How Ruto can tame ire of Gen Z

Listening to the people rather than imposing tax vision is the way to go

In Summary

• Tech-savvy youth are venting through social media and art as well as on streets

Protesters rally against the proposed Finance Bill in Nairobi on June 20
Protesters rally against the proposed Finance Bill in Nairobi on June 20

“There is no force equal to a determined and conscious youth.” This adage, resonant in the current sociopolitical climate of Kenya, captures the essence of the new political wave driven by our youth since last week.

As hard economic times press due to unpopular government policies and a stringent tax regime, very young Kenyan adults in their early 20s are stepping out of historical passivity and into the forefront of political activism.

The Finance Bill 2024 has introduced a raft of new taxes and levies, aiming to generate Sh346.7 billion ($2.7 billion) to reduce our budget deficit. However, these new taxes are set to increase the cost of essential goods and services, hitting the already strained pockets of ordinary wananchi. Particularly, the bill proposes taxes on the ICT sector, directly impacting the livelihoods and lifestyles of younger people.

Historically, our youngest adults have been bystanders in matters of taxation and economic policies. But the new breed of Gen Z Kenyans, born after 1997, armed with high literacy levels and digital suaveness, is refusing to remain silent. They have organised, mobilised and expressed their awakening dissent through various innovative communication means, making it clear that their voices can no longer be ignored.

Street protests have become a potent tool for the youth to voice their dissatisfaction. The sight of hundreds of young Kenyans taking to the streets, as seen recently in Nairobi, Nyeri and even Eldoret, the latter two being strongholds of the ruling party, is a sign of their collective resolve. Armed with eloquent placards and a determined tribeless spirit, these young protesters have faced police tear gas and water cannons to make their stand against the proposed tax hikes.

Last week, Gen Z protesters in Nairobi, chanting slogans like “Ruto must go!”, have demonstrated the power of unity of purpose. Their presence has forced the government to make concessions, such as removing proposed levies on essential items like bread and mobile services. However, the battle is far from over.

Social media has emerged as a formidable platform for political mobilisation and civic sensitisation. Platforms like X, Facebook and WhatsApp are buzzing with hashtags, literary memes, live updates and coordinated campaigns against the Finance Bill 2024. Gen Z, with their intrinsic understanding of digital tools, have effectively used these platforms to rally support, spread awareness and organise protests.

The viral nature of social media has allowed these movements to gain traction quickly, transcending geographical boundaries and reaching a global audience. This digital activism has not only pressured local policymakers but has also drawn international attention to the plight of hustlers, amplifying their calls for justice and fair governance.

Art has always been a powerful medium of expression of resistance here, going way back to the age of Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Abdilatif Abdalla, in fact even earlier, and our Gen Z are harnessing it to articulate their sociopolitical sentiments. Music and spoken word performances, laden with poignant messages about economic hardships and political corruption, are galvanising the youth and resonating deeply within the community.

Spontaneous social media spoken word artistes and short-clip tragicomedians are creating powerful pieces that critique the Kenya Kwanza government’s policies and inspire civic awareness and collective action.

These artistic expressions are not just limited to traditional forms but also extend to memes and digital art, which are widely shared on social media. Memes, with their humour and relatability, have become a unique way to engage the youth and keep the conversation alive.

Youth political awakening here bears striking parallels to historical uprisings in other parts of the world. Remember the case of 26-year-old Mohamedi Bouazizi in Tunisia, whose self-immolation in 2010 sparked the Arab Spring? Indeed, he reminds us poignantly how economic desperation can ignite widespread rebellion.

The Tunisian uprising, driven by youth dissatisfaction with high unemployment and government corruption, led to significant political changes in the region.

Our biting economic hardships, exacerbated by the new tax regime, have stirred a comparable wave of dissent. The youth, witnessing their parents’ financial struggles and facing bleak economic prospects themselves, are compelled to act. Their mobilisation, while rooted in local grievances, echoes the global demand for fair governance and economic justice. Listening to them actively is not a choice. It is a necessity of urgency.

Their uprising signifies the dawn of a new era in our national politics. Known for their digital prowess and creative expression, Gen Z of Kenya are not only challenging the political status quo but also redefining the whole caboodle of political activism with roots in anticolonial resistance. Their collective actions, from street protests to social media campaigns, underscore a new determination to secure a better future.

The ruling coalition can significantly diffuse the current economic and political tension through transparent dialogue and public engagement. By initiating open and honest communication with the public, particularly focusing on the youth and the political opposition, the government can build trust and demonstrate a genuine willingness to address public concerns.

Our leaders ought to utilise social media to host live Q&A sessions, ensuring accessibility and inclusivity for the tech-savvy youth, fostering a sense of responsiveness. Engaging in transparent dialogue through their preferred ICT platforms builds trust and shows a commitment to listening to and addressing the concerns of the populace.

Abraham Lincoln famously said, “Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.” This democratic principle underscores the necessity of inclusivity, especially of the youth, and highlights the strategic importance of listening to the people rather than imposing a government vision, no matter how well-intentioned it might be.

As our economy bites hard, serikali should provide a constructive outlet for us to express our views. This will reduce the likelihood of frustration boiling over into unrest, or worse, and allow our leaders to gather firsthand feedback, making informed adjustments to policies that are more attuned to the needs and expectations of the people. Force will not work.

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