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Kenyan President William Ruto fires cabinet to appease anti-corruption protesters

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NAIROBI — Kenyan President William Ruto fired almost his entire cabinet on Thursday, after weeks of deadly protests around the country over proposed tax hikes and government corruption.

Even after the tax hikes were abandoned, the protests by young people in the capital and around the country have continued, focusing increasingly on what they describe as a corrupt political class. Activists have said the demonstrations will continue despite the president’s latest move.

Just six weeks earlier, Ruto was riding high after a trip to Washington to meet President Biden, the first state visit by an African president since 2008. The visit demonstrated that Kenya’s boisterous democracy, long-standing security cooperation and free-market policies had cemented its status as America’s closest ally in an increasingly turbulent region.

Ruto also won international plaudits for his environmental commitments and staunch support for Western diplomatic priorities, including his recent deployment of Kenyan police to Haiti to help bring order to the gang-plagued Caribbean nation.

But like other leaders around Africa, Ruto is facing a swelling tide of anger from his own citizens. Africa’s median age is 18, and members of the generation coming of age are increasingly incensed by government profligacy and graft as they face a jobless future and soaring prices. In many nations, that fury has supported coups that overthrew long-standing Western allies, or fed revolutions that disintegrated into civil wars or failed amid brutal crackdowns.


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“Recent events … have brought us to an inflection point,” Ruto said in his brief televised address as he announced the dismissal of his attorney general and all ministers except the prime cabinet secretary and foreign minister. “I will slay the dragon of corruption.”

Kenya’s protesters — who have forced a slew of government climbdowns — are pushing for a future in which young, educated voters can successfully demand change. Their determination has also sent uneasy shivers through other African governments grappling with their own angry youth — a Ghanaian lawmaker recently cited the Kenyan protests as a reason to pass responsible legislation.

“It is a step in the right direction that he fired his cabinet, because they were part of the bigger problem,” said Happy Olal, the coordinator of an alliance of rights organizations based in informal settlements. He had spent Thursday visiting wounded protesters in hospitals. “But we are still insisting on police accountability. … It is not easy to dialogue without justice.”

After an initial denunciation of the protesters as criminals, Ruto has tried to be more conciliatory. After Parliament was invaded and partially set on fire, he withdrew the finance bill and accompanying tax hikes that sparked the protests — prompting international ratings agencies to downgrade debt-laden Kenya — and then scrapped the millions of dollars allocated to the offices of the first and second ladies.

The protests continued, so Ruto announced restrictions on the number of advisers attached to ministries, called for a national dialogue and banned public fundraisers, seen by many as a way for politicians to buy influence using stolen cash. It wasn’t enough.

“This is a political earthquake. It’s quite unprecedented — we haven’t seen a decision so dramatic in Kenya for at least two decades,” said Murithi Mutiga, the program director for Africa at the International Crisis Group think tank. “It’s very encouraging.”

Since they began last month, the protests have become a feature of daily life in Nairobi.

“No! No! No! Ruto must go!” shouted a protester last week, dreadlocks spilling into her eyes as a friend used an iPhone to film young people facing off with police firing canisters of tear gas in central Nairobi. Groups of plainclothes police, handcuffs dangling from their belts, prowled the streets hunting masked protesters who were spray-painting slogans on street signs.

Even after the tax hikes were gone, protesters focused on how government officials allocated themselves millions of dollars for furniture and flew around on private jets.

At least five people were killed in Nairobi as police used violence against demonstrators protesting Kenyan President William Ruto and a new set of tax hikes. (Video: Jon Gerberg, Rael Ombuor/The Washington Post)

All told, 46 people have been killed and more than 400 injured, said the Independent Medico-Legal Unit, an alliance of professionals that performs autopsies and tracks police violence. At least 44 people were also seized extrajudicially, according to the group, with some beaten and dumped back in the streets. The body of one young man was found in a quarry.

After Parliament was set on fire, news organizations still reported protests in 35 out of Kenya’s 47 counties. Top organizers have repeatedly called for peace, transforming a planned demonstration downtown into a concert in a park Sunday to lower the risk of confrontation. But lawmakers have seen their offices or businesses set alight, and social media is full of threats against them.

Yet the protests have been relatively disciplined, a far cry from the post-election violence that gripped the country in 2007, when politicians orchestrated attacks on rival ethnic groups. The homes of poor Kenyans went up in flames, and more than 1,200 were killed amid widespread ethnic cleansing and a massive police crackdown. Revulsion at the violence ushered in a new constitution and a public determination not to be the pawns of the powerful.

“At least we are burning the right houses this time,” quipped motorbike taxi driver Frank Mugai during last week’s protests as he discussed attacks on parliamentary offices with friends.

“These politicians joked with our parents for many years and told us to go to school and learn. Well, we have learned!” his colleague Winston Kegode chipped in.

Mutiga of Crisis Group noted how the president recognized that the crackdown wasn’t working and that more drastic measures were needed.

“The president … has adjusted and understood these protests cannot be crushed,” he said. “He’s been justifiably criticized for appointing a lackluster cabinet — this an opportunity to put together a more competent team. Will he grab the opportunity? Younger people will be watching keenly.”

Among those watching is protest organizer and veteran activist Boniface Mwangi, whose long-running campaigns against government corruption have included putting up graffiti across Nairobi depicting politicians as vultures, pigs and hyenas. He has also dumped buckets of blood over pigs in front of Parliament to protest pay increases for Kenya’s lawmakers, already the second-most highly paid legislators in the world.

The protests won’t stop, he said. Protesters want the chief of police fired, officers involved in killing protesters held to account, and the electoral board constituted so that specific legislators can be recalled and new elections held.

“The anger is still there,” he said. “Ruto had the most incompetent cabinet in the history of this country — people with corruption allegations, rape allegations, murder charges. … But now Kenyans are speaking one language — the language of accountability. Kenya will never be the same again.”

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