A TikTok revolution?

Kenyan youth are leading popular protests against regressive tax reforms that will worsen the country’s worsening cost of living crisis.

A protesters throws back a teargas canister at police officers during a protest over proposed tax hikes in a finance bill that is due to be tabled in parliament in Nairobi, Kenya, Thursday, June 20, 2024. (AP Photo/ Andrew Kasuku)

Something truly remarkable happened in Nairobi on June 18. For the first time since Kenya’s independence, a people-driven movement, ignited largely by Gen Z (those born after 1997, also known as the fully “digitally native” generation because they were born during the internet age) took to the streets in droves to protest against the Finance Bill 2024 that will introduce punitive taxes that will, among other negative impacts, significantly raise the cost of living and the cost of doing business in Kenya. If passed, it will also allow the state to raid citizens’ personal data, including bank details and mobile money accounts, thereby overturning existing digital privacy laws. The people gathered on the streets of Nairobi were not the usual hoi polloi who usually attended rallies; they were young people, including professionals, from all classes.

This spontaneous, organic movement was significant in three important ways. One, it was leaderless; there were no politicians or political leaders leading the pack, nor was it associated with any political party. Two, it was driven largely by social media; the call to protest was communicated mainly via social media platforms like X and TikTok. Third, civil society organizations that in the last couple of decades have been the traditional torchbearers of matters related to good governance and accountability were largely absent or invisible during the protests. In this regard, the movement is very much akin to the Occupy Wall Street movement that took hold during Barack Obama’s presidency in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, the “Arab Spring” in North Africa, protests that resulted in the ouster of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir in 2019, and to the rapidly growing climate change movement currently being championed by young activists like Greta Thunberg, among others.

The June 18 protests demonstrated that it is possible for Kenyans to rally around a cause without being chaperoned or persuaded by any political leader or politician. This is in sharp contrast to the early and mid-1990s when political leaders, such as Martin Shikuku, Kenneth Matiba, and James Orengo could mobilize thousands of people to large pro-democracy rallies at Kamukunji grounds and other places, demanding the end to Daniel arap Moi’s dictatorial regime. For their efforts, some of these leaders were incarcerated, and it took another decade for Moi to be ousted. The resounding victory of Mwai Kibaki in the 2002 general election saw many of these leaders join the government or become elected leaders. Then, there was no one left to speak for “the people,” except civil society and non-governmental organizations (CSOs and NGOs). During the Kibaki era, NGOs and CSOs also took on the role of educating the public about their rights and responsibilities when it was no longer dangerous to do so.

However, the 2007/8 post-election violence, which led to the death of hundreds of people and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of others, made it clear that the relationship between the state and its citizens had altered irreversibly and that the concept of “nationhood” was still a mirage in Kenya. This disputed election was a turning point in Kenya. Ordinary Kenyans became skeptical of the ability of the state to protect them and to uphold their rights. This resulted in louder demands, spearheaded by Raila Odinga, among others, for changing the constitution to give citizens more rights. 

On their part, NGOs and CSOs experienced a severe crisis of confidence as many viewed the post-election violence as a symptom of their failure to reduce ethnic tensions and polarization. After more than a decade of work in the areas of democratization, human rights, and civic education, they were forced to ask themselves this difficult question: Was the Kenyan electoral crisis a result of their inability to bring about genuine transformation in the country? After all, Kenya had experienced flawed elections in the past but had never witnessed death, destruction, and displacement on the scale of 2007/8. Had Kenyans reached a stage where they were willing to take up arms to fight for what they perceived to be their rights or had the political class become more Machiavellian in creating ethnic divisions in the country and entrenching a culture of violence and impunity? 

The violence and mass displacement brought to the fore issues that had not been dealt with adequately by both the state and NGOs, such as grievances related to land, inequality, and the rule of law. NGOs dealing with good governance worried about democratic backsliding and the deepening of polarization along ethnic lines. (It is interesting to note that the recommendations of the Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission that was established to address these grievances were never implemented by Uhuru Kenyatta when he took office in 2013.)

The Kenyan public was also beginning to question whether CSOs and NGOs were, in fact, part of the problem afflicting Kenya’s politics; some civil society and non-governmental organizations were viewed as being partisan or aligned to certain political parties or donor countries. Because most of these NGOs and CSOs were heavily dependent on mostly Western donors and donor agencies, which came with their own biases and agendas, few could assert their independence regarding the kinds of projects and programs they wanted to run. They succumbed to what constitutional lawyer Wachira Maina refers to as the “language of the donors.”

Many NGOs and CSOs thus became “professionalized,” carrying out projects that appealed to certain donor organizations and quite often oblivious to the needs of what Kenyans refer to as people “kwa ground.” The “real” civil society—members of trade unions, cooperatives, farmers’ associations, and the like—were ignored in discourses to do with politics and the economy. (William Ruto cynically exploited this disconnect by appealing to the so-called hustlers—people who survive in the informal economy through precarious jobs and sheer resilience in the face of lack of employment opportunities in the formal sector—in the last general election.) However, as has become apparent, these hustlers will be most affected if the Finance Bill becomes law because the Bill is aimed primarily at taxing the informal sector, which comprises the majority of the Kenyan workforce.

It was expected that the promulgation of a new constitution in 2010 would lessen the burden on NGOs and CSOs to ensure that people’s rights are respected and that the establishment of independent state-funded commissions and oversight bodies would protect citizens from the vagaries and excesses of the state. However, the powers of these commissions were significantly eroded by both President Uhuru Kenyatta and President William Ruto. Anti-corruption and police oversight bodies, for instance, have largely failed to bring people to book or to make leaders and the police more accountable. Extrajudicial killings by the police continue unabated. More significantly, these presidents’ disrespect for court orders (most recently the one on the newly introduced Housing Levy and the decision to send Kenyan police to Haiti, which the courts deemed “unconstitutional”) has signified that an independent judiciary is also under serious threat.

The “defanging” of state institutions not only poses a threat to citizens but also to the many NGOs and CSOs that had become accustomed to carrying out their work with little interference from the state during the Kibaki era. There is a palpable fear among them that their operations might come to a halt if they are too vocal, especially under the current president, who is already displaying dictatorial tendencies. (This was clear during the June 18 protests—dubbed Occupy Parliament—when several peaceful protesters were arrested by police for simply carrying out their constitutional right to protest.)

What recent governments—including the so-called digital presidency of UhuRuto in 2013—have underestimated is the power of social media to bring about social, economic, and political transformation. Former President Uhuru believed that an army of propagandists and bloggers he recruited in the State House could shield him from the people’s wrath, but this clearly did not happen, including in his own backyard in Central Kenya, which voted overwhelmingly for Ruto (whom he did not support in the 2022 election). Similarly, President Ruto believes that his communication team will help ensure his neoliberal, regressive agenda is not questioned, whether citizens like it or not. This has clearly not happened.

Ruto also believes that by cozying up to Western leaders (whom he vilified during his campaign to become deputy president before the 2013 election because he perceived them as supporting his indictment, along with Uhuru, at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity committed during the 2007/2008 crisis) he will be protected from scrutiny or criticism from Western nations and financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which most Kenyans believe is the main architect of the draconian Finance Bill 2024.

But even Ruto had to account for the millions of shillings he wasted in traveling in a luxurious private jet to the United States for a recent state visit, even as he implored Kenyans to “tighten their belts” and prepare for tough austerity measures in the face of rising national debt. (The US embassy in Nairobi denied that the US had paid for the trip after Ruto suggested that it was paid for by the US government.) His belated explanation that the jet was a “gift” from friends also raised a lot of questions about Kenya’s foreign policy. What “quid pro quo” arrangements were made with this foreign “friend” and did this put Kenya’s national interests at risk? These questions may not have arisen if Kenyans on social and mainstream media had not demanded answers. Similarly, it is likely that any future domestic or foreign policy issues will come under closer scrutiny under a “woke” generation that has little patience with politicians who speak from both sides of their mouths.

As anti-corruption crusader and founder of The Elephant, John Githongo, explained to me during a recent interview published in Debunk magazine, “current democracies are not delivering public goods at anything near the pace that our very young population expect. There is a profound skepticism with power and suspicion of the West, in particular, among this African demographic we are witnessing.” This youthful demographic has also been quick to realize that Kenyan politicians cannot be trusted—they can easily switch alliances and political parties for their own selfish individual interests and don’t seem to have any ideology, except amassing as much as wealth as quickly as possible and living large. Their appetite for debt has not abated since the presidency of Uhuru, which went on an unprecedented borrowing spree, including from the Chinese; recent estimates indicate that under Ruto, Kenya’s debt burden is set to rise even further to 80 percent of GDP as he continues borrowing from international and domestic markets to fund his bloated budget and repay the debts. Even opposition leader Raila Odinga, who called for protests recently against the rising cost of living (which resulted in several deaths at the hands of police), has gone silent after President Ruto supported his bid to become the African Union Commission’s chairman. 

Kenyan youth are also deeply aware of the fact that the decisions made by the current crop of old-school politicians, many of whom have been accused of corruption and other crimes, will deeply affect their future, and they are determined not to let that happen. Remember, this is also the generation whose parents suffered under the IMF/World Bank-induced Structural Adjustments Programmes (SAPs) of the ’80s and ’90s (now reincarnated in the Finance Bill 2024) when the state withdrew from providing essential services, such as health and education, a gap partially filled by NGOs and church organizations. SAPs resulted in what is often referred to as the “lost development decade” in Africa and created a stressed and deeply impoverished generation with reduced access to basic services that make countries grow and prosper. Poverty and inequality levels rose as people struggled to meet their basic needs. (President Ruto is planning to dismantle the existing national health insurance system and replace it with a more expensive and complicated system that will make it harder for families and young people, including children, to access healthcare. Public university education fees are also set to rise.) 

Enter Gen Z. This tech-savvy generation has shown us that Kenyans do not need mediators in the form of politicians or civil society organizations to speak on their behalf. They have demonstrated their ability to organize on a massive scale. (After Nairobi, protests were planned in Mombasa, Eldoret, Kilifi, Laikipia, Nakuru, Kisumu, Meru, and Kericho, which means that the movement could soon become truly national—it has gone viral!) They are the true patriots who will lead a people’s revolution that will bring about the change Kenyans desperately need.

About the Author

Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia: War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012).

Further Reading

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