Uprising in Kenya

This week on the AIAC podcast we’re talking about #RejectFinanceBill2024 and #RutoMustGo, the youth-led movements against Kenya’s out-of-touch elites.

Protesters and tear gas during the demonstration against the proposed tax bill by the Kenyan government in Nairobi. (Photo by Boniface Muthoni / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

Over the last two weeks, Kenya has been rocked by widespread protests against a controversial law that aims to raise taxes. The 2024 Finance Bill sought to amass at least $2.7 billion in funds, primarily for the purpose of repaying creditors and stabilizing the country’s ballooning budget deficit, with public debt standing at 68 percent of GDP—which exceeds the 55 percent that the IMF and World Bank have recommended.

Initially, the bill proposed controversial tax hikes on basic commodities such as bread and cooking oil, which were dropped on June 19 after the first wave of protests the day before. Nonetheless, Kenya’s parliament passed the bill, which still included provisions on a 16 percent tax on goods and services to be used to equip specialized hospitals with over 50 beds, which some worried would increase the cost of health care. 

After protests continued, President William Ruto announced on June 26 that he would not sign the bill, conceding that the “people have spoken.” The day before, however, he called some actions of protesters—particularly, the storming of parliament after police shot at demonstrators with live ammunition—an “unprecedented attack on democracy.” Meanwhile, security forces have killed at least 22 people, with witness reports suggesting that the death toll could be significantly higher.

Why are these protests significant? Writing this week in Africa Is a Country, Kari Mugo observed that “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.” The protests have wide demographic appeal but have been led primarily by Gen Z, who in Kenya is a group that largely did not participate in the 2022 general elections. And although the bill has been put on hold, protestors are still taking to the streets demanding Ruto’s outright resignation. Ruto—who came to power in a 2022 election after narrowly defeating Raila Odinga—is widely viewed as out of touch, despite styling himself as an “everyman hustler.” 

His time in office has been marked by deepening austerity that is worsening an escalating cost-of-living crisis. It is in this context that Ruto has regularly told Kenyans to tighten their belts. But in one of many examples of “do as I say, not as I do,” Ruto angered many when last month he chartered a private jet, instead of using the presidential carrier, to visit Joe Biden in Washington—the first visit by an African leader in sixteen years.

So, to talk about these protests and what lies ahead for Kenya, I am joined by Wangui Kimari, who is our East Africa regional editor. Wangui is also an anthropologist based at the American University Nairobi Center and participatory action research coordinator for the Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC), a community-based organization in Nairobi, Kenya. 

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Further Reading