Gen Z protests in Kenya

The election that brought William Ruto to the presidency of Kenya two years ago went so well that I described it as boring. This, at the time, was a compliment.

Of course, the election wasn’t perfect. However, in the context of previous elections, it was a solid step towards the maturation of democracy in the country. Shortly after, having survived a judicial challenge from his main opponent, Mr Ruto peacefully assumed office as the president of Kenya.

Last week, Mr Ruto became the first sitting Kenyan president to witness protesters breaching parliament. It was a turn of events that, in hindsight, was inevitable. That it happened at all is ultimately a result of the fact that, though Mr Ruto and his allies saw the protest coming, they terribly underestimated its potential ferocity.

Perhaps they put too much stock in the fact that, in the two years he has been in power, Mr Ruto has not only outmanoeuvred his local opposition, but also charmed his way into the hearts of many foreign leaders, winning praise and support for his decisive leadership on climate action and other contemporary obsessions.

His charm offensive has been so frenetic that the world has almost forgotten that, merely a decade ago, for his role in the ethnic violence that wracked Kenya following the 2007 general elections, the man was on trial for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court, and that he wasn’t acquitted; rather, the case against him collapsed following extensive witness interference.

Outward charm; internal disaster

Barely a month ago, he returned from a state visit to the United States, the first by a sitting African head of state in 15 years, at the end of which, among other goodies, Mr Biden designated Kenya as a major non-NATO ally of the United States, making Kenya the first sub-Saharan African nation to join that rarefied defence club.

Mere hours before protesters stormed parliament in Nairobi, 400 Kenyan police officers landed in Haiti, the first contingent of a vaunted Kenya-led international law-enforcement mission to re-establish government authority in that beleaguered country; a mission for which Mr Ruto has received much international praise.

The only problem is that his administration has, so far, failed to deliver on his campaign promises. Worse, many Kenyans say he has gone in the exact opposite direction. Having billed himself as a hustler (Kenyan English for an ordinary person struggling for a living) and promised to create a pro-hustler administration, Mr Ruto has instead stuffed the government full of corrupt and condescending buffoons.

This was the state of affairs when the government presented its finance bill for 2024/2025. It proposed several new taxes, as well as increases to a number of existing ones. It also outlined several exorbitant lines of expenditure, including, most controversially, generous allocations for the first and second ladies, as well as a fat amount for renovations to the still-new official residence of the deputy president.

Popular opposition to the bill was immediate. Opposition members of parliament called for it to be extensively reworked to reduce expenditure and the tax burden. And mere hours after it was presented in parliament, many voices online were already calling for it to be reconsidered.

Fatefully, with the backing of his allies in parliament, Mr Ruto, whose penchant for taxation earned him the moniker Zakayo (the Kiswahili form of Zacchaeus, the biblical publican from Jericho), stood his ground, insisting that the bill was the best thing for Kenyans since sliced bread. The official opposition, long neutered, could do precious little to stop the bill’s advance.

Discontented youth

The discontent, however, continued simmering online. In the week before the bill was due for its final reading and vote in parliament, that discontent coalesced into a concerted campaign for the bill to be recalled in its entirety; many Kenyans had by then gotten frustrated by the tone-deafness of an out-of-touch parliament.

Most importantly, the entire process was not only organic, in the sense that the movement had no identifiable leaders, but it was also primarily dominated by young people, many of whom have never voted, or voted for the first time in the election that brought Mr Ruto into office.

In short, opposition to the bill was driven by unled Kenyans who belong to Generation Z (those born between 1997 and 2012), a group that exemplifies Africa’s remarkable demography. Unlike in the rest of the world, this group already makes up more than half of Africa’s population.


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Like their agemates in the rest of the world, this generation gets most of its news and connections on social media, and so doesn’t seem to be as politically significant on the ground as their elders. Unlike their agemates in the rest of the world, they are, or will soon be, an electoral majority in most African countries. They are, at once, Africa’s most politically potent, and least accounted for, generation.

Rallying around the hashtag #RejectFinanceBill2024, they first mounted a campaign to pressure the pro-bill MPs to drop it. In a frenzy of doxing that would have made a data protection officer faint in rage, the private contacts of many MPs were shared online, and they were flooded with messages and calls.

When that failed to work, calls for a protest gathered steam, and one was soon set for Tuesday, 25 June, the date on which the bill was to be read in parliament and votes taken. Once again, Mr Ruto and his allies failed to take the hint.


In the wee hours of that day, some of the loudest voices of the movement were plucked from their houses by police officers. This perhaps, was the first clear sign of Mr Ruto’s woeful misreading of the nature of the discontent. The idea that a group of Kenyans could organise without leaders was foreign to him and his allies.

And so, they weren’t prepared when thousands of youngsters showed up hours later on the doorsteps of parliament, where MPs were hastily passing the unwanted bill in the face of an opposition boycott. Neither were they prepared for protesters to turn out in all the major cities and towns across the country, in 35 of Kenya’s 47 counties in what was, arguably, Kenya’s largest demonstrations of the millennium.

Anti-riot police, backed by snipers (snipers!) shot several protesters and bystanders dead, some of them in the full glare of media cameras; till now, there’s no clarity over how many people actually lost their lives. Many of the abducted presumed leaders were not released until later in the week. Some are still being abducted.

By the end of the day, Kenya’s military was being deployed to the streets to help restore calm. MPs, who had been evacuated to the basement of parliament buildings, were being sneaked out of the building in ambulances. And Mr Ruto’s international image as a democratic and visionary leader had been shattered.

His response to the saga has been pathetic. His first speech after the events, given on the night of Tuesday, was unnecessarily forceful and palpably revanchist. He had been undressed before the world, and his response was to threaten retribution. The next day, in a much tamer speech, he finally withdrew the finance bill in its entirety, and promised to run a more austere government.

He then quickly embarked on a campaign of damage control that has been as wretched as it is counter-productive. His first act was to meet with several groups of religious leaders. This would have worked, had it not been for the simple fact that Mr Ruto already has a reputation for using religiosity to cloak his corruption and that of his cronies; no one has done more to damage the image of religion.

He also proposed to formulate an inter-sectoral committee to discuss and study the grievances of the protesters. This was another strategic mistake. Over and over, protesters have articulated their grievances and expressed disdain for excessive dialogue which, they rightly say, rarely achieves change.

Moreover, the leaderless nature of the protests makes it impossible for anyone to be nominated to represent the protesters in any dialogue. The proposal was laughed out of the room long before it had legs.


Finally, perhaps realising the futility of his previous efforts, the president invited journalists from major media houses for a wide-ranging interview on Sunday, 30 June. Perhaps, by staging candidness and openness, he hoped to win back the public, or at the very least a part of it.

Instead, it turned out to be the worst of his performances so far. Defensive, imperious, dishonest and insensitive, Mr Ruto offered no straight answers, and showed no remorse for the brazen murders and abductions of protesters and by the police, despite being offered multiple chances to do so.

It was perhaps the worst example of the main weakness that has dogged him throughout this episode: an intractable inability, or unwillingness, to read the room.

It's a weakness that might very well cost him his presidency. For, as it happens, the protests that began in opposition to his finance bill – which would have ended if only he had listened then – have now morphed into a concerted effort to kick him out of office. #RutoMustGo is trending on X; fresh national protests are planned for the coming days; and more people are pledging to turn out for them.

Time is running out for Mr Ruto. Only two paths remain out of his present quagmire. He could either ramp up the brutality and authoritarianism of his regime to quell the protests, which would only embolden the protesters, while eroding his international image; or he could sincerely own up to his mistakes and start afresh.

Given that he has repeatedly shown himself utterly incapable of the latter, I wager he’ll probably take the former approach.

Still, I ardently hope, for the sake of the country, that he surprises me.

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Mathew Otieno is a Kenyan writer, blogger and dilettante farmer. Until 2022, he was a research communications coordinator at a university in Nairobi, Kenya. He now lives in rural western Kenya, near the shores of Lake Victoria, from where he is pursuing a career as a full-time writer while concluding his dissertation for a master's degree.

Image credit: Depositphotos


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