Protests in Kenya: Gen Z takes to the streets

World Saturday 22/June/2024 16:09 PM
By: DW
Protests in Kenya: Gen Z takes to the streets

Nairobi: A proposed finance bill sparked mass protests in the streets of Nairobi and across other cities in Kenya this week.

Demonstrators, many of them young people, protested in front of Kenya's Parliament building on Thursday morning for the second time this week. They claimed the bill's tax hikes and levies would make the country's cost-of-living crisis worse. Police fired tear gas into the crowd, and hundreds were arrested.

Gen Z takes to the streets
Bold young protesters from what is often referred to as Generation Z, or Gen Z — the term generally used to describe people born during the late 1990s and early 2000s — expressed their anger at how the government in Kenya has been offloading its problems onto citizens. "We are already paying taxes and they are not doing much with it — it gets stolen. So how can we trust them with more?" Makena Kahuha, an actor and content creator, told DW.

Another protestor, Pamela Muriuki, is also disappointed: "They prefer allegiance to the government instead of the voters who voted them in," she says.

In contrast to previous protests led by opposition party members, demonstrations were driven by young citizens who chanted anti-government slogans and waved placards disparaging the bill.

Government bows under pressure
These demonstrations were different from other mass protests seen previously in Kenya. This time, young protesters filmed clashes with police officers with their smartphones, publishing them online. The protests gained momentum on social media under the hashtag #OccupyParliament.

And the protests were a resounding success. By Thursday afternoon, the goverment announced it would scrap many of the bill's most contentious provisions, including taxes on bread purchases and car ownership.

"The finance bill has been amended to remove the proposed 16% levy on bread, transportation of sugar, financial services, foreign exchange transactions, as well as the 2.5% motor vehicle tax," the presidency wrote in a statement.

Additionally, there will be no increase in mobile money transfer fees, according to the statement.

The cash-strapped government had previously defended the tax hikes as necessary in order to cut reliance on external borrowing. The increases were projected to raise some 346.7 billion shillings ($2.7 billion), the equivalent of 1.9% of the country's GDP.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the country has struggled with a cost-of-living crisis. Critics warned the situation would only worsen under the levies laid out in a bill.

The International Monetary Fund urged the government to increase revenues in its 2024/2025 budget to reduce borrowing.

More accountability
According to Wanjiru Gikonyo, national coordinator of the Institute for Social Accountability, a civil society initiative working towards good governance, the demonstrations were peaceful and young people had mobilized without the help of politicians, unlike in the past.

"There were very creative voices. Unfortunately the police used force on young people demonstrating on the most significant piece of legislation for any citizen — the tax provisions," she told DW.

Gikonyo spoke of the significance of such peaceful protests. "It taught us that the violent protests really are instigated in the political arena," she stressed. "But the violence in the past has been part of the mobilization strategy, and underlying that is a culture of political mobilization and violence that underpins politics."

Similarly, Zaha Indimuli, exective director of the Amali Organization, which supports empowering youth and promoting national development, said the government must be held accountable if they use force on peaceful protesters.

"Why would you throw teargas at the people giving you feedback? It is mediocre and it also shows a lot of immaturity inside the government," she told DW.

"They should sit down with the people who actually put them there and fix the problems at home, not travel the world," she said, referring to President William Ruto.
A protester escapes from the grasp of a police officer.

Wrong economic path
Ruto is trying to position himself in the region and even globally, Gikonyo said. Therefore, such mass protests would not help his image.

Gikonyo, like others, points out the history behind the financial crisis, namely "very irresponsible borrowing already been done by previous governments," which continued under the leadership of President Ruto.

When Ruto came into power in 2022, his administration invested in many projects that were not profitable, she told DW.  "Kenya's economy also has structural problems, high costs of electricity, also high costs of doing business due to corruption."

Kenya's economy has been inefficient, and the current administration has not dealt with the debt issues, Gikonyo points out. "The country is on the wrong economic trajectory."

Recently, Ruto's government made promises to reduce taxes and then did the opposite without consulting citizens. The move led to massive frustration in the country, where many people already struggle to make ends meet.

Signs of change
The recent protests showed that Kenya's young people are ready and willing to take to social media and get public about their demands. The government has long held fears that social media could be used to promote discord and has pushed for stricter oversight by regulators.

Wanjiru Gikonyo is hopeful about the future: "This revolution of young people is the beginning of change. These young people have shown the older generations how it is done."