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Raila takes to the streets

The opposition's threat of weekly protests and business shutdowns could force Ruto to make concessions

Heavyhanded policing saw initially peaceful demonstrations descend into running battles in Nairobi and Kisumu between activists and police as opposition leader Raila Odinga's had promised to mobilise his supporters for of 'the mother of all protests'.

In Nairobi, Odinga's convoy was repeatedly teargassed by police, who also arrested a handful of lawmakers in Odinga's Azimio la Umoja coalition. Water cannons were used to prevent the convoy making its way towards State House where Odinga said he would deliver a petition.

With President William Ruto continuing to eat into Odinga's Azimio la Umoja coalition, and refusing to offer Odinga any formal political role, the veteran opposition leader is coming under heavy pressure (Dispatches 10/1/23, How the opposition is trying to pick up the pieces). The ability of Odinga, a five-time presidential candidate, to get his supporters onto the streets is one of few cards he has left to play.

After declaring 20 March to be a public holiday, Odinga had promised a mix of company boycotts, strikes and sit-ins in government offices.

Ostensibly the protests are about the rising cost of living that is crippling household budgets but they are also a demonstration of what remains of Odinga's political power. Odinga continues to deny the legitimacy of Ruto's government following last August's disputed presidential election. He says the protests are targeting government nepotism and that they will continue every Monday.

On 20 March, Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua warned that the Inspector-General of Police has been given a clear mandate to protect lives and properties while Ruto gave a public address stating that 'allowing ourselves to operate outside the law is condoning impunity'.

However, the protests have hit home and Ruto appears to have been rattled by the spectacle. Hundreds of businesses were shuttered, primarily in Nairobi and Kisumu, with Deputy President Gachagua estimating a Ksh2 billion (US$20 million) economic hit. Should the protests and disruption continue, Ruto could be pressured to offer concessions to Odinga and bring in new measures to mitigate the economic pain.

Having campaigned on the promise of 'bottom up' or 'hustler' economics that would support small businesses, Ruto is struggling to deliver on pledges to grow the economy.

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