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Kenya unrest: Ruto awakened class politics that now threatens to engulf him

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The Finance Bill, which Ruto has put on hold, was the trigger for the recent protests. But its roots run deeper.

Many of the grievances of Kenya’s Gen-Z, young people who took to the streets in late June, have been palpable for years.

I witnessed these during field research as a social anthropologist studying the land, livelihoods, urbanisation and electoral politics in Kiambu County, which borders Nairobi to the north and west. I spent nearly two years there between 2017 and 2022, most of it living with Kikuyu-speaking households which voted overwhelmingly for President William Ruto in 2022.

Based on my field research, it’s clear to me that the present cost-of-living crisis isn’t new. I witnessed poor families struggling to raise school fees and funds to build homes, regularly falling into destitution. In the years since the COVID-19 pandemic, economic fortunes have worsened and families have struggled to cover their basic food needs.

Since my fieldwork, I’ve remained in contact with a number of the people I met in Kiambu. They say life has got even harder for them in the years since 2017 when I began my research.

The Finance Bill, which Ruto has put on hold, was the trigger for the recent protests. But its roots run deeper.

The discontent playing out now was clearly expressed during the 2022 election. Ruto won partly due to a campaign that appealed to what he termed the “Hustler Nation” – ordinary workers.

His predecessor Uhuru Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party government had presided over several corruption scandals and questionable infrastructure projects. By 2022, the rising cost of living was dimming his legacy.

Highlighting the political pedigree of his opponent Raila Odinga and Odinga’s chief backer, Kenyatta, Ruto argued that wealthy families sought to dominate Kenya over generations. He accused them of practising “state capture” – manipulating public institutions to ensure their political survival.

As I argued in a paper published last year, Ruto’s campaign was characterised by a conversation about economic inequality between the country’s working poor and its political class. This was a break from the politics of ethno-nationalism.

Ruto’s electoral campaign awakened class politics in Kenya. But the president is discovering he cannot control it. He is picking up the bill being delivered by a generation of Kenyans who have known nothing in their young adult lives other than political graft and economic insecurity.

Precarious livelihoods

In my research I explored the the difficulties of joblessness and unemployment that Kiambu residents live with – their struggles to avoid poverty and access middle-class lifestyles on the edge of a growing Nairobi.

Kiambu is a place where Kenya’s rural inequalities and colonial history loom large. Families live on small plots of land next to enormous tea plantations belonging to business elites, and struggle for cash wages to stay afloat. Kiambu’s peri-urban poor have been described as a “working class with patches of land”.

It was in this context that I examined the simmering discontent that broke out during the 2022 elections. Voters began to question not only the economic terms of their lives, but their political histories and the dominance of entrenched elites.

Since 2017, I have seen some of my interlocutors become fathers, their personal responsibilities growing, their political commentaries sharpening. Greater pressure on their budgets from inflation has turned their anger towards high politics.

At 28 years old, Karis has known little in his adult life other than economic uncertainty and palpable political neglect. He works as a roofer, but on a casual basis. He often goes weeks and even months without work. He regularly takes loans to cover these fallow periods, before using his wages to cover debts upon payment. Supporting his wife and young son has become extremely difficult.

All of this encouraged him to vote for Ruto in 2022. But his situation has barely changed in the past two years, and he holds the president responsible. Like other young people from his town, he travelled to Nairobi to join the protests against Ruto’s government.

The Hustler Nation

Ruto’s 2022 election campaign oriented itself around stereotypical images of the informal sector worker, promising them relief and support in their everyday economic lives – a “bottom up” approach, a “wheelbarrow economics” based on investment in farming and small businesses through the government’s “Hustler Fund”.

But Ruto’s decisions in office have undermined his image as the “Hustler-in-Chief” of this movement of informal sector workers. The protests that have unfolded since June 2024 coalesce around the issue of taxes, earning the president the nickname “Zakayo”, “the tax collector”.

Under pressure from the International Monetary Fund to address Kenya’s reported US$80 billion national debt and “safeguard debt sustainability”, Ruto proposed new tax rises on basic household staples like bread and cooking oil.

Young Kenyans are questioning why Ruto is pushing the national debt burden onto citizens already struggling with higher commodity prices.

In 2023, scholars Basil Ibrahim and Kevin Donovan wrote: "For Kenya’s streets to erupt in sustained revolt, there would have to be a real rupture between the people and the ruling class."

For young Kenyans, that moment is at hand. They observe politicians’ lack of interest in their fates. The boundaries of ethnicity are less relevant to their political identities, sidelined by a deeper sense of injustice.

Instead of narratives about the “bogeyman” from the “other tribe”, they deal in tangible experiences and statistics. Cuts to the Youth Enterprise Development Fund form a stark contrast with US$6 million spent on new vehicles for the president and his deputies. The Financial Act has brought such issues of public spending to the fore as young Kenyans increasingly question the terms of high politics that rarely work in their interests.

What next?

Whatever happens next, Ruto’s re-awakening of class identities has shifted the character of Kenya’s politics in ways even he could not have predicted.

Tethered to notions of generation – the Gen-Z, Millennial and Gen-X alliance taking on the gerontocrats of the establishment – economic issues look set to remain at the forefront of national politics.

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