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Youth-Led Protests Force Kenyan President’s Hand Over Tax Bill

Youth demonstrate on the streets of Nairobi, adjacent to the national parliament, while legislators rush to pass the Finance Bill 2024. Credit: Robert Kibet/IPS

Youth demonstrate on the streets of Nairobi, adjacent to the national parliament, while legislators rush to pass the Finance Bill 2024. Credit: Robert Kibet/IPS

NAIROBI, Jun 27 2024 (IPS) - In a historic first, Kenya’s youth have mobilized in large-scale protests to demand that the political establishment listen to them. The Finance Bill 2024, which proposed new taxes across several sectors, was the catalyst for the protests, igniting outrage among a youth demographic that feels betrayed by decades of political promises. These protests, driven by economic and social grievances, escalated dramatically, culminating in clashes with police that led to numerous deaths and widespread unrest.

The streets of Kenya’s major towns and cities became battlegrounds, showcasing a remarkable display of youth agitation. Hundreds of demonstrators faced illegal arrests and detentions, with many others sustaining injuries in the chaos. 

Amidst these tumultuous scenes that gripped Kenya, young female protesters emerged as a force to be reckoned with, standing shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts in defiance of punitive tax measures. Their presence in the chaotic protests was not just significant; it was transformative, as they marched fearlessly into the fray, determined to have their voices heard.

Wanjiku Stephens, donning a luminous green raincoat, became an emblem of bravery as she marched towards a police water cannon. Her act of standing in solidarity with a fellow protester shocked many.

“I was somewhere behind when I saw a young guy hit by the water cannon. A young and energetic guy who not only believed in himself but in the people. That is when I said I have to speak up as a woman,” she recounted, her voice tinged with a mix of fear and resolve. Wanjiku couldn’t pinpoint where her courage came from, only that she found herself on the frontlines, unwavering.

Shakira Wafula boldly confronted the anti-riot police, mirroring Wanjiku’s spirit.

“I am here for Kenya, for my people. I am here for your rights. Push me,” she declared defiantly, clad in black, raising her fist up and holding a Kenyan flag.

Shakira’s frustration was palpable as she described her encounter. “The police tried to control how I was moving. This raised my pressure,” she explained.

Wanjiku also highlighted the specific grievances of women regarding the Finance Bill. “If you look closely at the Finance Bill, a lot of things are affecting us as women. From sanitary towels to anything involving the household, which is the woman’s responsibility,” she pointed out.

“In other countries, sanitary products are free, so why not in Kenya? Why are we being charged for having periods, something we didn’t choose?” she asks.

An anti-riot police officer escorts an arrested female protester outside the Kenya Supreme Court in Nairobi during the demonstrations. Credit: Robert Kibet/IPS

An anti-riot police officer escorts an arrested female protester outside the Kenya Supreme Court in Nairobi during the demonstrations. Credit: Robert Kibet/IPS

The current government claimed that the previous administration had borrowed heavily from foreign governments, so the Finance Bill sought to increase and introduce new taxes to pay off this debt while simultaneously making Kenya less reliant on foreign debt. This was to bridge the debt gap and also raise revenue to finance the government’s move to subsidize agriculture inputs. The taxes on basic necessities, such as bread and sanitary towels, infuriated the youth and Kenyans.

Unlike previous demonstrations marked by stones and crude weapons, these Gen Z protesters opted for peaceful chants, documenting their protests on their phones and even live-streaming to reach a wider audience. Their approach was a testament to a new wave of activism, one that harnessed technology and peaceful resistance to amplify their message.

As these relentless women took their stand, they not only fought against economic injustice but also redefined the role of women in Kenya’s fight for a fair and just society. Their courage and determination became a powerful symbol of the youth uprising, inspiring countless others to join the cause.

The proposed Finance Bill is seen by many as a burden on ordinary Kenyans, deepening their financial struggles, while expanding government spending. The youth, already facing high unemployment despite being educated, view this bill as a direct assault on their economic prospects. Their frustration is palpable, and their actions speak volumes about their desperation and determination.

In a bid to suppress the protests, law enforcement officers resorted to firing live ammunition, wielding batons, deploying water cannons, and using tear gas grenades. This heavy-handed approach resulted in a significant number of deaths and injuries, though the precise count remains uncertain.

According to the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials (1979) and the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials (1990), only the minimum force necessary should be used for legitimate law enforcement purposes during an assembly. These international standards highlight the excessive nature of the force used against the Kenyan protesters, raising serious human rights concerns.

The anger and determination of the youth reached a peak as they occupied the parliament precincts, one of the most protected zones in the country. They managed to breach security and gain entry into the bicameral house, leading to chaotic and unprecedented scenes.

At least four protesters were shot dead as police struggled to disperse the rioters. The situation escalated further as protesters vandalized windows and set fire to the new wing of the parliament building, causing significant damage and forcing MPs and parliamentary staff to scramble for safety.

The use of live ammunition to quell the riots, along with reports of arbitrary arrests and the intimidation of activists, has drawn sharp criticism from lawyers and human rights groups. They argue that such measures are not only excessive but also violate the fundamental rights of the protesters.

President William Ruto’s response to the protests has been equally controversial. In a Tuesday 9 pm national address, he condemned the protesters as criminals and called for military intervention, failing to acknowledge the deaths caused by police action.

As the dust begins to settle, the broader implications of these protests for Kenyan society and politics become clearer. The targeting of businesses perceived to be aligned with politicians supporting the Finance Bill underscores the deep-seated frustration and mistrust among the youth. The potential for future unrest looms large as the young generation continues to demand justice and economic fairness.

In a surprising turn of events, Ruto succumbed to mounting pressure from Gen Z, millennials, and the public, leading him to make an unprecedented decision. The president announced the withdrawal of the contentious 2024 Finance Bill, a move that the protesters, who flocked to the streets in record numbers, had fiercely demanded.

A police vehicle set on fire by angry protesters as they sought entry into the national parliament in Nairobi. Credit: Robert Kibet/IPS

A police vehicle set on fire by angry protesters as they sought entry into the national parliament in Nairobi. Credit: Robert Kibet/IPS

“Listening keenly to the people of Kenya who have said loudly that they want nothing to do with this Finance Bill for 2024, I concede. Therefore, I will not sign the 2024 Finance Bill, and it shall subsequently be withdrawn. I have agreed with these members that this becomes our collective position,” Ruto declared in a nationally televised address on Wednesday.

The UN Secretary-General expressed his concerns over the violence in Kenya connected to protests and street demonstrations.


However, this decision sparked a debate on its legality. Rarieda Legislator Paul Otiende Amolo, who played a key role in crafting the 2010 constitution, pointed out that the president cannot unilaterally withdraw a bill since he is not a member of parliament.

“To constitutionally nuance this, the legal way is for the president to register reservations on all aspects of the bill, including the title, then send the bill back to parliament within seven days. Parliament then votes to adopt each reservation, effectively nullifying the bill,” explained lawyer Waiko Wanyoike.

In a statement, António Guterres expressed his sadness over the reports of deaths and injuries, including those of journalists and medical personnel.

He also said he was concerned about reported cases of targeted arbitrary detentions. Guterres said he underscored the need to uphold the right to demonstrate peacefully and urged the Kenyan authorities to exercise restraint.  He conveyed condolences to the bereaved families and wished those injured a speedy recovery.

Human rights advocates quickly weighed in on the matter. Wangeci Grace Kahuria is the Executive Director of Independent Medical Legal Unit (IMLU) and convener of the Police Reforms Working Group.

“It’s not the protesters who are treasonous but the president’s acts. According to Article 241/2/c of the constitution, which requires the National Assembly’s approval but never did, the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) deployment was illegal and made the killings worse,” according to Kahuria.

Joshua Changwony, Executive Director of Constitution and Reform Education Consortium (CRECO), noted the widespread nature of the protests, emphasizing that 67 towns across the country participated, making it a national movement rather than a localized Nairobi issue.

Speaking to IPS on the phone, legal expert Willis Otieno commented on the political implications, stating, “Parliament, as it were, already stands impeached in the eyes of the people of Kenya. This is a response to the people exercising their Article 1 right to the constitution by demanding a rejection rather than withdrawal.”

He argued that the people had effectively ‘impeached’ parliament, rendering it powerless in this context. The Finance Bill is revenue-raising legislation, which means the amendments made last year will remain in effect. This forces the government to return to the drawing board and reduce the budget.”

For Otieno, the two press conferences done by the president and his deputy in different locations confirm that “we do not have a functioning government.”

“The legislators refused to listen to the people who gave them their views. The same legislators clapped when the president withdrew the bill, yet they are the ones who passed it,” remarked Otieno.

Deputy President Gachagua blamed the National Intelligence Service (NIS), yet the people did not elect the security spy agency.

“They should not play blame games and must take ultimate responsibility. The president and his deputy owe Kenyans one duty: to vacate their offices and resign because, by their admission, they are shirking responsibilities to others whom the people of Kenya did not elect,” reiterates Otieno.

As Kenya navigates this critical juncture, the voice of its youth continues to echo through the corridors of power, signaling a profound shift in the nation’s political landscape. The collective action of a generation has not only forced a significant policy reversal but has also sparked a broader conversation about accountability, governance, and the power of the people.

IPS UN Bureau Report


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