Taking Charge: Gen Z Leads Historic Protests in Kenya

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Kenya is currently being rocked by protests that represent a significant challenge to President William Ruto’s presidency and the resilience of Kenya’s democratic institutions. A month after President Ruto’s historic relations-building state visit to the United States, peaceful youth-led protests in Kenya over a contentious tax bill have turned deadly. On June 25, the parliament and city hall stood ablaze in the capital, Nairobi, after members of parliament moved the highly controversial bill to its final stage—signing by the president. Kenya is experiencing an unemployment rate of 12 percent, with youth making up 68 percent of those unemployed, and a cost-of-living crisis incited by high inflation rates. The proposed taxes repeat a pattern of elected officials positing that raising taxes will improve Kenya’s debt crisis, while their constituents instead feel punished. Such policies don’t favor the young, who make up 75 percent of the population, according to the 2019 census. The movement #RejectFinanceBill2024 on Instagram, TikTok, and X has helped to mobilize a series of peaceful protests in Nairobi. Young Kenyans are eager to participate in ensuring Kenya’s economic growth. However, the sentiment remains that the policies in question do not fulfill timeworn promises to cut government spending and ease the cost of living.

Q1: What is the Finance Bill 2024 that sparked the protests?

A1: To alleviate Kenya’s high debt burden and generate government revenue, the National Treasury of Kenya proposed high tax levies on everyday items. Some of the most controversial elements of the finance bill include a tax on bread, an increased tax on menstrual health products, a motor vehicle tax, and taxes on mobile money transfers. The bill’s policies are in line with objectives laid out in an International Monetary Fund program aimed at increasing government revenue. What started out as a protest against taxes and government incompetence is now evolving into a show of public anger and frustration with what many Kenyans see as a corrupt leadership that does not adequately acknowledge their struggles.

President Ruto’s campaign promise to build a “hustler nation” has not been forgotten by protestors, who mockingly call him “Zakayo,” the name of a biblical tax collector. During his election, Ruto positioned himself as the champion of everyday Kenyans—the hustlers. Without results, and as life has only become more expensive for the hustlers, his slogan has routinely left him susceptible to criticism. Since Ruto became president in 2022, protests over increasing taxes have occurred across the country. In July 2023, protests led by opposition leader Raila Odinga over the high cost of living in Kenya left 23 Kenyans dead. While previous protests have been led by opposition leaders and have tended to fall along tribal lines, this protest differs in that it is decentralized, having no distinct leader and being led by young people organizing online.

Q2: What is the significance of these protests?

A2: While mass protests are not new to Kenya, the form and organization of the #RejectFinanceBill2024 protests reveal a new method and platform for protesting—digital organizing. The movement has been called “Gen Z’s protests,” as youth have taken the lead in educating, sharing information, and live streaming the protests and their demands. Even President Ruto commended the youth, saying, “I am very proud of our young people. They have stepped forward tribeless and peacefully to engage in the affairs of their country.”

These protests are not only a test for President Ruto but also a test for Kenya’s democratic institutions. As the protests continue into their second week, police have fired live bullets at protestors, killing at least 23 Kenyans. Reports also indicate that the police have abducted activists, and authorities have threatened to shut down local media, all while the country is experiencing internet interruptions. Protestors chanted “Wezi” (thieves) as they pushed into the parliament building. The Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) were deployed on June 25 to quell the protests, which, according to Ruto, were “infiltrated and hijacked by a group of organized criminals.” The Law Society of Kenya argues that this deployment of the KDF is unconstitutional, as the state has not demonstrated that the national police was overwhelmed in dealing with protestors. Fear of a repetition of the post-election violence of 2007 has also arisen as Kenyans online draw parallels between the repression of 2007 and the current violence on the streets. The 2007 post-election violence involved widespread ethnic clashes and political unrest following a disputed presidential election, resulting in over 1,200 deaths and the displacement of around 350,000 people. Ruto was subsequently charged with three crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court—murder, deportation or forcible transfer of population, and persecution—but the case was terminated in 2016.

Q3: What are the implications of these protests for U.S.-Kenya relations?

A3: The ongoing protests in Kenya complicate U.S.-Kenya relations by challenging the perception of Kenya as a stable democracy and reliable security partner to the United States. During his state visit to the United States, President Ruto emphasized Kenya’s role as a security partner to its neighbors in the region. Furthermore, the United States then designated Kenya a major non-NATO ally after the state visit. The visit put Kenya on a pedestal as an exemplar of democracy in sub-Saharan Africa, resulting in pledges by the U.S. government to bolster Kenya’s democratic spaces. The U.S. ambassador to Kenya, Meg Whitman, stated, “Kenya has been a long-standing 60-year ally of the United States. It is certainly the most stable democracy in East Africa. President Ruto has stepped up and he’s a real leader.” Washington has largely looked past Ruto’s International Criminal Court indictment and allowed him to reinvent himself as one of Africa’s leading voices on issues such as climate, trade, and security. Yet, Ruto’s closeness to Ambassador Whitman has been scrutinized both at home and abroad. Moreover, as the Kenyan police arrive in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, as the leaders of a UN-backed multinational mission, the international community is closely watching their conduct at home, especially after their history of brutality and impunity.

Q4: What are the possible outcomes of this protest?

A4: On June 26, 2024, after the 23 reported deaths, President Ruto rejected the finance bill and sent it back to parliament for amendments. However, this is a Band-Aid solution, as the protests brought to the surface grievances surrounding unemployment, government corruption, and the high cost of living that protestors want resolved. The protestors have promised to continue the protests. Additionally, Kenya remains under economic pressure and pressure from the International Monetary Fund, which will continue to play out. Rejecting the bill won’t resolve all of the concerns that have emerged, but it can be a learning opportunity for Ruto and the government of Kenya more broadly to address the many grievances that have been raised. The question is how Ruto will respond to the demands and whether he will pursue a more substantial set of reforms to support Kenya’s youth.

The #RejectFinanceBill2024 protests follow a pattern of youth-led movements in Africa. There was #EndSARS in Nigeria in 2020, #FeesMustFall in South Africa in 2015, and others, but the challenge has been sustaining the movements after the fire dies down. In this case, Kenyan youth have demonstrated efforts to stay engaged with policymakers by translating the finance bill into local languages and creating music that resonates with their message, but only time will tell whether the protests will translate into long-term political organizing.

Khasai Makhulo is the research assistant for the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.