Under-fire Kenya govt says to review state salary hikes

Riot police fired tear gas during the anti-Ruto demonstrations (LUIS TATO)
Riot police fired tear gas during the anti-Ruto demonstrations (LUIS TATO)

The Kenyan presidency said Wednesday it had ordered a review of salary increases for public servants in an apparent move to defuse tensions after a wave of sometimes deadly anti-government protests.

Public anger is running high over what protesters see as rampant government extravagance in the face of the economic hardships and high cost of living confronting ordinary Kenyans.

Demonstrations led mainly by Gen-Z Kenyans over proposed tax increases have spiralled into a wider campaign demanding President William Ruto's resignation and action against perceived corruption and profligate spending by his administration.

Dozens of people have been killed since the initially peaceful rallies began more than two weeks ago, with the police accused of using excessive force against protesters.

It is the most serious crisis facing Ruto since he took office in September 2022 in the East African nation often touted as a beacon of stability in a turbulent region.

The latest demonstrations on Tuesday again descended into mayhem, with police firing tear gas at rock-throwing crowds.

There were reports of widespread looting and property damage particularly in the capital Nairobi and the port city of Mombasa, an opposition stronghold.

Ruto's spokesman Hussein Mohamed said in a statement on X that the presidency has ordered the Treasury to review pay and benefits for state officials and lawmakers.

- 'Live within their means' -

The move follows Ruto's decision last week to withdraw the finance bill containing the deeply unpopular tax hikes after the deadliest day of violence on June 25 that saw crowds ransack parliament as police fired live bullets at protesters.

"The president has emphasised that this is a time, more than ever before, for the executive and all arms of government to live within their means," Mohamed said.

Ruto has also pledged to scrap allowances for the office of the first lady and the deputy president's wife, a move media reports said would save 1.2 billion shillings ($9.3 million).

The new salary structure for national and county public officers was scheduled to take effect on July 1 but details of the increases were not immediately available.

"It is not sustainable to have 900,000 public servants from both levels of government consume 1.1 trillion shillings ($8.5 billion) annually," Public Service Minister Moses Kuria said in a statement.

He said this was equivalent to 47 percent of national revenues, "leaving the rest of 54 million Kenyans with 53 percent, with debt servicing and development to cater for, among other expenditure".

Under legislation adopted in 2012, the public wage bill should not exceed 35 percent of the national budget, Kuria said.

"This is more of a moral and ethical issue than an economic issue," he added.

Activists using the hashtag "RutoMustGo" have urged more rallies on Thursday, although it was not clear how widely their calls would be followed after Tuesday's violence.

Some protesters have alleged the violence was stoked by "goons" who hijacked the demonstrations.

Police said they had arrested more than 270 people masquerading as protesters who went on a criminal rampage on Tuesday.

"Security forces across the country singled out suspects found engaging in criminal activities in the guise of protesting, and took them to custody," the Directorate of Criminal Investigations said in a statement posted on X late Tuesday.

It said a total of 204 suspects were arrested in the Nairobi area and another 68 in other parts of the country.

The police themselves have been accused by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) of using "excessive and disproportionate" force against the protesters.

On Monday, KNCHR said that 39 people had been killed and 361 injured during two weeks of rallies but has not given an updated toll since then.

The bloodshed has further angered the demonstrators, who have not been mollified by Ruto's U-turn on the tax hikes or his call for dialogue with young Kenyans.

Ruto has insisted that the financial measures taken by his administration were vital to keep the wheels of government rolling and to service a huge public debt of some 10 trillion shillings ($78 billion), or about 70 percent of GDP.