Kenya’s Ruto Must Pick Up the Pieces After Tax Debacle

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Kenya’s President Ruto Faces Backlash Over Failed Tax Increases Amid Economic Reforms

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Since taking office in 2022, Kenya’s President William Ruto has worked diligently to establish himself as a leading African statesman while engaging with foreign creditors to address the nation’s strained finances. Until recently, his efforts had yielded remarkable results. Ruto, 57, hosted the inaugural pan-African climate summit, secured an official US state visit—the first for an African leader in 16 years—dispatched Kenyan police to Haiti to combat gang violence, refinanced eurobonds, won promises of relief from the International Monetary Fund, and boosted his nation’s stocks and currency.

However, recent events have dramatically shifted the narrative. Thousands of young Kenyans have taken to the streets, demanding Ruto’s removal following his attempt to impose new taxes, which would have increased the cost of essential goods like bread and diapers. The proposed levies triggered nationwide protests, resulting in at least 41 deaths due to clashes with police and soldiers, prompting Ruto to withdraw the tax plan.

Ruto’s image, previously polished by his diplomatic and economic successes, now appears tarnished. His credibility had already suffered prior to the protests due to his push for austerity while attempting to increase the budget for his wife’s office by 17%. This perceived hypocrisy, coupled with existing economic hardships, fueled public outrage.

Nicknamed “Zakayo” (Swahili for the biblical tax collector Zacchaeus) for his affinity for new taxes, Ruto’s measures have been criticized for further burdening ordinary Kenyans. The Kenya Private Sector Alliance suggested that revenue could be sourced by cutting wasteful expenditures instead of imposing additional taxes.

Despite efforts to open a national dialogue with the youth, Ruto’s attempts at conciliation have made little progress. The brutality of the police response to protests has intensified public loathing, especially among younger citizens.

Internationally, Ruto faces additional challenges. He may need to return to global markets to address the $2.3 billion budget shortfall left by the withdrawn tax bill. On Friday, he announced that Kenya’s National Treasury would cut expenditures by 177 billion shillings ($1.38 billion) and borrow the balance to compensate.

Ruto’s predicament mirrors that of other African leaders, such as Nigeria’s Bola Tinubu, who had to partially restore gasoline subsidies to prevent unrest. The situation underscores a growing reluctance among Africans to bear the costs of their leaders’ fiscal mismanagement. Sustainable economic measures, with shared burdens, are essential for lasting reforms.

President Ruto’s immediate challenge is to navigate the fallout from the failed tax increases, restore stability, and regain both domestic and international confidence in his leadership.

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