A Sea Change In Kenya

Kenya’s protests mark a generational revolution in the country’s politics.

The ferocity of Kenya’s uprising in opposition to President William Ruto’s Finance Bill should definitively debunk the notion that Kenyan youth are politically apathetic. It’s true that many young Kenyans declined to vote in the 2022 general elections. Unconvinced that either presidential candidate would represent their interests or offer a change from the political status quo, the elections had the lowest overall turnout in fifteen years. But recent days have heralded a dramatic break from the typical Kenyan political playbook, and young people are the agents of that change. 

When Kenya’s parliament passed the controversial Finance Bill as protesters amassed in Nairobi and cities across the country, the situation tipped into violence. Officials responded by throttling internet speeds, firing tear gas and water cannons, and eventually live rounds, leading to over twenty deaths. Protestors in Nairobi smashed their way into parliament, setting parts of the building ablaze and forcing lawmakers and staff to evacuate. One day later, President Ruto bowed to the pressure and agreed to scrap the bill. 

The frustration that young Kenyans expressed on the streets was not just about the economic pressure they feel. To be sure, the notion of additional taxes coming on top of unemployment struggles and earlier waves of revenue-generating measures felt like a final straw. But as many protesters pointed out, the notion of generating more revenue for a government that has given no indication it is serious about tackling the endemic corruption that plagues Kenya was too galling to accept. The Kenyans on the streets were not just angry about the strain on their personal finances, they were angry about the connection between that strain and an elite political class that revels in their unexplained wealth and evades accountability time and again. Why pay more to line the pockets of the corrupt? 

Yet historically, it was only a subset of political elites who could mobilize the kinds of demonstrations that force government to take notice. As recently as last year, Kenya’s cost-of-living protests were understood as political jockeying by opposition stalwart Raila Odinga—a signal that while he may have been bested at the polls, he remains a force to be reckoned with and accommodated to in Kenyan politics. Those politics were characterized by coalition-building based on ethnicity and patronage, a playbook that kept Kenyans divided and eroded institutions intended to serve all citizens equally. 

This time, no one is under any illusion that the protests that forced President Ruto to dispose of his latest tax plan were engineered by the usual suspects. As they described themselves, the demonstrators were “tribe-less, party-less, and fear-less.” Instead, Kenya’s young, digitally-savvy youth flexed their political muscles, and may have surprised themselves to behold their own power. The days ahead are uncertain. Having not been instigated by any dominant political actor, Kenyans’ protests cannot be turned off by accommodating a member of the political elite. Following the defeat of the Finance Bill, the movement that coalesced may fracture, even as outrage at the state’s violent response leads some to press on and demand for Ruto’s resignation. What is certain is that a sleeping giant has awakened, and those seeking to attain or retain political power in Kenya will have to dramatically rework their calculations about how that can be done. 

Sourced from: Council on Foreign Relations

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