The government of Kenya and opposition have reached truce to suspend protests as they entered the third week. This is commendable although the damage has already been done, including closure of businesses and isolated cases of violence as the police try to quell the protests. The justification of the protest has been weaved around three major issues: lowering the high cost of living, auditing last year’s presidential election and ensuring that the reconstitution of the electoral agency is above board, consultative and bipartisan.
While it is legitimate for those pressed to protest, the cost of living has been high in Kenya for the last 18 months and therefore, unfair to protest now when the current government has had barely 6 months to implement corrective measures to lower prices.
In addition, some quarters also aver that the major objective of the protesters is the push for a “handshake”— a power-sharing arrangement constituted through either formal constitutional changes or an informal arrangement that accommodates the opposition in the government. Or both. Just to note that Mr Odinga disputes last year’s election, in which Dr William Ruto was declared the winner.
While the real cost of the protest is unknown, it is estimated that the loss of business time and property could also be about Ksh 10 billion (about UGX 400 billion) a week. The United States of America (USA) has issued a security alert to its citizens living in Kenya, warning them of countrywide anti-government demonstrations that could take place weekly for an indefinite period of time in the country. Such notices could have a knock-on effect on investments and tourist inflow, exacerbating the shortage of much-needed foreign exchange.
Consequently, the government of Kenya has made all attempts to dissuade the opposition from the protest through the use of the police and, allegedly, through the use of unemployed youth who invaded and destroyed private properties of perceived leaders of the protest, Messr Odinga and Kenyatta.
Besides the illegality of this action, this event brings to the fore the challenge of youth unemployment and inequality, which is rampant in Kenya. Ownership of expansive tracts of land and the practice of commercial agriculture exist amidst landlessness. This suggests that when the protest is gone, and besides the cost of living, the government of Kenya has to address many other issues, including youth unemployment. Nonetheless, there is a fear that such attacks could ignite a class war and set a precedence of invasion and occupation of other large-scale farms, which could affect commercial agriculture and new investments in the economy and impede the expansion of existing large-scale farms.
That aside, the protest is increasingly taking an ethnic angle with the potential to stoke divisions affecting Kenya’s stability further. For example, violence broke out between communities in one of the slums, torching a local church and a mosque.
Kenyan exports will also be affected. The protest has affected the transportation of goods on the Northern Corridor, which links Kenya to the rest of Eastern Africa. Uganda is Kenya’s biggest trading partner. Kenya exports US$800 million worth of goods to Uganda annually.
Besides the direct effects on Kenya’s exports to Uganda, there will be knock-on effects on neighbouring countries such as landlocked Uganda. Kampala largely depends on Kenya’s Mombasa port for essential goods, including petroleum products. This is reminiscent of 2007 when post-election violence in Kenya disrupted business on the northern corridor, which links Mombasa port to the East African interior. Other countries that depend on Kenya’s Mombasa port are Rwanda, DR Congo, Burundi, and South Sudan.
In this spirit, Uganda, and other EAC members, need to take an active interest in this stand-off. Even though our participation should be informed by the principle of “non-interference” with internal matters of a sovereign nation/country. Yet, we stand to lose most if this conflict escalates. Uganda’s potential losses are not only economic but societal. Uganda will bear the responsibility of accommodating refugees if the conflict spill over. Therefore, facilitating dialogue or a cessation of tension could be a good place to start.