Recent opposition-led protests about the high cost of living in Kenya reflect considerable disaffection with President William Ruto, who narrowly won power last year by saying he was on the side of struggling people but has since ended subsidies and raised taxes. The protests have been repeatedly repressed with excessive and lethal force, highlighting a systemic problem of security force violence and denial of protest rights. Talks have recently begun between government and opposition, but as well as the economic crisis these should also deal with the problem of police violence and protest repression – which can only be done by tackling the underlying problem of impunity.

Once again, mass protests against the high cost of living in Kenya have been met with police violence. Talks are currently underway between the government and the opposition to try to find a solution – but whatever results will fall short unless it brings accountability for the catalogue of human rights violations committed in response to protests.

Economy under the spotlight

President William Ruto came to power in a narrow election victory in August 2022. It was a vote marked by low turnout, reflecting considerable youth disaffection with the electoral choice on offer and disbelief that established politicians could address vital issues such as youth unemployment, elitism and corruption.

Ruto, the vice president who switched parties to run for the top office, played up his relatively humble origins. He portrayed himself as the candidate of the ‘hustler nation’, on the side of struggling people, despite having accumulated great wealth. He promised to deal with the high cost of living, accusing outgoing president and former ally Uhuru Kenyatta of doing nothing to stop soaring inflation on the basis that his wealthy background insulated him from the realities of everyday life.

That appeal may have helped him get over the line in a vote he won by a margin of only 1.6 percentage points, with stronger turnout in lower-income areas. But many of those who backed him have since felt betrayed as their economic prospects have worsened.

Despite his pledges, the cost of living has just kept rising, powered by spiralling prices of energy and essential fuels. Shortly after coming to power, Ruto axed subsidies introduced by his predecessor on energy, fuel and maize flour, a staple food. Electricity prices rose in December and again in April – despite Ruto saying in January that they wouldn’t.

On top of that has come a package of tax increases contained in the Finance Act passed in June. As part of this, income taxes have increased for higher earners, but other tax rises are regressive, in the form of indirect taxes that disproportionately affect people on lower incomes. Chief among these is the doubling of duty on petrol, diesel and other petroleum products, further pushing up the price of essential goods and transport. Housing and medical insurance levies have been introduced. Sales tax has increased from one to three per cent, placing strain on businesses still recovering from the impacts of the pandemic, and there’s a new tax on digital content creators.

Ruto says the tax hikes are the only way of cutting the government’s debt, which he blames on Kenyatta, saying he overspent on infrastructure projects. Growing debt repayments, worsened by rising global interest rates and Kenya’s depreciating currency, led to speculation earlier this year that Kenya might default on its debt, as Ghana and Zambia have in recent years. The Kenyan government has reassured that it has no plans to default, but things got so bad in April that it had to delay paying civil service salaries.

The petrol tax was reported to be a condition of International Monetary Fund support, with a circa US$1 billion package provided in July, on top of a US$1 billion World Bank loan approved in May. The IMF said that the passing of the Finance Act was one of the ‘crucial steps’ Kenya had taken.

The defeated presidential candidate, Raila Odinga, who refused to accept the election result, has sought to capitalise on and mobilise economic anger. In January, his political row with Ruto reignited when an anonymous alleged whistleblower from the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission provided what they said was evidence of fraud, supporting Odinga’s claims of a rigged election. In March, Odinga called for weekly protests across Kenya.

A violent response

Differing opinions on how Ruto should manage Kenya’s economy are understandable. Spiralling living costs driven by Russia’s war on Ukraine are a problem in many countries. A much bigger and urgent international debate is needed about how the global financial system can be restructured so that global south states aren’t trapped in debt and conditions imposed in support packages don’t put more strain on struggling people. There’s a related need to consider how debt and debt conditions hamper the ability of global south governments to respond to climate change – a key issue in Kenya, experiencing its worst drought in four decades. But there should be no room for debate about how protests are policed.

In Kenya, the routine response is security force violence. During protests in the capital, Nairobi, on 20 and 27 March, police fired teargas and water cannon. On 20 March they arrested dozens of people, including two opposition members of parliament.

In the city of Kisumu, known as an opposition stronghold, it was even worse. Student William Mayange was shot dead when police used live ammunition after a group of protesters surged through police lines. He was one of 12 people identified by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to have been killed in March protests, along with around 30 wounded by gunfire – figures the authorities dispute.

The government and opposition held talks but when these broke down, it was announced that protests would resume from the start of May. In response, on 30 April, Nairobi police banned protests, and in a speech on 1 May, Ruto declared them illegal. Protests continued regardless – along with violence and mass arrests, including of numerous opposition politicians.

In Kisumu, protesters burned tyres and threw rocks at police, who again responded with live ammunition, leaving two people dead. By 20 July, the overall death toll had risen to at least 30. Some victims have been shot at close range and in the back, indicating that they were running away from the police, and some have reportedly been shot in their homes.

Even those not involved in the protests have been affected: in Nairobi’s Kangemi district, over 50 children had to go to hospital after a teargas cannister landed in their classroom. The Kenya Medical Association said it had responded to hundreds of injuries. People have been detained and held for several days in remote locations, in defiance of the law. But Ruto praised the police, congratulating them for ‘standing firm’. A ruling party politician has even introduced a bill proposing to strengthen protest restrictions.

Journalists have been targeted by both police and protesters while reporting on protests. There have been multiple instances of detention, harassment, threats and physical violence against media workers who have simply been trying to do their job. Police have tried to prevent journalists livestreaming protests, ordered them to delete footage and used water cannon to destroy equipment.

Media companies have also faced the state’s ire. On 24 March, the media regulator threatened to revoke the licences of six media outlets, saying they had violated the programme code in their protest coverage. A ruling party politician called on Ruto to ‘crush’ the media. There was also at least one instance of police officers posing as journalists to make an arrest at a protest, something that can only fuel protesters’ distrust of the media.

A systemic problem

The authorities may have felt they were entitled to take a harsh line because they saw these as opposition-driven protests that exploited the cost-of-living issue to undermine the government, particularly given Odinga’s continuing rejection of the election results. But what may have started as protests in support of Odinga came to focus increasingly on economic anger, with those who had voted for Ruto also speaking out. Polls suggest this goes beyond party politics: most Kenyans think their country is headed in the wrong direction.

But it really doesn’t matter whether people were protesting in support of Odinga or against high inflation and new taxes: either way, they would have the same rights to protest peacefully. Even if some protesters committed acts of violence, police force should have been the last resort rather than the instinctive first response. It should have been proportional to the threat and excluded the use of live ammunition.

Most troublingly, as Kenya’s vibrant civil society has been pointing out for years, the state’s violent reaction isn’t unusual: regardless of who is in power, there’s a longstanding pattern of protest repression, media restriction and police violence. Identical violations were seen at earlier cost-of-living protests in the run-up to the 2022 election, and many times before that.

The problem doesn’t lie with the law, but rather with entrenched malpractice. Under the Public Order Act, since 1997 protest organisers have only been required to give the authorities three days’ notice of a protest taking place; in practice, law enforcement officers interpret this as giving them discretion to deny permission for protests without explanation – and then violently repress those that go ahead regardless.

It can only be hoped that the current dialogue leads to a solution that most Kenyans find acceptable and that begins to ease the very painful conditions people are living in. But the problems of violence, repression and impunity that preceded the current crisis aren’t on the agenda – and they need to be. Ruto can show in one vital way that he’s truly different from his predecessors: by upholding the rights of people to express their disagreement with him.


  • The government of Kenya must respect the full range of civic freedoms, including the right of people to organise, speak out and protest, and ensure the safety of journalists.
  • The government should investigate all instances of excessive force against protests, hold perpetrators to account and revise protest policing guidelines to end the use of excessive force.
  • The government should convene a national dialogue involving a wide range of civil society to discuss the best ways of addressing the high cost of living.

Cover photo by Donwilson Odhiambo/Getty Images