Kenya: Everything must fall, everything must change

Kenya protests

First published at Review Of African Political Economy.

The youth in Kenya are no joke.

They stormed the National Assembly in Kenya on 25 June 2024. They set part of it on fire. They ransacked the hallowed building, smashing everything in sight. Some even ate the food in the cafeteria that was specially made for the ‘dishonourable’ members of parliament and senators. Others smashed into the Senate Chambers and took over as the people’s representatives, including one who acted as the Speaker. The golden mace, a symbol of parliamentary authority, was carted away to set-up a people’s parliament in a liberated zone away from the discredited and dishonoured National Assembly.

MPs were besieged. They were whisked away to safety through an underground tunnel that was not unlike what is known in Kenya as a ‘panya route’, colloquial for a hidden and illegal track. Panya is Kiswahili for rats. The MPs were treated like the parasitic rats that they have become in Kenya. In passing the unpopular Finance Bill 2024, the MPs, or MPigs, as they are derogatively referred to by activists, had become more than rapacious rats.

The youth were not done yet.

They broke into the buildings of the Supreme Court, the symbol of the second arm of the government. They ransacked and destroyed items in the office of the chief justice who is largely seen as siding with President Ruto and the Kenya Kwanza (KK) regime – the ruling alliance in the country. An office in the chambers of the Governor of Nairobi County was also torched, so were the constituency offices and homes of some of the members of Parliament who had voted yes to the Finance Bill.

The sound and fury of the youth was widespread across cities and towns in Kenya. The youthful protestors had dubbed it as 7 days of rage beginning 21to 27t June. The 25 June was the climax of the rage, referred to as Super Tuesday, that saw the storming of parliament.

It has never happened this way in the history of resistance in Kenya. More will happen in the future. The resistance of the youth is palpable. It’s the same for the masses of people across the country who have been reduced to beggars by the grasping regime.

The Gen-Zs are leading this resistance in the best language that oppression understands. Radical militancy and shaming the regime. What more shame is there than to see MPs fleeing and scampering for safety, some of them even fainting out of fear. This helps to drum into the ears of the politicians how their fickle power is. How power easily flips over, or as the Gen-Zs, mostly speaking in Sheng and Shembeteng slang, puts it in a hip hop song, Ina come, ina go! (It comes, it goes).

At least 41 youthful protestors have been killed by the Kenyan police in this uprising. They rest in power. They are martyrs of our liberation. Thousands have been injured. Many others are still missing. This uprising will not go down in vain.

Behind the sound and fury

The current regime in Kenya under President Ruto and the KK Coalition came to power after the contentious 2022 elections. The regime rose to power behind the guise that they were the true representatives of the underprivileged, the suffering majority whom they referred to as hustlers. They said they were against the rule by dynasties, and the wealthy, represented by Raila Odinga, the flagbearer of the Azimio Coalition and his supporter, Uhuru Kenyatta, the former president.

The majority of youth, especially in central Kenya, and amongst the Kalenjin communities, the bedrock of support of the current president, saw in Ruto a chance to elect one of their own, a fellow hustler who claimed to be a former chicken seller. His supporters were exuberant when he won the 2022 elections. Finally, their man was in power. Down with the dynasty! they said.

In the optics of tribal politics, those who elected the current president were blind to the fact that Ruto was not a hustler like them, but the leader of a cabal of greedy politicians who rose to power and accumulated loathsome wealth through a conniving and a sweet-talking mouth, what Uhuru Kenyatta, his predecessor, termed derogatory in Kiswahili as mdomo tamu tamu (sweet mouth). His supporters forgot that Ruto rose to leadership and wealth at the height of the infamous Youth for KANU 1992, known in short as YK 92, that malfeasant outfit of young political mercenaries who were supporting the Moi–KANU dictatorship, not for the welfare of the country, but to satiate their personal greedy for power and wealth. They supported former president Daniel arap Moi in plundering the country, including printing fake currency, and in the process, they became very powerful and wealthy.

Ruto was an ardent disciple of a ruthless dictator. Some of us knew that gullible Kenyans had consumed mass poison that would kill the people and the country little by little. The youth in the uprising are expunging this poison from their veins and from the masses in the country.

When did the rains begin to beat us?

Kenya is a deeply unequal country. The gap between the poor and the rich has continued to widen since the country gained independence from British colonialists in 1963. Deprivation and want continue to squeeze the people across generations who struggle against the dead- ends of animal survival. Successive regimes in Kenya have failed to reduce the inequality gap but rather widened it in trickle-down economics driven by the IMF and World Bank, and other varieties of market-driven economics. It is these generational frustrations, anguish and fury that Ruto and the KK brigade tapped into even when its key economists and advisors were beholden to this very neoliberal economics and politics themselves.

Once in power, the KK government tethered the country onto foreign interests. Global economic shocks raged on, fuelled by the aftereffects of Covid- 19, the war in Ukraine, and related economic imbalances. Ruto and KK stalwarts had shouted themselves hoarse during the campaigns arguing that these factors had nothing to do with the devastation to the Kenyan economy. It was all a result of a ‘dynasty politics and economics’ which they vowed to high heavens to unmask and undo once in power.

Yet the ascension of Ruto and KK did not amount to anything markedly different from previous regimes. The cost of living escalated, especially amongst the lower classes in the country. The poor were getting poorer as neoliberal measures strangled the country, driving the masses to the edges of survival. Education has been commodified, including university education, making it expensive and out of reach to millions of struggling families. Health insurance through the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF) has been whittled down to a rebranding gimmick. Rights to decent housing have been muddled up in schemes referred to as affordable housing that are not only incomprehensible and confusing but are a kind of a pyramid scheme to whet the appetites of the greedy undertakers of the state and politicians. The recent drought and floods in the country were a god-sent opportunity for the KK regime to hide their incompetence. The regime has consoled itself like an ostrich hiding its head in the sand even as the masses are drowning in oceans of poverty.

Enter the Finance Bill 2024

The Finance Bill 2024 was meant to push through a raft of wide-ranging punitive taxes. These included taxes on essential goods, services, digital content, individual incomes, and many more. This bill was both loudly and silently rejected by many sectors in the country, including by corporates and professional associations. Rejection of the bill was vocalized by the youth, led by the Gen-Zs, who took to the streets in a mighty show with the protests across the country. The youth were, after all, the group that would be most affected if the unpopular bill was passed.

Youth turned cyberspace into a terrain of resistance and mobilized millions of others to the streets through the power of social media and community organizing. The hashtag #RejectFinanceBill2024 came alive. The young felt as though they had nothing to lose. Their lives, as Karl Marx quipped in 1848 about the working class, have nothing to lose but their chains, are already wasting away in unemployment and being drowned by the high costs of living. On the other hand, they could see politicians notoriously enmeshed in corruption, embezzlement of public funds, devilish opulence, and other forms of abuse of office and extravagance.

The rage of Kenya’s near revolution was fuelled by generation of hurt and disappointments by neo-colonial governments in Kenya. The rage was a festering boil that burst open. Antennas of political consciousness of the youth, especially the Gen-Zs, who largely seemed apolitical, were raised high. The movement erupted like a volcano and the lava of discontent spread across the country. It could not and cannot be stopped, by anything or anyone, except with the complete fulfilment of their demands and a just social order in Kenya. The youth stormed the barricades of arrogant power from various fronts, organically, faceless, leaderless and tribeless.

This youthful uprising is a game changer in the politics of resistance in Kenya. Previously the label of political apathy has been proved utterly wrong. They took by the scruff the necks of incompetent power that has gripped this country for many of years. Their resistance finally scored initial gains.

As a result of the uprising, President Ruto and his coterie of discredited MPs and government operatives were forced to concede and dropped the unpopular Finance Bill 2024 on 26 June.

Ruto’s actual words of concession “Listening keenly to the people of Kenya who have said loudly that they want nothing to do with this finance bill 2024, I concede.”

Whither the revolution?

The uprising by the youth in Kenya has scored the first and central demand – the total rejection of the Finance Bill. This is a major victory, but it also deflated the magic and energies of the uprising. The state is already consolidating its power through the police and the armed forces. Subsequent protests in Nairobi and across the country under the rallying call of #RutoMustGo have been less intense. At worst, street protests have been infiltrated by goons hired by pro- regime politicians, just like the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, popularly known as Mau Mau, in the 1950s was infiltrated by loyalists of the colonial regime. Many protesters have retreated to their comfort zones and social media to savour the victory of the uprising, and to voice other discontents.

Most uprisings in the past end in retreats, betrayals, reforms or revolutions. Experiences of revolutions in Africa and elsewhere in the world show that the vulnerability of the state is a key ingredient of successful revolutions.

The underbelly of the current regime in Kenya has been struck a devastating blow by the uprising of youth. The state has been weakened and is now vulnerable. Its technical knock- out could be imminent. This regime can fall. It will fall, not if, but when. The fire of mass uprisings has been re-ignited by the youth. A revolution in Kenya is in the air.

How this revolution will chaperon a radical and just social order in Kenya depends on how well placed the social forces, revolutionary movements and organisations are to harness this uprising. Already they are various moves in this direction, including by the united front of various leftist political parties and movements, such as the Communist Party of Kenya, the Revolutionary Socialist League, Kongamano la Mapinduzi (Coalition for Revolution), Students union, social justice centres, feminist collectives, among others.

The youth led by the Gen- Zs know that now it is their time to bask in the sun of change. The future is theirs. They are seizing the time. The working class are fighting for their survival, the middle class for their security. An anti-establishment social movement is coalescing, led by the vibrancy, energies and dynamism of youth. A new and fresh political order is emerging in Kenya, as elsewhere in Africa.

Everything must fall. Everything must change.

Njuki Githethwa is a Kenyan writer and activist-scholar. He is the Managing Editor of Ukombozi Review in Kenya and a Contributing Editor for the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE).