Youth rebellion scores victory: interview with Kenyan activist

3 July 2024
Matt Laidlaw
People protest against the government's finance bill in Nairobi PHOTO: SOPA / Katie G Nelson

An explosive youth rebellion organised under the slogans #RejectFinanceBill and “leaderless, partyless and tribeless” has forced Kenyan President William Ruto to scrap a planned finance bill that would have introduced tax increases on many basic services and consumer goods. Red Flag recently spoke with Ezra, a central committee member of the Revolutionary Socialist League in Kenya, to understand how one of the most politically stable countries in Africa ignited so spectacularly.

Could you explain the background to these protests? What has made young people in Kenya so angry?

Every year a budget is announced in preparation for the new financial year, which begins in July. This year the finance bill was released to the public a month ago, and its content really angered people. Taxes were to be raised across the board, including on basic commodities like bread and rent. People with motor vehicles were to pay taxes; very ridiculous things were to be increased. The cost of education was to be increased, after increasing last year. They were placing taxes on medical treatments for some diseases like cancer. This is just to mention a few. Basically, life was set to become very expensive for the common folk. That’s why everyone came out to the streets to protest.

However, this bill was not the cause of the protest, but the trigger. The cause really is what the regime has been doing since it came to power in 2022. There have been widespread cases of corruption and misappropriation of funds. For example, earlier this year fake fertilisers were distributed to farmers by the government. They were given basically sand, yet the agricultural minister escaped justice. The president is telling people to tighten their belts, yet they live opulent lives with the latest cars, wearing million-dollar watches and $10,000 belts. It is ridiculous for them to tell poor people that life is going to be more expensive in order to service debt. The finance bill aimed to raise 345 billion Kenyan shillings, which is about US$2.5 billion, while every year Kenya loses around US$10 billion to corruption. Politicians benefit from the corruption, and then make ordinary people pay the burden.

So last Tuesday [18 June] was the first of these protests, then this Tuesday was much larger. We have 47 counties in Kenya—35 of the 47 counties participated in the protest, truly one of a kind. So the government panicked. They deployed the military, which the courts declined to green-light, but to our surprise this morning [27 June] the military is all over the streets.

The military have not brutalised us; that has been the police. The military were escorting people without doing anything. Just right now, as I’ve been speaking to you, we’ve had deaths today in Rongai. Estimates are several people have been killed, and the media are trying to hide it, just like they did on Tuesday evening with the massacre in Githurai. After the demonstration, they sent a contingent of police into the city of Githurai. While it is unofficial, potentially hundreds of people were murdered, which has been suppressed in the media.

Despite this brutality, today the movement marched to the statehouse in Nairobi. Other towns still had protests, like Mombasa, Migori and Kericho. They are smaller, though, than Tuesday because of the violent repression.

Most of the discussion on social media from participants describes the movement as leaderless. Is this the case?

Largely it’s true that the movement is leaderless, partyless and tribeless. But mainly because of how it has been organised through social media agitation, where people have come up to voice their concerns. Random people started Twitter spaces, and hundreds of thousands of people joined to listen to the grievances. Yesterday there was a Twitter space that hosted around 140,000 people to talk about the events of the following day.

Are the protests all organised on social media?

I think it started on social media, Twitter to be specific, because in Kenya, it’s just the urban areas mainly where people can access the internet. But it’s spread out to the masses every day now. It’s all over the news, it is the only thing being talked about. Now it has spread out even to the people who do not have internet. There are towns, small towns far, far away from the capital that have never had demonstrations. And when the masses hear that a large group of people are in town, they join. On Tuesday, students were joining from many campuses and polytechnics. People were even closing their businesses, people were leaving their jobs and joining in the streets. We had over a million people in the city. That is why the police were overwhelmed and some people managed to breach the parliament buildings.

Those scenes were incredible to witness. People online were comparing them to the protests in Sri Lanka two years ago that brought down the Rajapaksa government. The protests have forced Ruto to decline signing the bill, so what has been going on since that announcement?

What people need to know about our current president is that he tends to lie a lot. Ruto’s press conference on Tuesday evening was very threatening. He called the protests an act of treason. However, he appeared far kinder when announcing the withdrawal of the bill, because he was really addressing the world, not us. Despite that, the following day he again deployed the military on the streets. That was the real Ruto.

An issue now is that Ruto does not have the power to withdraw the bill; only the mover of the bill can. If a bill is refused by the president, but not withdrawn, then it automatically passes in fourteen days—and the next date for MPs sitting is 21 July, far longer than the fourteen days. That is why people continue to take to the streets. So, I think not signing the bill was to calm people down and to get them off the street. But in two weeks, whether he signs it or not, the bill will become law. So, there are plenty of tricks being played by Ruto. That’s why people are still saying that we need to agitate. Ruto has done a lot worse, so he needs to go. The focus has gone beyond the finance bill to anger at the general incompetence of the government.

Just reading through social media posts from the popular influencers in the movement, it seems the question of what to do next is causing some debate. What are people arguing about where to go from here and how to ensure the bill does not get pushed through?

After the press conference yesterday, differences started coming out. The people who have been seen to be on the front line, the big Twitter influencers crowdfunding for injured victims, some of them yesterday were telling people now that we’ve won this, let’s just go home. Others argued this needs to continue. The majority of people are with the guys who are for pushing this further.

So, there is now debate over whether these people have been paid by the government to end the protests. This relates to how other protest movements in Kenya have played out.

Previously, smaller protests led by the opposition leader and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, like last year’s finance bill protests, did not bear fruit because they had a leader. All the government had to do was bring him in and have a conversation with him, bribe him, so that the protests die, and the movement dies. This year, the slogan “partyless, leaderless, tribeless” has caused major issues for them. That is why they are abducting people trying to see if they are leaders. They are trying to call people to see if you are the leader. That is their biggest headache. Who is the leader of this? So that they can bring him into the fold to pacify the other people. But anyone who’s been seen to be around them is immediately banished from the movement.

I think this is a good tactic not to have leaders emerging for now, because the government is actively looking for leaders. However, as this struggle continues, I think people will start imagining and considering politics. I think this is how organisations will be able to intervene, actively organise and give an ideological aspect to it.

What role has the Revolutionary Socialist League been able to play?

As the RSL, we go there with a purpose, because we must be in solidarity with the masses—we fully agree with what they say. So we go to the streets, we try to organise our people. When joining in, we do not carry banners as people just go without anything, to move around. But we also go as a group. Every member of our organisation was there. That is why the authorities thought some of us maybe might be leaders. They’ve taken then leaders of many organisations, that’s why we’ve received threats. You will get random calls asking about where you get your funding from. They knock on your door when you are home.

Joining the protests is an opportunity to get our message out there because things like this rarely happen. When people take to the streets our members are there arguing that these issues are political. Even when we get a chance to speak in those online platforms and spaces, we talk about the importance of giving it a political and ideological angle. Since the withdrawal of the finance bill, the movement has focused on Ruto Must Go. We have had interest from some people. We hope we will recruit to our group; tens, or maybe hundreds if we are lucky.

To take a step back for those who are unfamiliar with the politics and history of Kenya, how significant is this youth rebellion?

I think this is very significant. This is one of the most significant things that has happened since independence in 1963, because the stumbling block to unity of the young people in Kenya has been tribalism. People have been organising according to tribal lines. I think that barrier is now broken because youth from all walks of life and every part of the country are united against this regime. There’s a saying that if Ruto leaves, his biggest achievement is that he will have united the youth of Kenya against him, which is a very significant thing.

And from now on, the politics of the country will be issue based and not tribal based, which will make it easier for organisations like ours to penetrate the people because they’ll be looking for ideas rather than where you come from. This is a very significant moment for us. Whether we win or lose, the politics of the country will change from now on. Of course, there will be small groups of people who will remain with their tribal kingdom, but it will die down in the next election. It will be largely issue-based politics rather than tribal-based politics.

That sounds like an enormous political shift. Is there anything else you think observers should know that will help us better understand the rebellion?

Most things are out there in the social media, but there are some things that are being suppressed, like the killings I mentioned earlier. Also, that the struggle will continue, this will not end here. So, stay tuned, because everything is changing. For example, even with the articles that we are writing, we are having to write every day to keep people updated with what’s going on as it changes so quickly.

I want to finish by saying that this is a very significant moment for us Kenyans because people are struggling in solidarity with each other and trying to overturn a very corrupt and inept regime. Whether we win or lose, this has made a seismic shift in politics across Kenya.

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