Kenya’s Ruto overhauls cabinet following deadly protests

Kenyan President William Ruto addresses members of the media during a press conference at the State House in Nairobi, on June 26, 2024. (Photograph: SIMON MAINA / AFP)

Kenyan President William Ruto announced Thursday the dismissal of almost his entire cabinet and consultations to form a “broad-based government”, as he scrambled to contain the fallout of deadly protests against his administration.

The East African nation was left reeling after peaceful rallies last month over steep tax increases escalated into violence with police firing at crowds who stormed parliament, leaving it partly ablaze.

Organised online and led largely by young, Gen-Z Kenyans, the protests plunged Ruto’s administration into the most serious crisis of his presidency, forcing him to abandon the finance bill containing the tax hikes.

In the latest move to defuse tensions, Ruto said his decision would extend “with immediate effect” to all ministers including the attorney-general, but excluded prime cabinet secretary and foreign minister Musalia Mudavadi and Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua.

The president said he decided on the dismissals “upon reflection, listening keenly to what the people of Kenya have said and after a holistic appraisal of the performance of my cabinet and its achievements and challenges”.

Prominent Gen-Z protester Hanifa Adan welcomed the announcement, writing on X: “THE PRESIDENT OF KENYA HAS DISSOLVED THE CABINET!!! THE POWER LIES WITH THE PEOPLE ALWAYS!!!!!”

The rallies have widened into a broader campaign against Ruto and his government, with some demonstrations degenerating into violence that has left 39 dead, according to rights groups.

While large street protests have subsided, anger against the government has not, and hundreds of Kenyans attended a memorial concert in Nairobi Sunday, chanting “Ruto must go”.

Analysts said Ruto’s decision to sack allies including former interior minister Kithure Kindiki offered the possibility of a fresh start, but warned of further risks.

“The challenge that Ruto now faces is forming a new cabinet that includes various vested interests, whilst simultaneously calming popular anger in the face of an explicitly leaderless movement,” Gabrielle Lynch, professor of comparative politics at the University of Warwick, told AFP.

Declan Galvin, managing director of Exigent Risk Advisory, told AFP that “a clean slate will be good for him… There is no crisis without opportunity so maybe Ruto can get this right the second time.”

Debt rating downgraded

Last week, the Kenyan leader announced sharp cuts to government spending, including travel and refurbishment costs.

Ruto’s frequent high-profile trips abroad, as well as news that the deputy president’s office spent over $70,000 on curtains, have infuriated ordinary citizens burdened with a cost of living crisis.

Ruto said borrowing would have to increase to pay for some services even as Kenya grapples with massive foreign debt equivalent to roughly 70 percent of GDP.

He said the fiscal deficit would rise from 3.3 percent to 4.6 percent.

The crisis led US-based Moody’s to downgrade Kenya’s debt rating further into junk territory, warning of a negative outlook, which will make borrowing even more expensive for the cash-strapped government.

The ratings agency said it was cutting the ratings for Kenyan government debt to Caa1 — considered to have “very high credit risk” — with the move reflecting Ruto’s “significantly diminished capacity” to raise taxes and reduce debt.

‘Radical programmes’ pledged

The businessman-turned-politician, who won elections in 2022 on the promise to lift the fortunes of the common man, was caught off guard by the depth of public anger over the proposed tax hikes, which followed an earlier round of increases last year.

Ruto said Thursday that he would “immediately engage in extensive consultations across different sectors and political formations, with the aim of setting up a broad-based government”.

This government would, he said, help him to develop “radical programmes” to deal with the country’s huge debt burden, increase job opportunities, eliminate government waste and “slay the dragon of corruption”.

Ruto has sought to engage with some of the protesters, hosting an event on X with young Kenyans last week.

But this has failed to appease some demonstrators, who are calling for him to step down, using the hashtag #RutoMustGo and staging smaller rallies across Kenyan cities.