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Kenya’s Gen Z Protests 2024: Beneath the Rage

Opinion piece by

KINYUA, Laban Kithinji

Research Fellow, Institute of Asian, African, and Middle Eastern Studies – Sophia University

Introduction

The month of June marks the end of the government’s fiscal year in Kenya. It is, therefore, traditionally, the month of budget making, a task that was historically relegated to the minister of finance and was mostly a secretive act that caught Kenyans by surprise on any budget day. As one of the gains of the 2010 constitution, the budget making process must, however, be open to the public and give wananchi[1] a voice. Although the Kenyan constitution guarantees such an institutional framework that assures a thriving democracy, the leaders entrusted with these institutions often have anti-democratic tendencies that contradict the values set by the institutions. This year, budget making was seen as an example of how the executive and legislative arms of the government have been ignoring the voices of Kenyans by displaying a vague participatory process to budget making. As a result, young people, referred to as Generation Z (Gen Z)[2], have organized themselves mainly on digital platforms since the early days of June 2024 and galvanized a large-scale peaceful protest in various parts of Kenya, dubbed #occupyparliament and #rejectthefianancebill2024. Although these protests have been largely peaceful, the response of the state has been brutal, with Tuesday 25th 2024 marking the darkest day of the protests. Protestors almost managed to literally occupy the parliament buildings as several protestors gained access and destroyed properties. Similarly, several properties in different parts of the country belonging to the members of parliament (MPs) who supported the bill were vandalized. The response by the police was brutal, but at the end the president was forced to withdraw the bill and send it back to the parliament for further debate. How can we understand these protests?


Political Protests in Kenya

Kenya has a rich history of political activism, as seen in numerous protests since the advent of multiparty democracy in the early 1990s. Historically, these protests have been spearheaded by politicians, religious groups, and civil society organisations, and have often been successful in improving the democratic space in the East African nation. Although these protests have had remarkable achievements such as restoration of multiparty democracy and remaking of the constitution, the agitators for free democratic space have often mixed up with the “fence seaters” or the “oppressors” turned “liberators” and therefore hindering the fruits of these protests.

Since 2013[3], there has been a growing perception that demonstrations are often manoeuvres by the political elite to negotiate for power, leading to widespread disillusionment among the population. At the same time, there was a campaign to demean the place of protests as a democratic practice through a state-backed campaign of discrediting civil society in a social media campaign that labelled them "evil society" during President Uhuru Kenyatta's regime. Another form of anti-protests wave emphasised the potential danger of protests as destroying the economy by underscoring its violent nature. This particular label was mixed with ethnic labelling that depicts certain communities as leaning more towards violence (Luo's as stone throwers and Kikuyu as the owners of the businesses being destroyed)[4].

This labelling of protests has resulted in part into a disillusionment and a feeling of "un-political" among many Kenyans who therefore have distanced themselves from political protests. In stark contrast, the current wave of demonstrations against the 2024 finance bill is unique. Predominantly driven by Gen Z, these protests are largely leaderless and motivated by genuine economic grievances, transcending ethnic divisions and regional politics. In this sense, they seem to have caught the crafty political class largely unaware and unprepared with a discourse that can disparage their mobilisation.


Shortcomings of Public Participation

Under the 2010 Constitution, in place of the budget reading that was traditionally presented as a surprise to many Kenyans, the state is required by law to table a finance bill which undergoes several voting stages before it is assented into law by the president. Before the finance bill is brought for debate in parliament, the 2010 Constitution accords a special role to the public to input their voices through forums of public participation conducted by the parliamentary finance committee. Public participation is an emblem for democracy. However, since the inauguration of the 2010 constitution, it has become a rubber stamp for unpopular laws and approval of state projects done by selective state-friendly participants in these forums. The wananchi seem to have noticed the shortcoming and rubber stumping that is often the signature of these forums. In June 2023, there was an uproar about the process of making the budget, and yet the ruling parliamentary majority ignored the pressure asserted on them in the 2023 budget proposals, despite being unpopular with the wananchi.

The continued rise in the cost of living after the 2023 finance bill seems to have created a level of preparedness in the 2024 finance bill making process among the wananchi. The 2024 finance bill, proposed by the Kenyan government, aims to address the country’s fiscal deficits through a series of tax reforms and expenditure adjustments. Key provisions include an increased value-added tax (VAT) on some basic commodities such as bread, the introduction of new taxes on digital transactions, and an eco-levy on products such as diapers, sanitary pads, and rubber. The government argues that these measures are necessary to stabilise the economy and reduce national debt. However, critics contend that the bill disproportionately affects low-income and middle-income earners, exacerbating economic inequality and stifling growth in critical sectors. With the knowledge on the shortcomings of public participation process facilitated by the state, the media and key social media influencers in Kenya’s digital spaces took it upon themselves to reflect and sensitise Kenyans on the ramifications of the 2024 finance bill.

As stipulated by the law, several forums were held for public participation. The budget committee used these forums to explain the content of the bill, but also to campaign for it as a necessary document. In these forums, wananchi witnessed a high level of disregard for their opinions, with such comments from the chair of the budget committee as "we are taxing bread because our research shows that it is causing diabetes to many Kenyans". This statement was seen as out of touch by the people agitating for the adjustments in the bill, with a respondent to the MP’s statement stating that, "bread is still a luxury for many Kenyans". The uproar about the bill’s content was sustained to the last moment until the bill was ready to be presented to parliament for debate. Perhaps, sensing the mood in the country, or just attempting to lure those disgruntled, the state public relations crew declared that Kenya kwanza is a "listening" government, and that they had put measure to include the dissenting voices. In a meeting held at the state house of Nairobi before the bill’s first reading, the president announced that they had dropped key contested clauses in the bill. This may also have been a scheme to avert the protests already gaining momentum and the call to "occupy the parliament" that was threatening to pressure the MPs to vote down the provision in the 2024 finance bill. The state offer was too late, as the plans to protest were surprisingly successful.


Gen Z: A Politically Woke or Woken Demons?

Gen Z in Kenya, much like their global counterparts, is characterized by high digital literacy, social media savviness, and a strong sense of social justice. Although the protest against the finance bill has largely been without a "leader" and seems to unite young people based on their economic grievances, it was without question organised in the digital platforms that exploited the presence of Gen Z in those platforms. The Gen Z political awareness, as exhibited in the protest against the 2024 finance bill, is unique for several reasons. Unlike previous protests, which were often seen through the lens of ethnic and regional politics, this movement appears to have transcended these traditional divisions. For instance, despite ongoing debates about regional politics in the ruling party, especially in the Mt. Kenya region, youth participating in these protests have largely rejected incorporation into these discourses and have explicitly asked politicians to keep out of their fight. This unity, based on shared economic challenges rather than political affiliation, is a defining characteristic of Gen Z activism.

Like many other uprisings in our political history, we may not correctly predict the trajectory that these protests will take but several factors that underpin Gen Z’s opposition to the finance bill may remain relevant to Kenya’s political future. One key of these factors is the economic status of Gen Z and the rest of the country at large. The proposed tax increases are detrimental to young people who are in the workforce or are struggling with high unemployment rates. The increased cost of living directly threatens their financial stability and prospects.  As a digitally active generation, Gen Z are particularly sensitive to taxes on digital transactions as many young entrepreneurs rely on digital platforms for their businesses, and additional taxes threaten their livelihood. It is therefore the growing social inequality in general that seems to worry Gen Z and spurs them to action.

Part of this awareness on economy as an issue to be incorporated in country’s fiscal planning and politics strangely emanates from the political class in charge of the government today. In 2022, William Ruto led a populist campaign that he called “hustlers” and promised a government that would belong to them through what he called “bottom up” policies. This discourse pitied the “haves” against “have-nots” creating fictional “dynasties” versus “hustlers” narrative. The promise to restructure the economy of the country however does not seem to bear any fruits two years after Ruto took over the country’s leadership, rather an entrenched culture of corruption and wastage of public resources has been sustained. Although the economic “demon” was awoken by the political class to ride to power, they seem largely without a plan on how to facilitate an economy that works for the majority of wananchi.  


Making sense of Gen Z's Moment

As this essay mentioned in the beginning, Kenya’s political class has always employed digital scheming to discredit protests. This kind of highly curated public relations exercise removes people from issues raised by the protesting groups by often focusing on the negative aspects of protests, such as destruction of properties, injuries, confrontation with the police, etc., and refocusing on people to the benevolence of the political class. In recent struggles, some state officials have already shown such attitudes, as seen by the action of the cabinet secretary for tourism, Alfred Mutua, who visited the police officer who injured himself while dispensing tear gas canisters to the protesters, yet not condemning violent confrontations by the police against protesters. Similar attitude can be seen from the president’s address while withdrawing the finance bill. He overly presents himself as the caring, listening messiah who is inviting the youths to the negotiation table. But the big question is, does he have a working strategy to address the issues at hand beyond presenting himself as a magical politician who suddenly dethrones politics of ethnicity and economic despair?

Although this essay refers to the 2024 finance bill protests as "Gen Z's protests" it is critical to note that this kind of media driven labelling that focus on age rather than issues is itself fallacious and somewhat dangerous. As some commentators have noted the media's emphasis on the age of protesters distracts from the core issues of taxation and government inability to address corruption. This focus diminishes the legitimacy of protests by infantilizing participants and falls into the danger of failing to address their substantive grievances. The current approach seems to undermine protestors' messages and reduces their activism to a mere youth rebellion without an economic or political context. The labelling also reifies the claim by the political class that Gen Z is clueless and empty in terms of understanding politics, economics, and the content of the bill. While voting yes to the bill, the leader of the majority in parliament, Kimani Ichung'wa claimed that those young people out in protest used Uber to join the protest, they went to dine at KFC after the protest, and therefore they have no understanding of the issues in the bill that provides electricity to rural populace without electricity. This statement discredits the participants in a political place as void of critical grasp of issues, and yet again seems to divert the attention of the public to the benevolence of the politician at the expense of ignoring social-economic-political realities expressed by the Gen Z.

When the state announced that they had dropped what they thought was the contentious issues, they were met with the agitation for "do not amend, reject" from the Gen Z. Similar calls were made after the president redirected the bill back to the parliament. The lessons from Gen Z are that we must see these uprisings as a continuation of protest in larger context. These protests are part of a broader continuum of activities against the finance bill, including efforts to hold politicians accountable and engage voices of the wananchi in the political process. This ongoing activism indicates a well-organised and sustained opposition rather than a fleeting outburst. It in many ways also falls into the same thought that Gen Z is indicating a departure from the usual demeaning cleavages in Kenyan politics such as ethnicity and tribe. The debate about what Gen Z should do to their parliamentary representatives that did not heed to the cry of the public displays the ability to take further actions beyond the current focus, and precisely to put the agitation into the larger context. These attempts, such as the talk to recall members of parliament, seem to be ready for testing. During the protests, specific properties belonging to MPs who supported the bill were targeted and destroyed, and the highest goal seemed to be the parliament building itself. Social media recorded raw pictures that showed some youths carrying what looked like a mace from the parliament building after the invasion. Although the speaker of the national assembly later disputed that the mace was taken from the parliament, the “fake” one was symbolic enough to display what the wishes of the protestors were. In another incident, the youth actively de-platformed the MP for Dagoretti South constituency in Nairobi, Waweru J. Kiarie by denying him a chance to address them at a burial ceremony. Therefore, the protests seem to be knitting a wave that may become a continuation of activities rejecting the finance bill and a movement that may organise further actions. Gen Z awakening is relevant in its quest to go beyond the capture and silencing that often follows the aftermath of protests.

Perhaps the biggest question in these protests is how digital platforms are transforming the young African generation. We can perhaps map a few trends by looking at the role of social media in actualising these protests, but also framing them into a larger global context. Platforms such as TikTok and Twitter have been instrumental in mobilising support and rapidly spreading information. The use of social media has allowed for a decentralised yet cohesive movement that can sustain public anger and engagement over time. This accessibility and rapid dissemination of information on these platforms have been pivotal in maintaining the momentum of the protests. The state is also particularly aware of this as was seen attempting to limit the Internet and media use on the night of the protests.

As this momentum persists, it is fuelled by a sense of global consciousness. Thus, although local economic desperation in the sense that the protests are driven by the harsh economic realities faced by young Kenyans, who see little to lose in fighting back against policies that worsen their situation, they share the pain of similar situations and awareness of places outside their lived realities. This sense of economic desperation fuels protests’ intensity and persistence. Moreover, the government’s failure to address the needs of the young, unemployed population is connected to issues happening in many other places, which creates a reality that they have nothing to lose, making them more determined in their protests. The protests damaged the international image of President Ruto, potentially affecting his standing with global allies, and Gen Z seems to tap into that to make a point. A part of the issues raised by protestors was also the role of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank in the 2024 finance bill making process. Thus, although the protestors are initially using the local issues to protest, they also connect with what is to them the bigger picture, that the policies imposed by the international finance bodies to Kenya have a negative effect on them.


Conclusion

The unusual support accorded the Gen Z's protests in Nairobi and other major cities in Kenya against the 2024 finance bill underscores the need to focus on the substantive issues of taxation and governance, but also calls for an understanding of the issues raised beyond the demographics of the protesters and touch on key issues of accountability and governance. In this way, the reading of these protests should move away from the media’s sensationalist approach and instead highlight the broad-based support for protests across different age groups. More importantly, we should read the Gen Z revolt as the uprising against the political establishment and should therefore not be trivialised by focusing solely on the age of the protesters or labels such as Gen Z, which potentially detracts from the critical issues at hand and reduces the protest to a mere spectacle.

These protests and activism of Gen Z against the 2024 finance bill has broader implications for Kenya’s political and social landscape. They have implied intergenerational support, in that while Gen Z provides energy for the protests, other generations, particularly millennials, have been crucial in supporting these efforts. Lawyers and advocates, mostly millennials, have played a vital role in ensuring protesters’ safety and legal protection. This sustained activism indicates a significant shift in Kenya’s youth political engagement. To remedy from falling into the trapping of the past and the rising scheming of state propaganda in digital platforms, we need to engage in thinking about the role of labelling in the media, as the media's portrayal of protests can either support or undermine the movement. Accurate and comprehensive reporting of the issues at hand is crucial for maintaining public support and ensuring that protests achieve their goals. Importantly, the general public must be keen to discern the manoeuvrers of the state that often curates a discourse to disparage the intentions of the protest.

The opposition of Gen Z to Kenya’s 2024 finance bill is a testament to their political engagement and commitment to social justice. Through innovative protest methods and the strategic use of digital platforms, they not only challenge specific policies but also reshape the broader landscape of civic participation in Kenya. This movement underscores the necessity for policymakers to engage with and address young people’s concerns, ensuring that economic reforms do not disproportionately burden the most vulnerable. As Gen Z continues to assert its influence, the future of Kenyan democracy seems increasingly participatory and inclusive.


Notes

[1] "Wananchi" is a Swahili phrase that is commonly utilized in East Africa, particularly in Kenya and Tanzania. This phrase, which translates to "citizens" or "the people" in English, is commonly utilized to refer to the general population or the ordinary individuals of a nation, especially in the context of public discourse, politics, and governance. It is a collective noun that underscores the significance of the general public in societal and political issues.


[2] The so-called Generation Z is comprised of individuals born after the Millennial generation. Specifically, in Kenya, they are those born between 1997 and 2012. During their early years, they may have experienced the anticipated economic growth under the leadership of President Mwai Kibaki, which commenced in 2002. However, this optimism has since waned since 2013 when they reached their teenage years. Furthermore, these young individuals have benefited from a broader access to education because of various reforms, which provided free primary education since 2003 and free secondary day-school education, leading to the enrolment of a significant number of them in higher educational institutions. (Iraki, X. (2024). Kenya unrest: the deep economic roots that brought Gen-Z onto the streets. The Conversation. Retrieved June 30, 2024, from <https://theconversation.com/kenya-unrest-the-deep-economic-roots-that-brought-gen-z-onto-the-streets-233463>.)


[3] The 2013 general elections in Kenya were the first to be held after the severe electoral conflict in 2007/08, which caused widespread violence due to contested election results. In 2007/08, the opposition candidate, Raila Odinga, called for protests, which significantly contributed to the escalation of violence. By 2013, the national mood and the international community were focused on maintaining peace, fearing a recurrence of the 2007/08 violence. When Raila Odinga, who ran for president and lost to Uhuru Kenyatta in 2013, expressed dissatisfaction with the election results, supporters of Uhuru Kenyatta warned that such dissatisfaction could lead to chaos in the country. As a result, concerns about potential violence overshadowed the democratic right to express dissatisfaction.


[4] The political landscape of Kenya has been characterized by a long-standing rivalry between the Kikuyu and Luo ethnic groups. The Kikuyu, who constitute one of the largest ethnic groups in Kenya, have traditionally wielded significant political and economic influence. Kenya's post-independence presidents, including Jomo Kenyatta, Mwai Kibaki, and Uhuru Kenyatta, have hailed from the Kikuyu community. Conversely, the Luo, another significant ethnic group in Kenya, have prominently featured in the political opposition. The most prominent Luo political figure is Raila Odinga, who has contested the presidency on multiple occasions and has served as a key opposition leader. The Luo community is renowned for its robust political activism and advocacy for democratic reforms. The competition between these two political groups has often been intense, at times exacerbating ethnic tensions in the country. Rooted in both historical and contemporary political contexts, each group seeks political dominance and representation. The emergence of stereotypes such as "Luo's as stone throwers" and "Kikuyus as economically dominant" is a result of this rivalry. The term "stone throwers" is a derogatory label used to describe Luo protesters, referencing their participation in demonstrations and civil unrest, particularly during times of political dissatisfaction. Conversely, the Kikuyu community is sometimes viewed as economically privileged and politically powerful, further fuelling resentment and competition between the two groups. These stereotypes, although oversimplifications, have contributed to the framing of political narratives and have had significant implications for Kenya's socio-political dynamics.

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