The vibe is giving Kipchoge

The movement to #RejectFinanceBill2024 marks a new era in Kenyan politics after many years of discontent and political apathy.

Protesters raise their fist while police teargas protestors in Central Nairobi. (Photo by Boniface Muthoni / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

In a parody video filmed during this week’s youth-led protests in Kenya, a young man laughs into the camera, “The vibe is giving Kipchoge,” referencing Kenya’s most famous athlete, Eliud Kipchoge, amidst the running battles between police and peaceful protesters. A few moments later, he adds, “I think we should normalize crying in public,” mocking the excessive tear gas being deployed wantonly against protesters. 

The vibe is clear, this is a Gen-Z protest. Thirty years in the making, the largest protests Kenya has seen since a push for multi-partyism in the early 1990’s, saw tens of thousands take to the streets across 19 cities to decry over taxation under a punitive new Finance Bill. Dictator Daniel Arap Moi, who relinquished power in 2002 after 24 years in office, is now dead. The fear of the state apparatus he built, used to consolidate power through brutality and co-option, is also gone, protestors say.

It’s not just that a majority of young Kenyans oppose the proposed Finance Bill—a tool for raising additional revenue to close budget deficits—but that Kenyans are also deeply unhappy with runaway government corruption and the blatant misuse of public funds. 

On the same day protests against the Finance Bill took place across the country, the front page of the Daily Nation, Kenya’s paper of record, detailed a Sh 2 billion ($15.5 million) corruption case against disgraced former Migori Governor, Okoth Obado. The Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission had arrived at a settlement with Obado to relinquish only Sh 235.6 million, a mere 10% of the funds he is accused of stealing, in exchange for dropping the case against him. This meant over Sh 1.7 billion ($13.2 million) would go to Obado for his “cooperation.” Obado, it should be noted, is also on trial for murder.

While the Finance Bill increases the tax burden on citizens to offset the costs of external debt repayments, Obado’s corruption case highlights the disconnect between Kenyan leaders and the people. Despite an increasing tax burden under President William Ruto, key essential services like education and healthcare show no improvement. Basic services such as water and shelter remain inaccessible for the poorest Kenyans. Unemployment is high, with 70,000 private sector jobs lost in 2023 and 40% of employers planning to reduce staff due to rising operational costs. Meanwhile, Kenya continues to be rated as a “Top Destination for Expatriates to Reside.”

Historical flooding in April revealed the government’s unpreparedness, or as others alluded, its misplaced priorities in responding to national disasters, which are likely to increase in ferocity and scope due to climate change. This ongoing poor governance, coupled with the de-prioritisation of Kenyans’ needs, has many in arms. 

Since the Bill’s introduction in the National Assembly on May 9th, Kenyans have voiced concerns that its provisions would further increase the cost of living and doing business. The initial Bill included a tax on bread and cooking oil, an annual motor-vehicle tax on car owners (which the Treasury Secretary struggled to explain on national TV), taxes on monetized digital content, and increased taxes on internet and data services, disproportionately affecting young people who create digital content and/or work from home.

Worryingly, the proposed bill also sought to place a VAT tax on imported sanitary pads which most Kenyan women rely on due to a shortage of high-quality locally manufactured ones. As one X user noted, “Kenya was the first country in the world to remove VAT on sanitary products.” The Finance Bill signaled a regression in progressive policies that had benefitted two-thirds of Kenyan girls and women who experience period poverty

Despite lobbying by business groups and a significant number of people using the public participation provision, concerns raised seemed to fall on deaf ears. Government spokespeople defended the Bill’s contentious provisions in national media, appearing condescending about Kenyans’ right to decide what was good for them. This disregard for the will of the people led Kenyans to begin organizing online under the hashtag #RejectFinanceBill2024. By Friday, June 14th, a second hashtag #OccupyParliament had emerged, calling for a day of direct action on Tuesday, June 18th when Parliament was scheduled for its first reading of the Bill. 

KOT (Kenyans on Twitter) are notoriously active online but this online tenor does not always translate offline, and as Tuesday drew near it remained unclear whether mass mobilization had been effective. Still, the government, under the pressure of digital activism, capitulated announcing the removal of  “the proposed 16 percent VAT on bread, transportation of sugar, financial services, foreign exchange transactions as well as the 2.5 percent Motor Vehicle Tax.” Additionally, there would “be no increase in mobile money transfer fees, and Excise Duty on vegetable oil,” among other concessions. The announcement, made just hours before protests were scheduled to begin, did not assuage demonstrators. 

Their response was clear: “Reject, not amend.” As hundreds filled the Nairobi CBD, among the protestors, a youthful Gen-Z presence stood out. For many, this was their first protest. As protestors were met with an arsenal of tear gas, the occasional live bullet, rogue batons, water cannons, and hundreds of arrests, they criticized President Ruto and the excessive use of force, suggesting the government get more creative with tear gas flavors. In their crosshairs was also the IMF whose handwriting is visible in the Finance Bill. The effect on Tuesday, was a Nairobi CBD brought to a standstill as police violently pushed back protestors trying to reach the Parliament building. 

The violence unleashed on protestors only seemed to entrench their demands for a total rejection of the Finance Bill. This was Kenya in 2024, not 1994. How could citizen voices be silenced through brute force and parody engagement? As Kenyans broadcast the brutality they were being met with, they were also regrouping online. A second day of protests was called for Thursday, June 20th to coincide with the second reading of the Finance Bill. Organizers in other cities swiftly joined in, planning parallel demonstrations and urging police to uphold the constitutional right to protest.

By Thursday morning, two things were certain. One, a new leaderless, tribeless, and youth-led movement was emerging in Kenya and the protests would be substantial, supported by ordinary Kenyans demanding the representative politics promised to them at the dawn of the 2010 Constitution.

In the end, 204 Members of Parliament (MPs) voted against the interests of Kenyans, with only 115 heeding the call to reject the Bill. The amended Bill now enters the Committee Stage which involves scrutiny of the Bill, clause by clause. Unless there is a dramatic upset in the subsequent proceedings—and given that the interests of Kenyans are now in the small majority of 115 MPs who held out—President Ruto will likely sign the Bill into law in the coming weeks. 

But this historic week marks a new era after many years of discontent and political apathy. A renewed desire for political engagement has ignited in Kenya. Even before Thursday’s vote in Parliament, Kenyans online had begun exploring the recall process for MPs who would defy the interests of their constituents with a “yes” vote. The solidarity of Kenyans, who mobilized for the two-day protests without a political or centralized leader, has also galvanized many. By Thursday night the #RejectFinanceBill had 2.64 million hits on X and had been picked up by major news outlets, including Al Jazeera, BBC, and CNN.

With the use of technology, the innovation emerging from the protest movement is truly breathtaking. There is a USSD platform that allows protestors to coordinate, spread awareness, access emergency services, and log cases of police abuse; and a Finance Bill GPT that can be used to help understand the Bill. Concerns over an internet shutdown during protests led citizens to deploy Starlink satellites, that would keep a very-online set of protestors livestreaming their actions. 

Content creators set aside their usual promotional content to educate the public about the Bill. Popular comedian Mike Muchiri created a TikTok video explaining key contentious provisions. By Thursday, requests to translate Muchiri’s video into local languages had made it accessible in Dholuo, Kikuyu, Kimeru, Kisii, Kiswahili, Kamba, and Taita, helping spread the anti-tax message to rural and older Kenyans. “Get Ready With Me” (GRWM) videos and “Protest 101 for Baddies” posts emerged as Gen-Z shared helpful safety tips while staying “on-brand”. 

Lawyers mobilized by setting up legal aid hotlines and offering pro-bono assistance to those facing arrest. Medics provided care at a makeshift clinic staffed by 1,000 volunteers, businesses offered free food, water, medical supplies, and charging stations. Throughout, young Kenyans echoed the message, “We are not afraid,” demonstrating readiness for any state violence. 

In Arundhati Roy’s  2003 speech on “Confronting Empire,” Roy says that to confront empire, we must not only “deprive it of oxygen,” but also shame it and make a mockery of it, “With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness.” 

Some of my favorite videos from the protests this week are videos of joy. Like the young man and his “the vibe is giving Kipchoge.” In other videos, Kenyans sing in the street and taunt the state and its machinery. They hold placards that only Gen-Z’s could create. The collage that emerges, archived digitally, is beautiful, utterly indecorous, and resistant to the politics of yesteryear.

With the backing of the 2010 Constitution, one of the most progressive in the world, young Kenyans, who were not alive to the deranged days of the Moi dictatorship and its voracious appetite for quashing dissent, Kenyans are determined to actualize their sovereignty. So that, even as the sound of tear gas canisters and water cannons washes over them, they are no longer afraid. After all, why should our MPs get police escorts, while we get tear gas?

This article is dedicated to Rex Masai, 29, tragically shot by a police officer on June 20th who fired into a crowd of protestors. Rex passed away on the floor of a clinic that denied him aid, a further indictment of Kenya’s health system, as he bled for 40 agonizing minutes. #JusticeforRex

About the Author

Kari Mugo is a seasoned agitator, storyteller and wanderer, born and raised in Nairobi. Her writing has been published widely online and she pens love notes on her Substack.

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