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Wise move on protests, Mr President

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Protesters march during a demonstration against Finance Bill, 2024 on June 20, 2024, in Kilifi County. 

Photo credit: Wachira Mwangi | Nation Media Group

I never thought I’d say this, but President William Ruto must be commended for displaying the wisdom that so clearly eludes the toadies surrounding him.

It may not look like a big deal, but the President’s positive acknowledgement of the youthful Gen Z protesters mounting an unprecedented challenge to his regime stands in stark contrast to the normal pre-historic drivel.

Prior to the conciliatory statement on Sunday, government messaging on demonstrations against contentious taxation proposals in the Finance Bill seemed to have been lifted straight out of the manual used by President Daniel arap Moi’s one-party dictatorship.

The President had remained notably quiet on the matter since the protests started last Tuesday, and there had also been no official statement, leaving politicians to make bizarre denouncements that could only expose the government to ridicule.

Cosmopolitan chaps

Figures like National Assembly Majority Leader Kimani Ichung’wah, the Cabinet Secretary for Tourism Alfred Mutua, Dagoretti South MP John Kiarie and economic advisor-cum-keyboard warrior David Ndii—otherwise cosmopolitan chaps with reasonable level of education—seemed happy to emulate the Moi era dinosaurs who used to preach fire and brimstone against dissenting voices then. The Kariuki Chotaras, Sharrif Nassirs, Kihika Kimanis, Mulu Mutisyas and J.J. Kamotho have worthy successors.

Government spokesman Isaac Mwaura woke up from slumber late on Saturday night to charge that a hidden foreign hand was behind the protests.

The secretary-general of Ruto’s UDA machine Cleophas Malala also chimed in with his own bit of similarly buffoonish nonsense.

Then President Ruto came in with his own observations, lauding the youth for stepping forward on national issues, and promising to engage them.

The President seeking conversation with traitors and saboteurs who have been paid by foreign elements to cause chaos and overthrow his government?

The statement, while welcome, managed to bring out the discordant government voice on the issue, which can be the only outcome of an incoherent and dysfunctional public communications system.

But then there is also the hypocrisy of a situation where the President is effectively holding out the olive branch, while it is business as usual for dark forces of the state security machinery.

Targeted for abduction

Suspected leaders of the protests are being targeted for abduction by policemen in mufti and unmarked cars. They are being held incommunicado in secret cells without access to lawyers and family members. Those arrested and subjected to unlawful interrogations, and their mobile phones, laptops and other communications devices seized and examined without warrants or court orders.

While there have been no reports of serious maltreatment, those Gestapo tactics are frighteningly reminiscent of the Moi-era Police Special Branch and its torture dungeons, forced confessions and instant jail terms handed out at night by selected magistrates.

If President Ruto is serious about having a national conversation, he must call off the secret police squads. They succeed only in undermining any good intentions he might want to put on display.

What the President must also acknowledge is that his words mean nothing unless accompanied by concrete action.

The Gen Z protesters have made it clear that they are not fooled by cosmetic changes to the Finance Bill. They don’t want it merely amended, but dropped altogether and a more reasonable one negotiated.

He must also be aware the anger goes beyond budget proposals. The Finance Bill was just the trigger for pent-up frustrations on wider issues of misrule by the Kenya Kwanza government, including unemployment, poverty, mega corruption and the primitive and shameless displays of wealth by the parasitic classes as they urge belt-tightening from everyone else.

It is evident that the demands out there are escalating from #RejectFinanceBill and #OccupyParliament to #RutoMustGo.

We could be in the cusp of a revolutionary moment in a youth-led protest movement seeking nothing less than uprooting of the entire edifice. Anyone who doesn’t see this is living in fool’s paradise.

The danger now is that if charm fails, President Ruto might respond with a brutal crackdown that see’s blood flow in the streets. I don’t think he’s that foolish, but many around him are, and could well get their way in pushing for repressive tactics.

Another danger is that the more naïve and hotheaded figures in the protests might imagine that they have the momentum to invade State House. It would also not be beyond this regime to plant agents within the protests charged with sparking violence, thereby providing justification for violent counter-measures.

We could well be sitting on a powder-keg. Both the government and the protesters have a duty to make sure things don’t get out of hand.

[email protected], @MachariaGaitho