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Gen Z protests in Kenya turn deadly

Martina Schwikowski
June 25, 2024

Kenya's Gen Z leads mass protests against government tax hikes, resulting in violent clashes. Young people have expressed frustration over the rising cost of living and government policies.

Young protesters in black T-Shirts march with a sign saying "Reject Finance Act 2024"
Young citizen took to the streets in Kenya to protest against the proposed tax hikesImage: James Wakibia/ZUMA PRESS/picture alliance

A proposed finance bill has sparked mass anti-government protests in the streets of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, and across other cities in Kenya.

The demonstrations in Niarobi took a violent turn on June 25, with rights groups accusing officers of firing live rounds at demonstrators. At least 13 people were killed during protests across Kenya on Tuesday, according to a doctors' association. Angry over proposed tax hikes related to the cost of living crisis that has been simmering for years, protesters stormed the nearby parliament complex, which was then set ablaze.

Footage broadcast on Kenya's privately owned Citizen TV showed police trying to douse the flames with a water cannon.

Protesters run for safety as teargas was thrown at them.
Nairobi: Protests against the proposed finance bill turned violentImage: Boniface Muthoni/ZUMAPRESS/picture alliance

Why are Gen Z so angry?

Bold young protesters from what is often referred to as Generation Z, or Gen Z — the term generally used to describe people born during the late 1990s and early 2000s — expressed their anger at how the government in Kenya has been offloading its problems onto citizens. "We are already paying taxes, and they are not doing much with it — it gets stolen. So how can we trust them with more?" Makena Kahuha, an actor and content creator, told DW.

Another protestor, Pamela Muriuki, is also disappointed: "They prefer allegiance to the government instead of the voters who voted them in," she says. In contrast to previous protests led by opposition party members, the current demonstrations were led by young citizens who chanted anti-government slogans and waved placards disparaging the bill. 

Several dead as Kenyan parliament stormed

Government bows under pressure

These demonstrations were different from other mass protests seen previously in Kenya. This time, young protesters filmed clashes with police officers with their smartphones, publishing them online. The protests gained momentum on social media under the hashtag #OccupyParliament. 

And the protests were a resounding success. By Thursday afternoon, the government announced it would scrap many of the bill's most contentious provisions, including taxes on bread purchases and car ownership.

"The finance bill has been amended to remove the proposed 16% levy on bread, transportation of sugar, financial services, foreign exchange transactions, as well as the 2.5% motor vehicle tax," the presidency wrote in a statement.

Additionally, there will be no increase in mobile money transfer fees, according to the statement. 

The cash-strapped government had previously defended the tax hikes as necessary to cut reliance on external borrowing. The increases were projected to raise some 346.7 billion shillings ($2.7 billion), the equivalent of 1.9% of the country's GDP.

Since the COVID pandemic, the country has struggled with a cost-of-living crisis. Critics warned the situation would only worsen under the levies laid out in a bill.

The International Monetary Fund urged the government to increase revenues in its 2024/2025 budget to reduce borrowing.

More accountability

According to Wanjiru Gikonyo, national coordinator of the Institute for Social Accountability, a civil society initiative working towards good governance, the demonstrations were mostly peaceful, and young people mobilized without the help of politicians, unlike in the past.

"There were very creative voices. Unfortunately, the police used force on young people demonstrating on the most significant piece of legislation for any citizen — the tax provisions," she told DW last week. 

Gikonyo spoke of the significance of such peaceful protests. "It taught us that the violent protests really are instigated in the political arena," she stressed. "But violence in the past has been part of the mobilization strategy, and underlying that is a culture of political mobilization and violence that underpins politics." 

Similarly, Zaha Indimuli, executive director of the Amali Organization, which supports empowering youth and promoting national development, said the government must be held accountable if it uses force on peaceful protesters.

"Why would you throw teargas at the people giving you feedback? It is mediocre, and it also shows a lot of immaturity inside the government," she told DW. 

"They should sit down with the people who actually put them there and fix the problems at home, not travel the world," she said, referring to President William Ruto. 

Ruto: Those behind violence 'hereby put on notice'


Wrong economic path

Ruto is trying to position himself in the region and even globally, Gikonyo said. Therefore, such mass protests would not help his image.

Like others, Gikonyo points out the history behind the financial crisis, namely "very irresponsible borrowing already done by previous governments," which continued under President Ruto's leadership.

When Ruto came to power in 2022, his administration invested in many unprofitable projects, she told DW.  "Kenya's economy also has structural problems, high costs of electricity, also high costs of doing business due to corruption."

Gikonyo points out that Kenya's economy has been inefficient, and the current administration has not dealt with the debt issues. "The country is on the wrong economic trajectory." 

Recently, Ruto's government made promises to reduce taxes and then did the opposite without consulting citizens. The move led to massive frustration in the country, where many people already struggle to make ends meet. 

Signs of change

The recent protests showed that Kenya's young people are ready and willing to use social media to express their demands. The government has long feared that social media could be used to promote discord and has pushed for stricter regulatory oversight. 

Wanjiru Gikonyo is hopeful about the future: "This revolution of young people is the beginning of change. These young people have shown the older generations how it is done."

Felix Maina Maringa in Nairobi contributed reporting.

Edited by: Sarah Hucal

This DW article, originally published on June 21, 2024, was updated on June 25, 2024.

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Kenyan government scraps some tax hike plan after protests