Raila Odinga.

Opposition leader Raila Odinga.

| File | Nation Media Group

Fanning the fire: How Raila Odinga could take advantage of Ruto budget outcry

President William Ruto should be savouring sweet victory after his Kenya Kwanza alliance troops in Parliament handily saw off the opposition challenge to pass the highly contentious Finance Bill with an overwhelming majority last week.

But it could turn out to be Pyrrhic victory if the opposition is able to make good on threats to exploit passage of unpopular taxation proposals to excite public rebellion.

A series of public rallies is already in the pipeline intended to galvanise opposition to the government’s economic programme.

In the meantime, the President should be looking forward to putting into place the key elements of his administration’s first budget, after largely operating, since assuming office nearly ten months ago on the 2022-2023 spending plans inherited from his predecessor, Uhuru Kenyatta.

Lick his wounds

Opposition leader Raila Odinga, meanwhile, will be retreating to lick his wounds. Kenya Kwanza commands a handsome majority following aggressive poaching of opposition members, but a vote on the Finance Bill had presented Raila’s Azimio la Umoja opposition contingent a golden opportunity to capitalise on what looked like widespread public rejection of Ruto’s budget.

In the run-up to the debate, it seemed like a good number of Kenya Kwanza MPs were reluctant to go on the stumps backing the contentious Bill. The Azimio brigade, by contrast, was out in full force, highlighting unpopular aspects such as the controversial Housing Fund, doubling of VAT on petroleum and other taxation measures that have earned Ruto the moniker ‘Zakayo’, the tax collector of the Bible.

Public anger over the state of the economy and an administration deemed to have an insatiable appetite for tax collection was reflected even in surveys within the Kenya Kwanza strongholds of the Rift Valley and Mt Kenya.  

Party discipline

Once Ruto laid down the law on party discipline, however, Kenya Kwanza, to the last man — save for only a lone woman, dissenting Githunguri MP Gathoni wa Muchomba — lined up behind the revenue and spending proposals which, according to a survey, were opposed by 90 per cent of Kenyans.

Odinga’s Azimio troops, by contrast, appeared disjointed and dispirited. Instead of turning up in large numbers to take advantage of any likely defections or abstentions from Kenya Kwanza MPs afraid of public backlash, it was the opposition benches that suffered significantly from no shows and defiance of the party line.

MP Gathoni wa Muchomba opposes the Finance Bill 2023 in Parliament

How the vote was likely to go was evident from the First Reading on the Bill, and from then on the pattern was set for the Second and Third Readings. By conclusion of debate and the final clause-by-clause votes on Wednesday, June 21, the outcome was a foregone conclusion. The opposition leadership in Parliament was resigned to resounding defeat, and already signalling that they would seek recourse outside the House.

On Thursday the Azimio leadership called a press conference to announce ‘public consultations’ at Nairobi’s Kamukunji grounds on Tuesday.

That will be the first of what is planned as a series of public rallies kicking-off in Nairobi and spreading across the country intended to galvanise popular rejection of Ruto’s budget. The intention is to take advantage of public sentiments and resume the streets protests launched earlier this year that were only halted after Ruto held out an olive branch to Raila.

The two leaders agreed on bi-partisan talks under a committee of MPs from both sides, but Raila at some point decided that dialogue was distracting his team from the street agitation that had forced Ruto to reach out in the first place.

He suspended participation while increasing his list of demands from the initial reasons for demonstrations that included demands for scrutiny of the 2022 presidential election servers to determine the true winner, halting the recruitment of new Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commissioners until all stakeholders were included in the process, and reduction in the cost of living, particularly the price of basic foods.

He went on rafting up his demands to include discussion of a whole series of issues, many touching on government policy platforms and intended interventions as it appeared Kenya faced serious risk of economic collapse, including a risk of defaulting on debt.

Punitive taxes

The collapsing shilling, high fuel and food prices, the cash crunch that for the first time in history saw the government delay payment of salaries, and finally a Finance Bill that as expected came with what were seen as punitive taxes, have all combined to convince Raila that he might have Ruto against the ropes on the public arena as if the President bulldozes his will through in Parliament. The first rounds of Azimio demonstrations were successful in shutting down normal activity in parts of Nairobi and the Raila stronghold in Kisumu.

Projections now are that Azimio is poised to capitalise on public discontent across many other parts of the country, including the Kenya Kwanza bastions, as well as contested spaces in the Coast and Western Kenya.

The tough talk from the Azimio Parliamentary leadership after defeat in the House vote indicates what might be at stake. Minority Leader Opiyo Wandayi and Whip Junet Mohamed warned Ruto to prepare for a popular uprising and collapse of his government.

“I promise you today that there will be a revolution in this country,” Wandayi warned, in reference to the predicted rise in petrol prices once the VAT is doubled from 8 per cent to 16 per cent, and the spillover effect on matatu fares, electricity tariffs and essential foodstuffs and commodities across the board.

The opposition was called out in Parliament by Kenya Kwanza leaders for not initially raising objections when the Budget Estimates were approved at Committee stage and also not offering alternative proposals on how to bridge the deficit. However, once prices start shooting up, a restive public not seeing immediate gains from the extravagant Kenya Kwanza election promises will be ripe for agitation.

In usual fashion, the government is likely to ban the Kamukunji rally and respond with teargas and baton charges, tactics that often result in stone-throwing, riots and destruction of property.

While the government will be determined to prevent any descent into violence, it will be in a Catch 22 situation at Kamukunji and future opposition protests because use of force by the police itself often becomes the trigger for chaos.

Ruto won the Finance Bill battle in Parliament, but the war ahead could be much more prolonged.