Kenya’s President William Ruto on Wednesday evening rolled back controversial tax reforms that he had championed in the face of public opposition, after mass protests turned violent a day earlier, leaving 23 people dead, according to the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights.

“The people have spoken,” Ruto said in a press conference at around 4:30 pm local time (13:30 GMT), barely 24 hours before protesters vowed to again take to the streets. “I concede.”

The admission of defeat was rare for a politician not known to backtrack, and was a sharp about-turn from his speech less than a day earlier, when, after the violence, he had adopted a firm, almost threatening posture towards protesters. He had accused “treasonous” individuals of attempting “to undermine security and stability”. The president had also deployed the military against protesters, an unusually high-handed move, experts said.

The reversal in Ruto’s position on Wednesday has led to questions about what changed his mind, said analysts — even as a cloud hangs over his credibility, two years after he came to power promising a break for corruption and misgovernance.

“I don’t believe it is genuine, I think he is just buying time,” Willis Okumu, a senior researcher with the Pan-African think-tank Institute for Security Studies (ISS), told Al Jazeera. “I think he has been advised that this is politically damaging and most likely Western pressure has played a role. He needed to steady the ship after messing up.”

Kenya police take on a man during a protest over proposed tax hikes in a finance bill, in downtown Nairobi, Kenya on Tuesday, June 25, 2024 [Brian Inganga/AP Photo]

A hardliner loved by the West

Ruto’s tough-on-security messaging in his Tuesday speech drew criticism from the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, which called it “insensitive” and “inciteful”, and claimed it fuelled the killings of people in a suburb of Nairobi, hours after the protesters had been dispersed through police firing.

Experts also said that statement signalled Ruto’s disconnect from the Kenyan population. It underscored the image Ruto has long had in Kenya, as someone who is inflexible, but who has enjoyed legitimacy from the West, particularly the United States, despite a long history of alleged involvement in electoral violence.

Some of those allegations led the International Criminal Court to probe Ruto on charges of crimes against humanity. Those charges were dropped in 2016 for a lack of evidence.

“For those of us who have known him for a long time, we know Ruto to be a leader who is a hardliner,” Okumu of the ISS said. “We’ve always been surprised that the West has embraced him. They know who he is, but because he is spearheading Western interests, they look away.”

Since his election in 2022, Ruto has drawn close to Western powers, positioning himself as progressive on climate change, and refusing to join most African nations in their outright condemnation of Israel over the war on Gaza, instead professing a more neutral position.

To the US in particular, Ruto has emerged as the most viable East African leader to back, one whose loyalty is deserving of support, in a region where Washington’s relations with President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and President Paul Kagame of Rwanda are tense.

Kenyan police disembark from a plane
Police from Kenya deplane at the Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Tuesday, June 25, 2024 [Odelyn Joseph/AP Photo]

On Tuesday, a Kenyan police team leading a United Nations-backed mission touched down in troubled Haiti, after Ruto’s dogged pursuit of the one-of-a-kind deal for an African country. That mission is largely backed and funded by the US.

Earlier, in May, US President Joe Biden feted Ruto and First Lady Rachel Ruto in a lavish state dinner – a first for an African leader in 16 years. Biden then bestowed on Kenya the title of “non-major NATO ally” – a major move expected to enhance an already tight security cooperation with Nairobi. The US formally incorporated that designation on Monday.

‘Zakayo’ Ruto

But at home, Ruto has increasingly faced criticism, culminating in the mass protests that have rocked Kenya over the past 10 days. Anger at the president’s tax-collection strategies has long been simmering, especially among young Kenyans.

Ruto has a new nickname — “Zakayo”, a reference to the corrupt biblical Zaccheus, the chief tax collector of Jericho. Many accuse Ruto of failing to deliver on election promises to root out graft.

Indeed, during his campaign for office, the former vice president painted himself as an outsider to the power matrix that had long been a mainstay of Kenyan politics, where a handful of politically influential families controlled power. He claimed to be a “hustler” and promised to ease tough living conditions for low earners by cracking down on ingrained corruption that has weakened Kenya’s institutions. He also promised to reform a police force long criticised for brutality, limit government waste, and free the country of its huge $82bn debt.

However, Ruto’s detractors say he has not delivered on those claims. What has irked many in particular, they say, are the frequent hikes in taxes with no corresponding improvements in social amenities. Already, a 2023 law doubled taxes on fuel, and the initial draft of this year’s finance bill was set to further raise that fuel tax.

All this comes amid a bitter economic crisis that has seen the value of the Kenyan shilling drop by 22 percent against the US dollar since 2022, causing food, transport, and energy prices to soar, while incomes have largely stayed the same.

Ruto initially justified the tax increases, saying they were necessary for Kenya’s debts. His government took office amid a punishing drought in 2022 and after the Russia-Ukraine war disrupted food imports.

“It is instructive that for every 100 shillings we collect as tax, we pay 61 shillings for debt,” Ruto said on Wednesday, justifying why he had backed the tax reforms.

However, critics have long said massive waste in public spending could offset the debts. Ruto is widely seen in Kenya as a jet-setter — critics call him the “flying president”. While that travel has earned him some brickbats, he has argued his overseas visits are needed to draw investment to the cash-strapped country.

Detractors also accuse the president of pandering to West-led institutions like the International Monetary Fund. The IMF backed Nairobi on the now-rejected tax reforms, as part of a loan facility it said was necessary to “preserve debt sustainability.” In April, the IMF said there was a significant shortfall in tax collection that would keep Kenya’s domestic borrowing needs up — although it also stressed the need to cut government waste.

Did Western pressure force Ruto’s hand?

The anti-tax protests, which initially began in 2023 after the first tax hike, signify a major shift in a Kenya where previously, most people accepted the inadequacies of government, experts said.

“The reason why there were so many young people in the streets is that they say things as they see it,” said Nanjala Nyabola, a political researcher and writer. “Older Kenyans are used to the gap that exists between what politicians promise and what they deliver. But young people will not have it.”

As the protests escalated last week, Ruto at first attempted to strike a cooperative tone, stating the government’s respect for the right to protest.

On Tuesday, however, after police opened fire on protesters, the image he sought to present appeared to be unraveling with Kenya’s Western allies.

“We note that Kenya’s constitution guarantees the right to peaceful protests,” a joint statement from the embassies of the US, United Kingdom, Germany, and several other Western countries said. “We regret the tragic loss of life and injuries sustained, including the use of live gunfire … and are deeply concerned by allegations of abductions of protesters.”

That reaction, experts said, appears to have pressured the Ruto government to act with more restraint, and likely led to his softening tone on Wednesday, where he called the protesters “our sons and daughters”. In addition to the rollback, Ruto also announced cuts across government spending on travel and hospitality.

Still, some analysts said they have little faith that Ruto will follow through on his promises.

“I don’t think he will implement them,” Willis of the ISS said. “He has been president for two years and he has delivered zero of what he promised.”

And despite the rollback, it won’t be easy for Ruto to resurrect his credibility before the Kenyan people, said Nyabola, the political writer.

Ruto’s new stance “definitely responds to many of the grievances that protesters raised, but unfortunately, he’s burned through a lot of legitimacy,” she said.

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