Gen Z protests: Maturing democracy, new dawn of leaders’ introspection

Saturday July 06 2024

Youths demonstrate in Eldoret town, Uasin Gishu County, Kenya against the Finance Bill on June 25, 2024. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NMG


In Kenya this week, two things happened: Senators and other politicians looked themselves in the mirror. And President William Ruto hosted an X Space to discuss emerging issues from his administration with the youth.

Both events were unthinkable a month ago, until deadly protests ensued. For three weeks, young Kenyans poured into the streets demanding, initially, a rejection of tax proposals included in a Finance Bill, before they went for the entire government for its perceived and real corruption, opulence and impunity.

On Wednesday, Kenyan senators took the whole day to discuss the state of the country following weeks of deadly protests by the youth that has left at least 39 people dead, scores nursing injuries and properties of unknown value destroyed.

Senate Majority Leader Aaron Cheruiyot moved the motion, himself showing a Damascus moment just a month after initially dismissing the Gen Z protests as a storm in a tea cup.

Senator Cheruiyot said the protests by the youth, which appeared dissipating as the government yielded to some of the demands, are an indictment of the leadership in the country.

Read: Ruto announces spending cuts after protests


“We are deeply embarrassed that it has taken our children to point out to us that we are naked as a leadership. We are in extraordinary times and ordinary solutions we have proposed in the past cannot work this time,” he told the House.

“Unless we are genuine, honest and we mean it, let us not begin this conversation on this floor,” said the Kericho senator.

“Where the country has reached, it needs a complete overhaul. I am afraid that not the usual glue and gum that we always put on leaking areas will solve this this time. If it is a pipe, it is time to decommission it and put up a new pipe,” he said. What he didn’t say was whether he and his colleagues should pack and go, as some Gen Zs have demanded.

When President Ruto angered to bin the Finance Bill 2024, which had tax proposals, he thought the protests could ease. Instead, new demands emerged: That he goes too. He said he won’t. But he admitted he had been taken back to the drawing board after protests emerged.

“I am proud of the youth and the decision they took to ensure their grievances are addressed,” he told an audience at a church last week in Nyahururu, Laikipia County.

“But we must remain a peaceful country. The issues raised by the youth will be addressed fully. I will have a conversation with them to address the issues raised.”

Some of those who asked him to resign weren’t even Gen Zs per se, they included politicians like Jimi Wanjigi, a businessman who tried to compete for presidency in 2022 but couldn’t. There was also Miguna Miguna, a lawyer based in Toronto, Canada. He was once deported for swearing in opposition leader Raila Odinga as ‘people’s President.’ President Ruto later ordered he given back his passport as soon as he took power. The two are now at odds.

Read: Ruto might struggle to get things done

Wanjigi argued Ruto dad “lost his moral legitimacy to govern” after failing to deal with protests.

“He should set up transitional authority through a convention that will usher in a time period for another election. He cannot handle the youth uprising,” the former presidential aspirant said. There is currently no possibility Ruto quitting a job he sought so vehemently.

Instead, he has used the crisis to demonstrate that Kenya is a maturing democracy. In a televised interview last Sunday, he told the country that the protests were the fruits of a constitution that allows the public to picket and express displeasure with any bad policy. While he disproved of violence that arose in the latter days of the protests, he said would act on some of the demands including purging the corrupt, cleaning up his backroom staff for effective communication and agree to ‘meet’ the youth on X Spaces (he had actually proposed a multi-sectoral forum to discuss the crisis.)

But whether that helps his confidence beyond Kenya is something else.

Domestically, some of the politicians who had arrogantly displayed quick-gotten wealth suddenly began to calm. One of them, recently seen donating Ksh20million ($16,000) at a church fundraiser, said he was considering quitting politics. Another ditched an expensive time piece he had been wearing. Yet another one was forced to declare where he buys his shoes. In general, politicians started speaking for the people, including refusing any suggestion to raise their pay this time.

“As leaders, we must lead by example. Things are not working well and people are suffering. The sudden opulence by leaders close to power is troubling. This is what Gen Z is now against. We are ready as the Senate to meet with Gen Z,” said the Kilifi Senator Minority Leader Stewart Madzayo.

“This moment does not call for us to tell the young people what they should do,” Senate Deputy Minority Whip Edwin Sifuna added.

“We need to demonstrate that we are hearing what they are saying and look ourselves in the mirror so that we are able to demonstrate that we understand what these young people are saying,” said the Nairobi Senator.

The protests’ headache is beyond just integrity for leaders. It is also about blatant breaking of the law by law enforcers under Ruto’s government some activists had already petitioned publicly to the police after a number of their colleagues were abducted.

Read: Kenya: Tear gas and stones as protesters return to the streets

Officially, Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki argued no one had been abducted, just arrested. And those found clean were freed. Others with cases to answer would face the law, he argued.

The problem though is that those abductions don’t play well abroad. President Ruto has told the world his is a maturing democracy that works by the rules and through established institutions. He often cited the Supreme Court for validating his win. And often argued courts have also paused his moves and he respected that.

“In several countries, we have seen unconstitutional changes of government that have threatened democratic gains. Consequently, this is a crucial time for reflecting on the need to strengthen democracy worldwide,” President Ruto said in May after meeting with President Joe Biden at the White House.

A critic of coup plotters on the continent, he had also marketed himself as a saviour, including readiness to send troops to Haiti. In fact, some 200 police officers deployed in Haiti, under the UN-endorsed Multinational Security Support mission as protests raged back at home.

These dynamics have given President William Ruto a bind of a crisis to a man who projected himself as a champion of new Pan-Africanism. The protests raged as the US officially designated Kenya as major non-NATO ally which could make Nairobi to utilise some American defence technology, at a price. But even as Washington and allies stayed away from the tax crisis, they asked for restraint, and mostly closed their missions every time protests happened.

Ruto also has something else to deal with: an escalating political fall-out with his deputy Rigathi Gachagua. The growing rift between the two top leaders is threatening tension within his Kenya Kwanza alliance administration and has the potential of slowing down his development agenda, or hurt his second term bid.

"We were elected the other day as a popular government. How did we get here? When did the rain start beating us?” posed Mr Gachagua in an address recently.

“President William Ruto and I were the darling of the Kenyan people by listening to them, by engaging them. The decision by our President this evening to withdraw the finance bill after listening to the people of Kenya is a new beginning that should nurture the culture of consultation and engagement,” he said on Thursday.

The President was forced to drop the contested Finance Bill, 2024 following days of deadly protests. The withdrawal of the Bill is set to occasion an estimated Sh300 billion ($2.7 billion) budget shortfall.

He is also under pressure and tough conditions by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that wants the about two-year old administration to raise more taxes to pay debts and finance its operations.

Read: Protests expose Ruto neglect of discontent at home

The IMF has been pushing Dr Ruto to cut unnecessary expenditure on top of raising more taxes to finance its operations and service existing loans. IMF had foreseen the emergence of street protests against the tax measures, but asked the government to stand firm on new revenue-raising measures. 

“President Ruto has few options but to implement drastic reform because the 2027 elections are fast coming due and ethnic arithmetic alone cannot win the day as Gen Z demonstrations have shown,” says David Monda, Prof of Political science at the City University of New York. 

“By drastic reform, I mean starting with low hanging fruit. Things he can easily implement like reconstituting his cabinet and firing or prosecuting Cabinet secretaries implicated in corruption. Having IPOA, the policing oversight authority, complete a thorough investigation of the abductions and extrajudicial killings of the demonstration period with disciplinary action against those incriminated.” 

“The president needs to act fast as his political enemies are fast regrouping,” Prof Monda observes. 

Some analysts see the crises as self-made, making leaders victims of their own style and failure to read the room.

“He wants to tax even jobless Kenyans? He has overstretched his imagination. The youth revolt is a consciousness built out of frustration, disbelief and diminished faith in adults.  

“A revolt against false promises and lies. A realisation that their destiny can only be safe in their hands,” Martin Oloo, a political analyst in Nairobi told The EastAfrican.

“The President must, like Zacchaeus, come down from the Sycamore tree of arrogance, aloofness and sense of entitlement. Kenyans are his bosses not his servants.”

The way forward? He also needs to be more serious in fighting corruption. He also has to get rid of incompetent people that he has surrounded himself with, advised Macharia Munene, prof of history and international.

“He was not sensitive to public concerns. He thought he could just get away with anything because he is the President,” says Prof Munene.

In addition to the tax war the president has faced, he is also under pressure to address the perks raw pitting him against his predecessor Uhuru Kenyatta.

Mr Kenyatta accused president Ruto of refusing to pay for his office and denying him a budget for two consecutive financial years – about Sh1.1 billion ($8.6 million).

Analysts see the protest by Mr Kenyatta and the DP of having the potential to weep up emotions especially in the Mt Kenya region and disrupt the Ruto administration.

Nyeri Governor Mutahi Kahiga insists that whereas former president Kenyatta “may have wronged the powers that be, he deserves his legally provided pension and facilitation for his office.”