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Kenyans protest rising debt

Man sitting on the floor with a sign (archive from 2018)

In our series of letters from African journalists, Kenyan broadcaster Waihiga Mwaura examines his country’s concern over growing debt.

Kenyans protest rising debt

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In many countries, the willingness of global institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to bolster government coffers with a loan is seen as a sign of approval.

This shows that economists in remote Washington state believe the country can afford and properly manage interest payments.

But that’s not how some Kenyans see it – they don’t want the IMF to give the country more money.

‘Swarm of bees’

The Kenyan community on Twitter – also known as KOT – is a force to be reckoned with.

They have been compared to a swarm of bees that attack in groups and sting repeatedly until the problem is resolved or a larger problem emerges that distracts them.

Therefore, on Monday, at the end of the Easter weekend, KOT turned to the IMF. Two days earlier, he had announced a loan of more than $ 2.3 billion (£ 1.7 billion) to support the pandemic response and Kenya’s economic reform program.

The IMF’s announcement follows a survey that showed four in five Kenyans felt anxious, fearful or angry about the debt burden.

Hence the Twitter storm and at the end of Monday #StopGivingKenyaLoans was one of the trending hashtags here.

Kenyans protest rising debt

Kenya borrowed a lot of money to build a new railway which was launched in 2017

People were also encouraged at #SignThePetition. It was a reference to an online campaign to urge the IMF to withdraw the offer, with people arguing that past loans had not been used prudently.

Finance Minister Ukur Yatani came to defend the loan, saying the money was needed to support small businesses and “prevent a more serious humanitarian crisis”.

But the masses online are not yet convinced.

To understand why an IMF loan failed to impress Kenyans, we have to go back a decade with the introduction of a new constitution.

Debt growth quadrupled

It was designed to correct past government abuses. He says there has to be openness, accountability and public participation in the way public funds are managed.

When the current government took over in 2013, the public debt stood at $ 16 billion; it is now around $ 70 billion, more than four times that.

Part of this can be attributed to the launch of large infrastructure projects that have been sold as game changers, creating jobs and boosting the economy in the long run.

For example, the new railway connecting the coast to the capital, Nairobi, built with loans from China, was launched with great fanfare in 2017. But it is suspected that it is operating at a huge loss and the government is not saying not clearly the project. .

Some of these schemes have also been seen as avenues of corruption.

The debt discussion reached a tipping point in 2018, when a member of parliament’s budget committee said the legislature had failed to contain the country’s growing debt.

Moses Kuria said that “since 2014 we have sold Kenyans this romantic story that everything is fine” – but all was not well.

Kenyans protest rising debt

“Parliament failed in its job of controlling loans and approved almost all requests to take on more debt,” “Source: Waihiga Mwaura, Description of source: Kenyan journalist, Image: Waihiga Mwaura

A case of alleged corruption involving former finance minister Henry Rotich is currently before the courts.

He is accused of inflating a contract for a public works project by more than $ 150 million. Mr. Rotich denies the charges.

Earlier this year, President Uhuru Kenyatta suggested that some $ 18 million was lost every day due to corruption.

Higher debt = higher taxes

In the midst of it all, Parliament failed in its job of controlling borrowing and approved almost every request to take on more debt. As a result, public debt now accounts for around 65% of the country’s annual income – small by the standards of richer countries, but Kenya is struggling to afford it.

Nonetheless, the government wants to go into more debt, but Kenyans know who is going to pay for what they see as state debauchery.

Taxes have already increased since the end of the tax holiday, introduced due to the pandemic, in December. And now fuel prices are higher.

On top of that, the new coronavirus restrictions have affected the ability to earn money.

So many people here are suspiciously eyeing the IMF loan, believing it will lead to more corruption and more taxation.

It’s unclear if the online campaign can change anything, but when presidential candidates start campaigning for next year’s election, they may have to listen to what ordinary Kenyans are saying about how the state funds are managed.

More letters from Africa:

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Kenyans protest rising debt

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