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Tough Choices for Kenya’s President Ruto Following Protests

Facing condemnation for what many Kenyans see as a heavy-handed response to protests in the street, he must choose now whether to hold firm to his budget or to find a different route to securing financial security for Kenya.

The choices facing Kenya’s President William Ruto are now far from easy.

Elected in 2022 pledging to cut corruption, shore up the country’s faltering economy and help the poor, the embattled Mr Ruto now faces an unprecedented rebellion against his finance bill – legislation he says is an essential part of his plan to build the nation.

It might be easier to know which way to turn if the opposition Mr Ruto faced was confined within parliament.

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An astute political player, and deputy president for almost a decade before being elected to the top spot, Mr Ruto has years of experience wrangling politics to get things done.

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Now though, the forces massed against him are something truly beyond his control.

A mass movement which grew organically out of discontent expressed on social media has grown into a powerful rebellion which has filled the streets of cities and towns across the country.

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In the capital, the Nairobi governor’s office, city hall and the country’s parliament have this afternoon all been set ablaze.

The protesters had started the day threatening a “total shutdown”.

And at the end of a day of chaos and panic across the country, often set against the sound of teargas and at times live fire from police, there is no doubt their fury has been heard.

For Mr Ruto, the choice now seems to be about whether to yield to the demonstrators and abandon his budget or to dig in and push it through, risking further turmoil and bloodshed on the streets.

He has argued the raft of new taxes is essential to control Kenya’s debt – a huge sum of more than $80bn (£63bn), which costs the country more than half of its annual tax revenues to service.

Kenya secured a restructuring of its international debt commitments earlier this year – something which immediately pushed a surge in the value of its currency, the shilling.

Increasingly seen as one of Africa’s leading statesmen, recently returned from a state visit to the White House, Mr Ruto understands the importance to his nation’s economy of avoiding a default on its debt payments.

For those in his government, the calculation was that controlling the state finances by increasing the tax burden was preferable to cutting public services.

The finance bill, which was due to become law on Monday, originally brought in dozens of new or increased taxes on everything from car ownership and financial transactions to sanitary pads.

Several of the most contentious taxes have already been dropped following consultation with the public.

But the controversy over the budget follows other revenue-raising measures introduced by Mr Ruto, including increased taxes for healthcare and low-cost housing.

And for those on the street, there’s a third solution available to the government beyond cutting services or raising taxes.

Many blame the country’s financial woes on corruption, with taxpayers wary of paying more amid a lack of trust in the transparency of the state.

For Mr Ruto, it is perhaps the shadows of this past that make his current position so difficult.

He rose from the deputy presidency to the presidency in the 2022 elections, and with a focus on green energy and tech, he has certainly got new ideas about where he wants to take Kenya.

But for many on the streets, Mr Ruto’s record as a senior figure in government over a period marred by corruption means it’s hard to trust him with their taxes.

Tuesday’s events in Nairobi leave Mr Ruto seemingly pinned now into a tight corner.

Facing condemnation for what many Kenyans see as a heavy-handed response to protests in the street, he must choose now whether to hold firm to his budget or to find a different route to securing financial security for Kenya.

In the meantime, those who came out to have their voices heard in Nairobi and across the country show no sign of giving up.

When Mr Ruto addressed the nation in his inauguration speech, he spoke directly to the country’s politically active youth.

“My political journey,” he told them, “Similarly began as a young campaign volunteer, fresh out of university.

“Your experience and lessons learnt should form the basis for your leadership journey.”

Now it is a confrontation with a youth-led movement that poses what many consider to the be biggest challenge to authority in Kenya since the country’s independence in 1963.

The next days for Mr Ruto will be crucial, as he faces tough choices for his government and the country.

Sourcebbc

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