Why anti-Ruto protesters are a different beast: 3 things that make it harder for government to crush them

Protesters

A protester displays posters in a cloud of teargas during anti-finance bill demonstrations on Moi Avenue, Nairobi on June 18, 2024.
 

Photo credit: Sila Kiplagat | Nation Media Group

On 25 June 2024, a youth-led protest primarily composed of Gen Zs, as they are popularly referred to, stormed Kenya’s parliament.

Legislators voted to pass the Finance Bill 2024 in its third and last reading ahead of presidential assent. This was the second countrywide protest over the proposed taxes in the draft law and excesses in government spending.

The finance bill is a framework that determines how the government raises revenue.

The Kenyan government had proposed raising US$2.7 billion by increasing taxes on essential goods and services, from cooking oil to bread. The bill also targeted digital revenue, where the bulk of young people generate their income in an environment with high rates of youth unemployment.

Protesters during the Anti-finance bill demonstrations along Kenyatta Avenue in Nairobi on 25th June 2024.

Photo credit: Billy Ogada | Nation Media Group

Kenyans took issue with plans to increase taxation that affects the working class and young people most, amid unnecessary government spending. This includes a US$7.8 million State House renovations budget.

Organising under the hashtag #RejectFinanceBill2024 started in earnest from 13 May 2024. Direct action gained momentum with protests on 18 June following significant online mobilisation.

Organising and direct action are not new to Kenya. The country has a long and healthy tradition of protests across its political history.

This includes the 1990s pro-democracy movement and environmental justice organising led by the late Wangari Maathai to stop state encroachment on a forest reserve. There have also been economic and constitution-based mobilisations.

As part of this history, Kenyans are familiar with the use of the police to violently repress public protests. This often ends in death and other casualties.

Protesters

Protesters engage the police during the Anti-Finance Bill demonstrations in Nairobi on June 20, 2024.

Photo credit: Sila Kiplagat | Nation Media Group

I have studied protests and movements and have been part of political change across Africa for the last 15 years as an academic and civil society activist. In my view, the #RejectFinanceBill2024protests stand out for several reasons. I will focus on three:

  1. the absence of a central organisation leading the protests
  2. crowdsourcing the finances required
  3. a heightened trust deficit between citizens and the state

What’s different

The first factor that makes the current wave of protests different from previous ones is the absence of civil society organisations or political parties steering protest actions.

This is important because it avoids legitimate demands being sidetracked by the government framing them as opposition politics or distractions by “western-funded NGOs”, as has happened in the past. It has also created the ability to mobilise across party, age and regional divides by focusing on the things that bind protesters – the equalising effect of bad economic policy. In doing so, it has pierced long-standing, easily politicised identity divisions in Kenya.

The second factor is the reliance on mutual aid as a framework to crowdsource financial resources. As of 3 July 2024, Kenyans had raised about US$234,000. These funds have been used to pay hospital bills and funeral expenses brought on by the state’s response to protests. Lawyers and doctors have also offered pro bono services.

This approach to resourcing avoids divisions around ownership and attribution that often plague mobilisations. It also makes it harder for governments to claim that protest movements are funded by external actors seeking to destabilise the regime. In the absence of a central financier, it has been difficult to isolate individuals who can be co-opted into negotiations with the regime. Co-opting “representatives” is a classic tactic used to destabilise and splinter movements.

Protesters

Protesters display a banner during the Anti-Finance Bill demonstrations along Kenyatta Avenue in Nairobi on June 20, 2024.

Photo credit: Billy Ogada | Nation Media Group

This can be seen in President William Ruto’s creation of a National Multi-Sectoral Forum for dialogue. In making demands from within an amorphous structure, protesters could hold firm to their core demand to address systemic governance rot.

The third feature is the heightened trust deficit between society and the sitting government. Ruto’s leadership challenge was illustrated in a roundtable conversation with Kenyan media on 31 June.

He failed to show empathy with Kenyans killed as a result of the protests despite evidence from the journalists.

This interview made Ruto look even more out of touch with the people he was elected to lead. In his initial response to the protests, he demonstrated that he was unable to read the mood of the country.

Ruto faces a serious leadership challenge, which is the loss of trust from the electorate that brought him into office. Despite asserting his commitment to stopping extrajudicial killings, he has presided over abductions and the use of brute force against protesters.

Ruto has adopted a classic tactic used to fracture movements, which is to discredit them through criminalisation. His subsequent change of tone by withdrawing assent to the finance bill on 26 June was a little too late.

What next

Significant transitions in Kenya have occurred through the voices of masses and never through the formal structures of political parties. The next few weeks will determine the future of the youth-led movement that was roused by the finance bill 2024.

police

A police officer aims a teargas canister Anti-Finance Bill at protesters on June 25, 2024 on Kenyatta Avenue in Nairobi.

Photo credit: Billy Ogada | Nation Media Group


The movement continues to hold firm but needs to move into a stronger coordination format. It must guard against the risk of leader-centricity, which the government would use to diffuse the movement.

Given that the political regime continues to use heavy handed security tactics and agent-provocateurs, organising needs to move off social media. To minimise the loss of life, protesters need to be three steps ahead of the regime where direct action is concerned.

Finally, can the movement heed the multiple ways in which class intersects with gender, youth, disability or ethnicity? The structuring of key demands must recognise how Kenya’s structural inequalities overlap.


Awino Okech is an Associate professor in political sociology, SOAS, University of London