William Shoki

Op-Ed | Kenya: Test us and we will test you

William Ruto has gravely misjudged the nerve of his countrymen. The man who narrowly sailed to Kenya’s presidency in 2022, is trying to shove a sketchy legislative proposal down Kenyan throats. The Finance Bill 2024 aims to raise 346 billion Kenyan shillings to service debt and fund development and has been met with public outcry and widespread protests.

The movement to #RejectFinanceBill2024 is being led by media-savvy, urban Gen-Z youth. The demonstrations, which escalated on June 20 with gatherings in various cities, have seen clashes with security forces using water cannons, tear gas, and, reportedly, live ammunition. At least eight protesters have been killed, over 200 injured, and more than 283 arrested, including journalists.

Writing of their significance in The Elephant (republished here), Rasna Warah observed that one thing that makes them noteworthy is that “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 protest.” The protests have followed the organizational model of most social upsurges of the last fifteen years: leaderless and horizontal.

In this regard, there are strong echoes of many other protest movements, particularly #EndSARS of Nigeria and #FeesMustFall of South Africa. Both of these mobilizations were similarly youth-led, and animated by clear, resolute demands conveyed in the language of repudiation: fall, end, reject.

It’s too early to say what will become of the campaign to #RejectFinanceBill2024. Although the protests suggest that Kenya’s Gen-Z are more than “keyboard warriors,” prepared to claim public space and partake in political contestation, the ever-green question is how these oppositional energies can be converted into sustained political action. Like elsewhere on the continent, progressive forces in Kenya are weak and fragmented, but this could be an opening to give them renewed purpose.

One thing’s for sure, this will not be the end of Ruto’s squeeze on Kenya’s middle and working class. So far, his policy platform has been marked by austerity, the empowering of capital markets, and hawkish foreign policy. Channeling Thatcher, Ruto justified the Bill by stating that “[its] whole principle is that you must live within your means.” But if we are to go by this household metaphor that neoliberals love to use to compare fiscal policy; how long can the patriarch starve his family in order to pay back foreign creditors, while treating himself to three lavish meals a day?

Kenyans have had enough. Whether this moment marks the beginning of a transformative, historical process remains to be seen. What it does signal, is that ordinary people have a limit. African political elites can no longer make old assumptions—that citizens have a high tolerance for suffering, and when the disgruntled revolt, that repression is an easy solution. In this respect, the fact this protest is being led by Gen-Z is significant. They all seem to all be saying: “Test us, and we will test you.”

This op-ed by William Shoki  was first published in the newsletter of Africa is a Country of which he is the editor.