On the Firing Line in Nairobi

ACORN International Poverty Protests

            Heerlen           The lead articles in all of the papers around the world are highlighting the mass protests in Nairobi, Kenya, where thousands breached Parliament, lit fires, and were beaten back by police and gunfire killing at least five, as they fought to stop passage of a broad tax increase proposed by the government.  I didn’t need to read the headlines, because I had been getting reports regularly from our organizers in Nairobi who were having to make decisions about whether they could safely travel to Korogocho, where our membership lives there and in Matari, a neighboring megaslum.

Wouldn’t you know it?  Coincidentally, we had scheduled a month-long training program in Nairobi beginning this same week, as all hell broke loose.  We realized last fall that Kenya ACORN was struggling to recover its momentum and mojo from the after effects of the pandemic, which had hit the country hard.  The situation seemed to call for some retraining and realignment of the local organizing staff.  ACORN Canada agreed to second Emily Armitage, our lead organizer in British Columbia, for a month to run the training there.  ACORN went deep into its thin resources and used this opportunity to finally train our organizer in the Port Harcourt area of Nigeria and our two community and radio organizers in Arua and Kampala, Uganda, while also interviewing and training new and old organizers in Kenya.  In short, as protests broke out all over the country, our entire ACORN Africa anglophone organizing staff was holed up in a house we had rented for the month as a residence and training center for this mission.

ACORN Kenya had been born in similar circumstance.  Originally, slated to begin organizing in 2008, the post-election violence that followed the 2007 presidential election forced us to delay organizing until 2009, making this our fifteen-year anniversary in Kenya.  We don’t pick the times to organize, but we have to adapt to the times.

The issues beneath the riots are easy to understand.  Taxes are never popular, especially when people are struggling.  These proposals have been very unpopular.  As the Times reports:

Initially, the bill called for taxes on essentials like bread, cooking oil and cars, but public backlash caused lawmakers to roll some levies back. However, the rollbacks failed to derail public protests.  On Tuesday, Parliament passed the bill. It is expected to increase taxes on imported goods — including some basics, like eggs, from nearby East African nations — as well as on phone and internet usage, bank transfer fees and digitally operated businesses.

Add to all of this, the unpopularity of President Ruto and his lavish lifestyle and the ever-present allegations of corruption in government, and the pleas that the country needs more money to pay its debt and operate fall on deaf and desperate ears.

The bill is now on the president’s desk.  He has two weeks to sign it or send it back for amendments.  Our team is now set to do visits in Korogocho and other communities, so we’ll be in the thick of it throughout this month.  We’ll poll our members and see what position and action they want to take.  There’s no simple path here, but we’re in it to win it, and have to find a way forward with our members.

Maybe this is the perfect time for us to be in Nairobi!