Kenya's youth-led protest movement leaves Ruto fumbling for a response

26 June 2024 - 11:51 By Aaron Ross and Edwin Okoth
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A protester carries a Kenyan flag during a protest against the finance bill on June 25, 2024 in Nairobi, Kenya.
A protester carries a Kenyan flag during a protest against the finance bill on June 25, 2024 in Nairobi, Kenya.
Image: Patrick Meinhardt/Getty Images

As John Aron headed out to join the protests raging outside parliament, he felt something huge had already shifted in Kenyan politics, jolting it away from its decades of dominance by party strongmen and ethnic loyalties.

At least eight people died when police opened fire on crowds trying to storming the assembly to protest against tax hikes on Tuesday. President William Ruto blamed “criminals”. Aron, from Nairobi's Kibera slum, said the demonstrators were part of a brand new movement.

“It is going to unite the youth and the old like never before,” the 29-year-old told Reuters.

Over just one week, what began as an online outpouring of anger by young, tech-savvy Kenyans at proposed taxes on bread and diapers has morphed into nationwide movement untethered from the politicians who have traditionally rallied the masses.

Ruto's allies initially dismissed the protests as a fit of pique by wealthy, entitled children.

“They arrive at the protests in Uber. When they leave the protests, they go to KFC to eat chicken,” parliament majority leader Kimani Ichung'wah told supporters last week.

But the protests have built up into a much wider groundswell of anger that has become the most serious crisis of Ruto's two-year-old presidency, leaving him fumbling for a response.

“It's the people against the government,” Ronnie Baron, a 30-year-old English literature teacher said in the heart of the crowd in downtown Nairobi on Tuesday.

The slogans on the streets and social media have shifted from tax to calls for a complete political overhaul. “Ruto must go!” crowds chanted.

“Our leaders are saying they are going to sit down with the youth. And talk to us,” protester Mitchell Mwamodo said. But “we don't have a leader. I am not trying to have a conversation. We are not ready to back down.”

Ruto had said on Sunday that he wanted to engage with the protest movement and praised it for staging earlier more peaceful demonstrations.

But as the rallies spread, authorities switched from the carrot to the stick, clashing with demonstrators across the country on Tuesday.

“They are just trying to find out which hand to shake and which hand to cut off,” said 37-year-old Mary Ngigi as teargas swirled around her on Tuesday. “But we don't even have any leaders.”


Many said they had had enough of a political system under which the big parties took turns in power and funnelled jobs and opportunities to supporters and people from their ethnic groups.

“Our parents failed us. They voted along tribal lines,” 26-year-old Derick Kolito told Reuters. He said he had a master's degree in accounts but had not managed to find a job.

“I am the son of peasants. You must have a godfather to get a job ... I wish I was born in another country.”

Division among the main ethnic groups have traditionally been a key driver of politics and protest, with members of one group coming out against what they see as favouritism towards another.

But at demonstrations and in online forums where they have gathered to discuss and strategise, protesters have stuck to common grievances including steep rises in living costs and widespread corruption.

The protests have cut across Kenya's geographic, social and ethnic landscape.

The Nation newspaper documented protests in at least 35 of Kenya's 47 counties, from big cities to rural areas — even in Ruto's hometown of Eldoret in his ethnic Kalenjin heartland.

Westen Shilaho, a scholar who has studied Kenyan protest movements, said the political elite have traditionally used “the ethnic card” to enhance their own power.

“Now that that one is not working in this context, they will try to insert the class card,” he said.

Kenya's parliamentarians made some concessions to the protesters by removing some of the taxes in the finance bill — though they then added some others to reduce the deficit.

Minutes after they passed the legislation on Tuesday, protesters entered the parliamentary compound, pitching Kenyan democracy into uncharted waters.

By Wednesday morning, a new hashtag was trending on social media — #tupatanethursday, a mix of Swahili and English meaning “see you on Thursday”.


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