Editors’ note: In this archival piece, Good Authority contributor Ken Opalo explains the economic and political stresses behind Kenya’s large-scale protests in 2019. His analysis was originally published in the Washington Post on May 13, 2019.
On May 6, 2019, Kenyan authorities arrested and then released Boniface Mwangi, a Kenyan photographer and political activist, on suspicion of fomenting a “revolution” against the government of President Uhuru Kenyatta.
The previous week, news reports said Mwangi participated in the “Beyond Zero Corruption” campaign in Nairobi (also dubbed the Red Vest Movement) – an initiative highlighting the poor state of Kenya’s economy, rampant corruption and entrenched impunity in the public sector.
Mwangi’s arrest is symptomatic of a nagging unease in the Kenyatta administration about mass protests. The flagging economy – marked by job cuts and corporate losses – along with poor policy choices and public sector corruption, have eroded popular support for Kenyatta over the past year. Here’s what you need to know about the current state of Kenyan politics.
Kenya’s economy is underperforming, especially when it comes to jobs
The debt-fueled investments in infrastructure and the associated growth in gross domestic product that have characterized Kenyatta’s tenure have not translated into jobs. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, in 2018 Kenya generated just 78,000 formal sector jobs, despite GDP growth of 6.3%. More than 500,000 youth enter the labor market each year, predominantly in the more precarious and low-wage informal sector.
A Red Vest Movement has emerged to protest grand corruption and impunity in government, failure to jump-start the stagnant economy, and ballooning public debt – Kenya’s debt ratio in 2019 stands at 56% of GDP and rising. If the movement gains traction, especially in urban areas, it is likely to be the result of the persistently high rates of youth unemployment – 18.5% in 2018, according to World Bank estimates.
The government may find it difficult to contain protests
After co-opting leading opposition politicians in early 2018, Kenyatta has more power than he has at any point of his presidency. For several months before and after the disputed 2017 presidential election, his government faced mass protests led by opposition leader Raila Odinga.
These opposition protests threatened to paralyze the country. But in March 2018, Kenyatta and Odinga announced a surprise truce and began the Building Bridges Initiative – a national dialogue process designed to generate ideas that will inform institutional reforms to engender more inclusive politics in the country. Opposition rallies ceased.
The rapprochement between Kenyatta and Odinga – popularly known as “the handshake” – created what appears to be a government of national unity in all but name. Criticism of the government in the legislature quieted down, and Kenyatta’s support led to Odinga being nominated for a plum African Union job.
But critiques of the Kenyatta-Odinga truce denounced the rapprochement as “the hand-cheque.” To many in Kenya, Odinga’s dalliance with Kenyatta has eroded his credibility as a reformist. For instance, although he previously criticized excessive borrowing and related corruption linked to large infrastructure projects, he recently accompanied Kenyatta on a trip to solicit China for more infrastructure loans.
The demise of the Kenyan opposition since early 2018 adds to the potency of any mass movement against the government. This is because potential protests would not be led by the now-discredited opposition politicians such as Odinga. As a result, such movements would most likely prove very hard to contain or co-opt. In addition, the severity of the current economic challenges suggest that they probably would be nonpartisan. Indeed, some of Kenyatta’s strongest critics are people who voted for him in both 2013 and 2017.
In light of these developments, one interpretation of the current state of Kenyan politics is that institutional decay and lack of faith in government increasingly push citizens to seek extra-institutional solutions to the many structural problems facing the country.
Institutional design doesn’t guarantee good governance
In many ways, Kenya is a lesson on the limits of institutional design. As I document in my new book, Legislative Development in Africa, Kenya has arguably Africa’s strongest legislature, which has, on occasion, been able to use its robust powers to check presidential authority. Kenya’s judiciary enjoys substantial political independence from the executive branch.
At the same time, the country’s constitution creates strong incentives for the emergence of a two-party system with a sizable opposition presence in the legislature. The ruling party currently controls 49% of seats in the National Assembly, which means it is forced to caucus with affiliate parties.
Electoral rules for the presidency reinforce these dynamics. The winner must garner more than 50% of votes cast and at least 25% of votes in at least half the counties. This makes national elections two-horse races, as happened in 2013 and 2017.
Personalist politics keep political institutions from fully recognizing their power
However, the persistence of personalist politics – driven by candidate-centric rather than policy- or party-based considerations – has meant that the legislature continues to underutilize its full constitutional powers.
Meanwhile, parties continue to operate like special-purpose vehicles that rise and fall at the mercy of ever-shifting political alliances at election time. This explains how a president can co-opt party leaders into government and neutralize the opposition, as appears to have happened with Odinga and his allies.
Mwangi’s arrest signals what is to come
If citizens and activists emerge to fill the vacuum left by a now-silent opposition party, the government is likely to overreact, fearful of being unable to control any sustained “nonpartisan” and “leaderless” mass protests. And if the record of policy violence in 2017-2018 is anything to go by, such reaction will have little regard for the constitutional protections of freedoms of speech and assembly.
A lingering question is whether mass protests against Kenyatta’s government will materialize, absent the backing of any major political alliance or politician. Recent research from Zimbabwe suggests that the odds of this happening are slim, especially in light of well-publicized past experiences with police brutality at protest rallies.
Indeed, Mwangi seems to understand the difficulty of mobilizing disaffected citizens outside of the channels established by the parties and alliances that dominate Kenyan politics.
Note: Updated Sept. 18, 2023.