KIBII: Blaming foreign powers over domestic demos diversionary

Government Spokesperson Isaac Mwaura on June 22 sensationally claimed that foreign powers were behind the protests.

In Summary
  • However, the challenge Kenya faces is domestic and has been boiling; the Finance Bill was the trigger.
  • Whether there are other hands involved or would want to take advantage; the priority is to fix what needs to be fixed.
Police officers guard Nairobi CBD during the July 2, 2024 protests.
BLAME GAME: Police officers guard Nairobi CBD during the July 2, 2024 protests.

In a span of two weeks, Kenya has witnessed the metamorphosis of what started as peaceful anti-tax protests into violent anti-government demos.

During the period, Parliament Buildings was invaded on June 25 in which a section of it was torched, as did the Judiciary and City Hall. Police shot and killed at least 13 protesters on that dark day.

It has been termed as an attack on key government installations. In its attempt to contain the situation, the government in unprecedented move deployed the Kenya Defence Forces on June 27 in Nairobi.

The demos worsened on Tuesday, after they were infiltrated by goons who robbed and attacked innocent Kenyans, looted and caused destruction in various parts of the country, especially in Mombasa and Nairobi.

As of July 1, 39 people had been killed and 361 injured, according to the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights.

It is against this background that Kenya’s national security has become a concern, with claims of external interference, as well as fears of geopolitical and regional implications at a time the Horn of Africa is facing insecurity and instability.

Foreign hand

Government Spokesperson Isaac Mwaura on June 22 sensationally claimed that foreign powers were behind the protests.

In an otherwise unusual practice, Mwaura in a livestream, claimed that while there were genuine concerns being raised by the protesters, there could be other geopolitical motives.

"I have listened and there are people who are genuine and they are the majority. But there is a group within that when I look at from afar, there could be a foreign hand in this whole issue," he said.

He cited remarks and visits made by President William Ruto, which, in his view, could have caused discontent in some international quarters.

Among those remarks, is the head of state's speech at the Ukraine Peace Summit in Switzerland, where he called on Moscow to stop its aggression against Kyiv, inadvertently fingering Russia.

"The other day he talked about the Russian invasion and how it has disrupted Kenya's access to grains and wheat, some people are not happy with that," the government spokesperson said.

He added that the President's persistent call for the reform of the global financial architecture to factor in developing countries’ needs, particularly Africa, might have caused discomfort among some powers.

“He [Ruto] has been calling for a change in the financial architecture … they don’t want us to get out of that slavery,” Mwaura said.

The head of state's push has mainly or entirely targeted the West and the Bretton Woods institutions. Therefore, Mwaura’s argument suggests a hand from the West, despite the President being their darling since he came to power.

In his speculative statement, the government spokesperson further alluded to actors that may be out to challenge Ruto’s rise as an influential African figure.

"Our President has said a lot of things on the international front, including climate change. He has rallied the whole of Africa to come together and maybe some people are not happy,” he added, warning that the youth shouldn’t destabilise Kenya like in Libya and the Arab Spring in Egypt.

The Sudan and Somalia comparison has also surfaced from different voices.

Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi in a communication to the Diplomatic Corps in Nairobi also alluded to geopolitics in the demonstrations.

In the statement dated July 2, he attributed the domestic challenges that Kenya faces to “dramatic global shifts, that have ignited international volatility, leading to numerous economic, security and geopolitical challenges”.

He argued that international relations are at a critical point given the “complex competition, rivalry and confrontation”, in part alluding to the West and East axis, effectively placing Kenya, among other states, at a tight spot in navigating the complexities of its obligations, while responding to the geopolitical rivalry.

He had previously said, "If the Finance Bill is rejected in any government, the next thing will be a vote of no confidence."

And while Ruto’s profile has risen internationally as has Kenya’s image, or so he argues, this is diminishing with the domestic politics.

Diplomatic relations 

The remarks by Mwaura risk pitting Kenya into diplomatic wars with countries that might feel targeted.

For instance, while Kenya maintains diplomatic ties with Russia, they have not been quite warm, particularly with the stance Nairobi has taken on the Russia invasion of Ukraine.

Ruto notably skipped the Russia-Africa Summit in July last year, instead saying he would be represented by the African Union. He, however, attended the Italy, Saudi, Korea-Africa summits. He also skipped the August 2023 BRICS Summit in South Africa, a forum that coalesces around East-oriented states.

Therefore, attempts to accuse Russia of domestic interference could worsen the ties. Russia has made attempts to get closer to Kenya, with long-serving Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov paying a working visit to Nairobi in May last year. During the visit, he held talks with President Ruto.

Russia has also donated some 34,400 metric tonnes of fertiliser to Kenya, one of the favourite talking points by the President in his agriculture sector interventions.

But given the competing interests in Kenya due to its geostrategic location, it is also curious what informs the accusations.

Among the placards in the “Gen Z” demos accuse Ruto of being a Western puppet. He was recently in the US for a state visit, the first by an African leader in 16 years and has been accused of continuing to borrow from Bretton Woods institutions. His sending of Kenyan police officers for a Multinational Security Mission to Haiti at the behest of the Americans further the accusation.

Could it then be the case that the Kenyan government is echoing murmurs from Washington?

Whether that is the case or not, the fingering of “foreign powers” could as well be a diversionary tactic by the government not to admit to the challenges it needs to address. By and large, the anti-tax demos were organic, a carry forward from last year’s opposition-led protests against the Finance Bill, 2023.

But such accusations are not new.

In February 2014, the Jubilee government accused the US of trying to overthrow it by supporting activists, who were protesting against constrained liberties. In terms of foreign policy, the government was leaning towards China.

Francis Kimemia, then chairman of the National Security Advisory Committee and the secretary of the Cabinet asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to summon USAID, accusing it of sustainably funding activists to tarnish the country and leaders' reputation regionally and internationally. Ambassador Robert Godec denied the allegations.

Then, like now, activist Boniface Mwangi was among those at the centre of the demos.

Security and stability 

As Mudavadi noted, Kenya prides itself as a stable democracy in the region, with long experience in managing regional humanitarian crises, thus an important geostrategic country.

The President is thus under pressure to mitigate any further deterioration of Kenya’s stature and image, while having to make various concessions demanded by the youth, among them, rejecting the Bill, fighting corruption, reducing wastage and opulence in government and better economic management.

It is particularly sensitive because in the unfortunate and unlikely scenario Kenya slides into anarchy, the entire region is affected given the instability in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the war in Sudan, the fragility in South Sudan, the war on terrorism amid rebuilding in Somalia and the ethnic tensions in Ethiopia.

In all these countries, Kenya is playing a role either in negotiations or peace building and stabilisation. In whose interest would it be for anarchy in Kenya?

And as Mudavadi and Defence CS Aden Duale note, there exists a threat of terrorists taking advantage of the crisis.

However, the challenge Kenya faces is domestic and has been boiling; the Finance Bill was the trigger. Whether there are other hands involved or would want to take advantage; the priority is to fix what needs to be fixed domestically as players agree there are legitimate issues.

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