Kenyans Protest Increased Debt

A man sitting on the floor with a placard (2018 archive shot)

A man sitting on the floor with a placard (2018 archive shot)

In a series of letters from African journalists, Kenyan broadcaster Waihiga Mwaura notes his country’s anxiety about rising debt levels.

Gray line for a short presentation

Gray line for a short presentation

In many countries, the willingness of global institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to strengthen their financial resources with loans is seen as a sign of approval.

This shows that far-flung Washington economists are confident that the country can afford to pay interest and manage it properly.

But this is not the way some Kenyans see things-they don’t want the IMF to give the country any more money.

“A flock of bees”

Kenyans in the Twitter community (also known as KOT) are a force to consider.

They are compared to swarms of bees that attack in groups and repeatedly sting until the problem is resolved or a larger problem that distracts them occurs.

As a result, at the end of Monday’s Easter weekend, the KOT turned its attention to the IMF. Two days ago, it announced more than $ 2.3 billion (£ 1.7 billion) in funding to support Kenya’s pandemic response and economic reform programs.

The IMF’s announcement came shortly after a survey showing that four in five Kenyans were anxious, afraid, or angry because of their debt burden.

So by the Twitter storm and the end of Monday, #StopGivingKenyaLoans has become one of the trending hashtags here.

Train with a driver looking out the window

Kenya borrowed a lot of money to build a new railroad that opened in 2017

People were also encouraged by #SignThePetition. This was a reference to an online campaign aimed at encouraging the IMF to withdraw the proposal, and people claimed that the previous loan was not being used with caution.

Treasury Minister Yatani Ukul has come out to defend the loan, stating that it needs money to support small businesses and “prevent a larger humanitarian crisis.”

But the online public is still not convinced.

To understand why the IMF loan didn’t impress Kenyans, we need to introduce a new constitution 10 years ago.

4x growth in debt

It was designed to correct past government abuse. It says there must be openness, accountability, and public participation in how public wallets are managed.

When the current government took over in 2013, public debt was $ 16 billion, but now it’s about $ 70 billion, more than quadrupled.

Some of this can be attributed to the launch of large-scale infrastructure projects sold as game changers, job creation, and long-term economic revitalization.

For example, a new railroad linking the coast and the capital Nairobi, built with a loan from China, opened in 2017 at the Great Fanfare. However, it is running at great loss and there is suspicion that the government has not cleaned up the project.

Some of these plans have also been seen as a path of corruption.

The debt debate reached a turning point in 2018 when a member of Parliament’s Budget Committee said Congress was unable to contain the country’s bloated debt.

Moses Clear said, “I’ve sold this romantic story to the Kenyans that everything is going well since 2014,” but not everything went well.

“Parliament has failed in the task of managing borrowing and has approved almost all demands to take on more debt,” Source: Waihiga Mwaura, Source Description: Kenyan Journalist, Image: Waihiga Mwaura

One case of corruption allegedly involving former Treasury Minister Henry Rotich is currently being heard in court.

He has been accused of inflating public works contracts by more than $ 150 million. Rotitch has denied the charges.

Earlier this year, President Uhuru Kenyatta suggested that about $ 18 million was lost daily in corruption.

Higher debt = higher tax

Of all this, Congress has failed in the task of managing borrowing and has approved almost every request to take on more debt. Therefore, public debt now reaches about 65% of the country’s annual income, which is small by richer national standards, but Kenya is struggling to cover it.

Nevertheless, the government wants to take on more debt, but Kenyans know who pays for what they consider to be the prosperity of the nation.

Tax increases have already taken place since the tax exemption period introduced by the pandemic ended in December. And now there are higher fuel prices.

In addition to this, the new coronavirus restrictions have affected their ability to make money.

Therefore, many people here are paying attention to IMF loans, suspecting that it will result in more corruption and more taxation.

It’s not clear if an online campaign can change anything, but when presidential candidates launch a campaign for next year’s elections, they say how ordinary Kenyans treat state funding. You may need to listen to what you are saying about.

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A composite image showing the BBC Africa logo and a man reading on a smartphone.