What is Happening in Kenya? Gen Z Leads Digital Activism in Deadly Protests Against Tax Hikes

In Kenya, a wave of protests spearheaded by Gen Z has spotlighted the significant role of digital activism in modern political movements.

The demonstrations erupted on Tuesday in response to a proposed finance bill from President William Ruto’s administration, aiming to introduce new taxes and levies that would substantially increase the cost of basic goods.

The government sought to raise 346.7 billion shillings ($2.7 billion USD/$4 billion AUD), equivalent to 1.9 per cent of the GDP, to reduce the budget deficit from 5.7 per cent to 3.3 per cent of GDP. However, this move has been met with widespread discontent, particularly among the youth.

The protests have been galvanised by the perceived economic hardships these tax hikes would impose on an already struggling population.

Police officers clashed with demonstrators amid uproar over proposed tax hikes in a finance bill that is due to be tabled in parliament in Nairobi, Kenya, Tuesday, June 18, 2024. Andrew Kasuku/AP
Police officers clashed with demonstrators amid uproar over proposed tax hikes in a finance bill that is due to be tabled in parliament in Nairobi, Kenya, Tuesday, June 18, 2024. Credit: Andrew Kasuku/AP

Many Kenyans are grappling with high inflation, and the proposed taxes threaten to exacerbate their financial burdens. The government’s plan included levies on bread, car ownership, and financial and mobile services.

After facing intense opposition, President Ruto’s administration made concessions by removing these levies, though it still plans to increase fuel prices and export taxes to offset a 200-billion-shilling ($1.5 billion USD/$2.2 billion AUD) shortfall caused by the budget cuts.

The unrest reached a tragic point earlier this week with the deaths of two young men during the protests. A 21-year-old, Evans Kiratu, was fatally injured by a tear gas canister, and a 29-year-old man was reportedly shot by police.

These incidents have intensified public outcry and demand for justice, highlighting the severe consequences of state responses to peaceful demonstrations.

Gen Z has played a pivotal role in these protests, utilising social media platforms to organise, communicate, and broadcast the events as they unfold.

Credit: Luis Tato/AFP via Getty Images
Credit: Luis Tato/AFP via Getty Images

This demographic has shown adeptness at leveraging digital tools to mobilise support and maintain pressure on the government. Their activism reflects a broader trend of youth-driven movements worldwide, where young people use technology to challenge established political and economic structures.

The effectiveness of Gen Z’s digital activism in Kenya is evident in the scale and persistence of the protests. The youth have been instrumental in calling for a nationwide strike and advocating for a complete shutdown of activities on June 25, marking a significant escalation in their campaign against the government’s economic policies.

This mobilisation highlights the potential of digital platforms to facilitate large-scale social movements and bring issues to the forefront of national discourse.

Despite the government’s concessions, the situation remains volatile as the proposed increases in fuel prices and export taxes are likely to further strain the already high cost of living. Diesel, essential for transport, power generation, and agriculture, and kerosene, crucial for household cooking and lighting, will become more expensive, affecting a significant portion of the population.

Kenya’s economic landscape is complex, with a dynamic economy juxtaposed against a high poverty rate affecting a third of its 53 million people. The government’s efforts to fill its coffers and reduce reliance on external borrowing are necessary steps for economic stability.

However, the methods of achieving these goals have sparked widespread dissent, illustrating the delicate balance required in fiscal policy-making.

The protests highlight the powerful impact of Gen Z’s digital activism. Their ability to organise and mobilise mass protests has brought significant attention to the economic challenges facing the country and forced the government to reconsider its policies.

This movement not only reflects the frustrations of the younger generation but also their potential to drive substantial political and social change through digital means.

Mibenge Nsenduluka

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