called for a truce asking the opposition leader to call off further protests and give dialogue a chance.

“During this period, lives have been lost, people injured, property looted or destroyed, the economy has suffered and our image as a nation dented … In times like these it’s not about who is right or who is wrong,” he noted.

On the soaring costs of living, Ruto said the government had ordered food imports that would arrive later this month. He urged farmers to sell their food before the batches arrived.

He acceded to Odinga’s demand for a bipartisan engagement in parliament on the re-formation of the IEBC panel, “within the parameters of the law”.

But he did not commit to making IEBC’s server data public, only saying that the Supreme Court upheld his election victory.

Odinga agreed to call off Monday’s mass action but demanded the immediate release of those arrested and being prosecuted in relation to the protests. On Monday, charges against four opposition MPs were dropped.

What happens next?

Dialogue is expected to commence between the government and the opposition to address the opposition’s demands.

A bipartisan committee backed by experts will be formed to select IEBC commissioners. During the dialogue, parliament will be suspended and there will be no protests.

If an agreement is reached, demonstrations will be called off completely. However, if there were to be an impasse, Odinga has said the protests will resume. That could be as early as Thursday or next week.

Source: Al Jazeera