Kenya: A TikTok revolution? (plus Kenya: The vibe is giving Kipchoge)

Kenya protests

Republished from Africa Is a Country.

Something truly remarkable happened in Nairobi on June 18. For the first time since Kenya’s independence, a people-driven movement, ignited largely by Gen Z (those born after 1997, also known as the fully “digitally native” generation because they were born during the internet age) took to the streets in droves to protest against the Finance Bill 2024 that will introduce punitive taxes that will, among other negative impacts, significantly raise the cost of living and the cost of doing business in Kenya. If passed, it will also allow the state to raid citizens’ personal data, including bank details and mobile money accounts, thereby overturning existing digital privacy laws. The people gathered on the streets of Nairobi were not the usual hoi polloi who usually attended rallies; they were young people, including professionals, from all classes.

This spontaneous, organic movement was significant in three important ways. One, it was leaderless; there were no politicians or political leaders leading the pack, nor was it associated with any political party. Two, it was driven largely by social media; the call to protest was communicated mainly via social media platforms like X and TikTok. Third, 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 protests. In this regard, the movement is very much akin to the Occupy Wall Street movement that took hold during Barack Obama’s presidency in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, the “Arab Spring” in North Africa, protests that resulted in the ouster of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir in 2019, and to the rapidly growing climate change movement currently being championed by young activists like Greta Thunberg, among others.

The June 18 protests demonstrated that it is possible for Kenyans to rally around a cause without being chaperoned or persuaded by any political leader or politician. This is in sharp contrast to the early and mid-1990s when political leaders, such as Martin Shikuku, Kenneth Matiba, and James Orengo could mobilize thousands of people to large pro-democracy rallies at Kamukunji grounds and other places, demanding the end to Daniel arap Moi’s dictatorial regime. For their efforts, some of these leaders were incarcerated, and it took another decade for Moi to be ousted. The resounding victory of Mwai Kibaki in the 2002 general election saw many of these leaders join the government or become elected leaders. Then, there was no one left to speak for “the people,” except civil society and non-governmental organizations (CSOs and NGOs). During the Kibaki era, NGOs and CSOs also took on the role of educating the public about their rights and responsibilities when it was no longer dangerous to do so.

However, the 2007/8 post-election violence, which led to the death of hundreds of people and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of others, made it clear that the relationship between the state and its citizens had altered irreversibly and that the concept of “nationhood” was still a mirage in Kenya. This disputed election was a turning point in Kenya. Ordinary Kenyans became skeptical of the ability of the state to protect them and to uphold their rights. This resulted in louder demands, spearheaded by Raila Odinga, among others, for changing the constitution to give citizens more rights. 

On their part, NGOs and CSOs experienced a severe crisis of confidence as many viewed the post-election violence as a symptom of their failure to reduce ethnic tensions and polarization. After more than a decade of work in the areas of democratization, human rights, and civic education, they were forced to ask themselves this difficult question: Was the Kenyan electoral crisis a result of their inability to bring about genuine transformation in the country? After all, Kenya had experienced flawed elections in the past but had never witnessed death, destruction, and displacement on the scale of 2007/8. Had Kenyans reached a stage where they were willing to take up arms to fight for what they perceived to be their rights or had the political class become more Machiavellian in creating ethnic divisions in the country and entrenching a culture of violence and impunity? 

The violence and mass displacement brought to the fore issues that had not been dealt with adequately by both the state and NGOs, such as grievances related to land, inequality, and the rule of law. NGOs dealing with good governance worried about democratic backsliding and the deepening of polarization along ethnic lines. (It is interesting to note that the recommendations of the Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission that was established to address these grievances were never implemented by Uhuru Kenyatta when he took office in 2013.)

The Kenyan public was also beginning to question whether CSOs and NGOs were, in fact, part of the problem afflicting Kenya’s politics; some civil society and non-governmental organizations were viewed as being partisan or aligned to certain political parties or donor countries. Because most of these NGOs and CSOs were heavily dependent on mostly Western donors and donor agencies, which came with their own biases and agendas, few could assert their independence regarding the kinds of projects and programs they wanted to run. They succumbed to what constitutional lawyer Wachira Maina refers to as the “language of the donors.”

Many NGOs and CSOs thus became “professionalized,” carrying out projects that appealed to certain donor organizations and quite often oblivious to the needs of what Kenyans refer to as people “kwa ground.” The “real” civil society—members of trade unions, cooperatives, farmers’ associations, and the like—were ignored in discourses to do with politics and the economy. (William Ruto cynically exploited this disconnect by appealing to the so-called hustlers—people who survive in the informal economy through precarious jobs and sheer resilience in the face of lack of employment opportunities in the formal sector—in the last general election.) However, as has become apparent, these hustlers will be most affected if the Finance Bill becomes law because the Bill is aimed primarily at taxing the informal sector, which comprises the majority of the Kenyan workforce.

It was expected that the promulgation of a new constitution in 2010 would lessen the burden on NGOs and CSOs to ensure that people’s rights are respected and that the establishment of independent state-funded commissions and oversight bodies would protect citizens from the vagaries and excesses of the state. However, the powers of these commissions were significantly eroded by both President Uhuru Kenyatta and President William Ruto. Anti-corruption and police oversight bodies, for instance, have largely failed to bring people to book or to make leaders and the police more accountable. Extrajudicial killings by the police continue unabated. More significantly, these presidents’ disrespect for court orders (most recently the one on the newly introduced Housing Levy and the decision to send Kenyan police to Haiti, which the courts deemed “unconstitutional”) has signified that an independent judiciary is also under serious threat.

The “defanging” of state institutions not only poses a threat to citizens but also to the many NGOs and CSOs that had become accustomed to carrying out their work with little interference from the state during the Kibaki era. There is a palpable fear among them that their operations might come to a halt if they are too vocal, especially under the current president, who is already displaying dictatorial tendencies. (This was clear during the June 18 protests—dubbed Occupy Parliament—when several peaceful protesters were arrested by police for simply carrying out their constitutional right to protest.)

What recent governments—including the so-called digital presidency of UhuRuto in 2013—have underestimated is the power of social media to bring about social, economic, and political transformation. Former President Uhuru believed that an army of propagandists and bloggers he recruited in the State House could shield him from the people’s wrath, but this clearly did not happen, including in his own backyard in Central Kenya, which voted overwhelmingly for Ruto (whom he did not support in the 2022 election). Similarly, President Ruto believes that his communication team will help ensure his neoliberal, regressive agenda is not questioned, whether citizens like it or not. This has clearly not happened.

Ruto also believes that by cozying up to Western leaders (whom he vilified during his campaign to become deputy president before the 2013 election because he perceived them as supporting his indictment, along with Uhuru, at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity committed during the 2007/2008 crisis) he will be protected from scrutiny or criticism from Western nations and financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which most Kenyans believe is the main architect of the draconian Finance Bill 2024.

But even Ruto had to account for the millions of shillings he wasted in traveling in a luxurious private jet to the United States for a recent state visit, even as he implored Kenyans to “tighten their belts” and prepare for tough austerity measures in the face of rising national debt. (The US embassy in Nairobi denied that the US had paid for the trip after Ruto suggested that it was paid for by the US government.) His belated explanation that the jet was a “gift” from friends also raised a lot of questions about Kenya’s foreign policy. What “quid pro quo” arrangements were made with this foreign “friend” and did this put Kenya’s national interests at risk? These questions may not have arisen if Kenyans on social and mainstream media had not demanded answers. Similarly, it is likely that any future domestic or foreign policy issues will come under closer scrutiny under a “woke” generation that has little patience with politicians who speak from both sides of their mouths.

As anti-corruption crusader and founder of The Elephant, John Githongo, explained to me during a recent interview published in Debunk magazine, “current democracies are not delivering public goods at anything near the pace that our very young population expect. There is a profound skepticism with power and suspicion of the West, in particular, among this African demographic we are witnessing.” This youthful demographic has also been quick to realize that Kenyan politicians cannot be trusted—they can easily switch alliances and political parties for their own selfish individual interests and don’t seem to have any ideology, except amassing as much as wealth as quickly as possible and living large. Their appetite for debt has not abated since the presidency of Uhuru, which went on an unprecedented borrowing spree, including from the Chinese; recent estimates indicate that under Ruto, Kenya’s debt burden is set to rise even further to 80 percent of GDP as he continues borrowing from international and domestic markets to fund his bloated budget and repay the debts. Even opposition leader Raila Odinga, who called for protests recently against the rising cost of living (which resulted in several deaths at the hands of police), has gone silent after President Ruto supported his bid to become the African Union Commission’s chairman. 

Kenyan youth are also deeply aware of the fact that the decisions made by the current crop of old-school politicians, many of whom have been accused of corruption and other crimes, will deeply affect their future, and they are determined not to let that happen. Remember, this is also the generation whose parents suffered under the IMF/World Bank-induced Structural Adjustments Programmes (SAPs) of the ’80s and ’90s (now reincarnated in the Finance Bill 2024) when the state withdrew from providing essential services, such as health and education, a gap partially filled by NGOs and church organizations. SAPs resulted in what is often referred to as the “lost development decade” in Africa and created a stressed and deeply impoverished generation with reduced access to basic services that make countries grow and prosper. Poverty and inequality levels rose as people struggled to meet their basic needs. (President Ruto is planning to dismantle the existing national health insurance system and replace it with a more expensive and complicated system that will make it harder for families and young people, including children, to access healthcare. Public university education fees are also set to rise.) 

Enter Gen Z. This tech-savvy generation has shown us that Kenyans do not need mediators in the form of politicians or civil society organizations to speak on their behalf. They have demonstrated their ability to organize on a massive scale. (After Nairobi, protests were planned in Mombasa, Eldoret, Kilifi, Laikipia, Nakuru, Kisumu, Meru, and Kericho, which means that the movement could soon become truly national—it has gone viral!) They are the true patriots who will lead a people’s revolution that will bring about the change Kenyans desperately need.

Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia: War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012).

Kenya: The vibe is giving Kipchoge

Kari Mugo 

First published at Africa Is a Country.

n a parody video filmed during this week’s youth-led protests in Kenya, a young man laughs into the camera, “The vibe is giving Kipchoge,” referencing Kenya’s most famous athlete, Eliud Kipchoge, amidst the running battles between police and peaceful protesters. A few moments later, he adds, “I think we should normalize crying in public,” mocking the excessive tear gas being deployed wantonly against protesters. 

The vibe is clear, this is a Gen-Z protest. Thirty years in the making, the largest protests Kenya has seen since a push for multi-partyism in the early 1990’s, saw tens of thousands take to the streets across 19 cities to decry over taxation under a punitive new Finance Bill. Dictator Daniel Arap Moi, who relinquished power in 2002 after 24 years in office, is now dead. The fear of the state apparatus he built, used to consolidate power through brutality and co-option, is also gone, protestors say.

It’s not just that a majority of young Kenyans oppose the proposed Finance Bill—a tool for raising additional revenue to close budget deficits—but that Kenyans are also deeply unhappy with runaway government corruption and the blatant misuse of public funds. 

On the same day protests against the Finance Bill took place across the country, the front page of the Daily Nation, Kenya’s paper of record, detailed a Sh 2 billion ($15.5 million) corruption case against disgraced former Migori Governor, Okoth Obado. The Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission had arrived at a settlement with Obado to relinquish only Sh 235.6 million, a mere 10% of the funds he is accused of stealing, in exchange for dropping the case against him. This meant over Sh 1.7 billion ($13.2 million) would go to Obado for his “cooperation.” Obado, it should be noted, is also on trial for murder.

While the Finance Bill increases the tax burden on citizens to offset the costs of external debt repayments, Obado’s corruption case highlights the disconnect between Kenyan leaders and the people. Despite an increasing tax burden under President William Ruto, key essential services like education and healthcare show no improvement. Basic services such as water and shelter remain inaccessible for the poorest Kenyans. Unemployment is high, with 70,000 private sector jobs lost in 2023 and 40% of employers planning to reduce staff due to rising operational costs. Meanwhile, Kenya continues to be rated as a “Top Destination for Expatriates to Reside.”

Historical flooding in April revealed the government’s unpreparedness, or as others alluded, its misplaced priorities in responding to national disasters, which are likely to increase in ferocity and scope due to climate change. This ongoing poor governance, coupled with the de-prioritisation of Kenyans’ needs, has many in arms. 

Since the Bill’s introduction in the National Assembly on May 9th, Kenyans have voiced concerns that its provisions would further increase the cost of living and doing business. The initial Bill included a tax on bread and cooking oil, an annual motor-vehicle tax on car owners (which the Treasury Secretary struggled to explain on national TV), taxes on monetized digital content, and increased taxes on internet and data services, disproportionately affecting young people who create digital content and/or work from home.

Worryingly, the proposed bill also sought to place a VAT tax on imported sanitary pads which most Kenyan women rely on due to a shortage of high-quality locally manufactured ones. As one X user noted, “Kenya was the first country in the world to remove VAT on sanitary products.” The Finance Bill signaled a regression in progressive policies that had benefitted two-thirds of Kenyan girls and women who experience period poverty

Despite lobbying by business groups and a significant number of people using the public participation provision, concerns raised seemed to fall on deaf ears. Government spokespeople defended the Bill’s contentious provisions in national media, appearing condescending about Kenyans’ right to decide what was good for them. This disregard for the will of the people led Kenyans to begin organizing online under the hashtag #RejectFinanceBill2024. By Friday, June 14th, a second hashtag #OccupyParliament had emerged, calling for a day of direct action on Tuesday, June 18th when Parliament was scheduled for its first reading of the Bill. 

KOT (Kenyans on Twitter) are notoriously active online but this online tenor does not always translate offline, and as Tuesday drew near it remained unclear whether mass mobilization had been effective. Still, the government, under the pressure of digital activism, capitulated announcing the removal of  “the proposed 16 percent VAT on bread, transportation of sugar, financial services, foreign exchange transactions as well as the 2.5 percent Motor Vehicle Tax.” Additionally, there would “be no increase in mobile money transfer fees, and Excise Duty on vegetable oil,” among other concessions. The announcement, made just hours before protests were scheduled to begin, did not assuage demonstrators. 

Their response was clear: “Reject, not amend.” As hundreds filled the Nairobi CBD, among the protestors, a youthful Gen-Z presence stood out. For many, this was their first protest. As protestors were met with an arsenal of tear gas, the occasional live bullet, rogue batons, water cannons, and hundreds of arrests, they criticized President Ruto and the excessive use of force, suggesting the government get more creative with tear gas flavors. In their crosshairs was also the IMF whose handwriting is visible in the Finance Bill. The effect on Tuesday, was a Nairobi CBD brought to a standstill as police violently pushed back protestors trying to reach the Parliament building. 

The violence unleashed on protestors only seemed to entrench their demands for a total rejection of the Finance Bill. This was Kenya in 2024, not 1994. How could citizen voices be silenced through brute force and parody engagement? As Kenyans broadcast the brutality they were being met with, they were also regrouping online. A second day of protests was called for Thursday, June 20th to coincide with the second reading of the Finance Bill. Organizers in other cities swiftly joined in, planning parallel demonstrations and urging police to uphold the constitutional right to protest.

By Thursday morning, two things were certain. One, a new leaderless, tribeless, and youth-led movement was emerging in Kenya and the protests would be substantial, supported by ordinary Kenyans demanding the representative politics promised to them at the dawn of the 2010 Constitution.

In the end, 204 Members of Parliament (MPs) voted against the interests of Kenyans, with only 115 heeding the call to reject the Bill. The amended Bill now enters the Committee Stage which involves scrutiny of the Bill, clause by clause. Unless there is a dramatic upset in the subsequent proceedings—and given that the interests of Kenyans are now in the small majority of 115 MPs who held out—President Ruto will likely sign the Bill into law in the coming weeks. 

But 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. Even before Thursday’s vote in Parliament, Kenyans online had begun exploring the recall process for MPs who would defy the interests of their constituents with a “yes” vote. The solidarity of Kenyans, who mobilized for the two-day protests without a political or centralized leader, has also galvanized many. By Thursday night the #RejectFinanceBill had 2.64 million hits on X and had been picked up by major news outlets, including Al Jazeera, BBC, and CNN.

With the use of technology, the innovation emerging from the protest movement is truly breathtaking. There is a USSD platform that allows protestors to coordinate, spread awareness, access emergency services, and log cases of police abuse; and a Finance Bill GPT that can be used to help understand the Bill. Concerns over an internet shutdown during protests led citizens to deploy Starlink satellites, that would keep a very-online set of protestors livestreaming their actions. 

Content creators set aside their usual promotional content to educate the public about the Bill. Popular comedian Mike Muchiri created a TikTok video explaining key contentious provisions. By Thursday, requests to translate Muchiri’s video into local languages had made it accessible in Dholuo, Kikuyu, Kimeru, Kisii, Kiswahili, Kamba, and Taita, helping spread the anti-tax message to rural and older Kenyans. “Get Ready With Me” (GRWM) videos and “Protest 101 for Baddies” posts emerged as Gen-Z shared helpful safety tips while staying “on-brand”. 

Lawyers mobilized by setting up legal aid hotlines and offering pro-bono assistance to those facing arrest. Medics provided care at a makeshift clinic staffed by 1,000 volunteers, businesses offered free food, water, medical supplies, and charging stations. Throughout, young Kenyans echoed the message, “We are not afraid,” demonstrating readiness for any state violence. 

In Arundhati Roy’s  2003 speech on “Confronting Empire,” Roy says that to confront empire, we must not only “deprive it of oxygen,” but also shame it and make a mockery of it, “With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness.” 

Some of my favorite videos from the protests this week are videos of joy. Like the young man and his “the vibe is giving Kipchoge.” In other videos, Kenyans sing in the street and taunt the state and its machinery. They hold placards that only Gen-Z’s could create. The collage that emerges, archived digitally, is beautiful, utterly indecorous, and resistant to the politics of yesteryear.

With the backing of the 2010 Constitution, one of the most progressive in the world, young Kenyans, who were not alive to the deranged days of the Moi dictatorship and its voracious appetite for quashing dissent, Kenyans are determined to actualize their sovereignty. So that, even as the sound of tear gas canisters and water cannons washes over them, they are no longer afraid. After all, why should our MPs get police escorts, while we get tear gas?

This article is dedicated to Rex Masai, 29, tragically shot by a police officer on June 20th who fired into a crowd of protestors. Rex passed away on the floor of a clinic that denied him aid, a further indictment of Kenya’s health system, as he bled for 40 agonizing minutes. #JusticeforRex.

Kari Mugo is a seasoned agitator, storyteller and wanderer, born and raised in Nairobi. Her writing has been published widely online and she pens love notes on her Substack.