What is Behind Kenya’s Protest Movement?
What is Behind Kenya’s Protest Movement?
Protesters gather during a nationwide strike to protest against tax hikes and the Finance Bill 2024 in downtown Nairobi, on June 25, 2024.
Protesters gather during a nationwide strike to protest against tax hikes and the Finance Bill 2024 in downtown Nairobi, on June 25, 2024. Amaury Falt-Brown / AFP
Q&A / Africa 11 minutes

What is Behind Kenya’s Protest Movement?

Kenyan police have killed dozens of protesters since demonstrations against proposed new taxes began on 18 June. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Meron Elias explains the roots of the discontent and calls for meaningful dialogue with young people demanding accountability from the country’s leaders. 

What is happening?

A wave of protests is sweeping through Kenya. Triggered by controversial proposed tax hikes, the movement has evolved into a wider campaign for more accountable governance in the country. Some demand the entire government’s resignation. The demonstrations started on 18 June, and for a week were overwhelmingly peaceful, but in the early afternoon of 25 June, they took a violent turn. A number of demonstrators breached police barricades and stormed the precincts of parliament. They set parts of the building on fire, destroyed legislators’ offices and carted away property, including the speaker’s mace. Kenyan police, who have a well-deserved reputation for brutality, and have in recent days drawn strong criticism for repeatedly lobbing tear gas at protesters and charging them with batons, responded with live fire. On 26 June, the Kenya National Commission on Human rights reported that 39 people had been killed in the protests since they began. 

The unprecedented scenes in the houses of parliament stunned Kenyans. President William Ruto, who wavered at first between saying the protests had been “hijacked” by criminals and promising talks with the participants, finally gave in and agreed to shelve the contentious legislation, called Finance Bill 2024, on 26 June. Despite the unexpected win, demonstrators vowed to press on and held demonstrations on 27 June and 2 July. Protesters have also rolled out a program of street action due to culminate on 7 July in a “national vigil” in honour of those killed by the police. They assert that although the Finance Bill set off the protests, demonstrations were also driven by a broader set of grievances with the way Kenya is governed, including pointed criticism of well-paid officials in the executive and parliament denounced for living in luxury while imposing austerity on the public. 

As he weighs his response to the unexpected unrest, Ruto should refrain from launching a wider crackdown. In particular, he should direct the police to stop using live fire against peaceful protesters. He and senior officials should also look to engage young people opposed to his policies in meaningful dialogue; they should then offer a timeline for making some of the changes the demonstrators demand. Western partners, and especially the U.S., should continue to urge Ruto toward moderation, while protesters for their part should strive to keep their demonstrations within the confines of the law and avoid violence.

Why did protesters mobilise to reject the Finance Bill?

Frustration among Kenyans with the state of the economy and the government’s perceived insensitivity to the plight of citizens has been brewing for years, but the sudden street action caught authorities by surprise. President Ruto won an against-the-odds victory in a closely fought election in August 2022, promising to tackle the cost-of-living crisis and place “hustlers”, or poor, hard-working Kenyans, at the heart of his policy priorities. Ruto had served as deputy president in the previous administration led by President Uhuru Kenyatta, but he claimed that he was sidelined from decision-making. On taking office, he encountered state finances in a parlous condition. Kenya’s national debt stands at around $80 billion, about three quarters of its annual economic output, and 65 per cent of annual revenue goes to repaying the country’s debt. The administration’s response has been to cut several subsidies put in place by Kenyatta, notably those on fuel. Myriad other measures to raise revenues followed in 2023, including a 5 per cent increase in income tax for high earners and a 3 per cent housing levy (designed to raise funds to construct low-income housing), collected from both employees and employers. Most of these policies fall under a set of reforms that Kenya has agreed to implement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Publication by the National Treasury in May of further revenue-raising measures for the 2024-2025 financial year galvanised public anger. The proposals initially contemplated imposing a 16 per cent VAT on bread and introducing an “eco tax” on products viewed as harmful to the environment, a levy that would have raised the price of items such as sanitary towels, nappies, packaging, plastics and tyres. These proposals drew fierce, widespread opposition, although the government insisted the measures were essential to finance public spending. 

Its majority in parliament appeared to guarantee the government would have its way. But an unlikely source of dissent soon emerged. Historically, opposition leaders have taken the main role in rallying supporters to reject government policies. This time, apparently using the springboard offered by social media platforms and without being steered by political leaders, young Kenyans mobilised to express their discontent. The hashtag #REJECTFINANCEBILL2024 gained prominence over the weekend of 15 June, with many calling for protests to press their case. On TikTok, dozens circulated videos outlining the harm government policies were causing. On 18 June, ahead of the Finance Bill’s second reading in parliament, thousands took to the streets. The movement at first drew praise from the general public for the way it conducted itself peacefully, in striking contrast to past opposition-led agitation that has sometimes taken the form of riots. Demonstrators also came from a wide array of ethnic groups and regions, and their highly articulate, issue-based demands sparked intense debate in the national media, as well as on social media, about the state of the economy. Despite the wave of public sentiment against the measures, the National Assembly voted on 20 June to move the legislation to the next stage, with 204 of 349 members of parliament voting yes and 115 no. Decrying the outcome as a betrayal, many protesters called for even larger demonstrations on 25 June.

How has the government reacted to the protests?

The Ruto administration has been taken aback by the scope of the movement and the speed at which it has spread across the country. Most major cities and towns in Kenya experienced protests after the first round of street action. The movement gathered steam as protesters outlined a set of grievances that stemmed from the Finance Bill but pointed to much wider sources of discontent. In particular, they said they were appalled by the authorities’ actions in imposing steep tax hikes while doing little to curb spending among Kenya’s notoriously coddled political class. Pictures circulated of the lavish lifestyles of ruling officials. Social media users highlighted what they saw as unnecessary budget lines, such as funds set aside for renovation of the president’s and deputy president’s official residences. In a 22 June live discussion on the X digital platform, which drew tens of thousands of participants, many called for fundamental changes in governance to tackle problems including youth unemployment.

In response, the government has veered between repression and accommodation. On 20 June, police used tear gas and live ammunition to disperse protesters, killing two and injuring dozens. On 23 June, Ruto hinted at the possibility of talks, saying Kenyans had been inspired by the peaceful, “tribeless” protests and promising his administration was keen to listen to young people. At the same time, however, unidentified individuals widely believed to be police officers abducted several of the more prominent individuals mobilising protests. Most were released within 24 hours after a social media outcry. 

With MPs due to take a final vote on the legislation on 25 June, protesters called for countrywide street action to urge legislators to rethink. Tens of thousands heeded the call. The scale and geographic spread of the protests was striking, with marches taking place in major cities that are traditional opposition bastions but also in small towns that have rarely ever witnessed protests and even in some of the ruling party’s biggest strongholds. 

In Nairobi ... police launched their customary response to unrest by firing tear gas canisters and water cannons into unarmed crowds.

These protests kicked off peacefully in the early hours of 25 June. In Nairobi, however, police launched their customary response to unrest by firing tear gas canisters and water cannons into unarmed crowds. Just how the peaceful gatherings escalated into violent protests is unclear. A prominent civil society campaigner, Boniface Mwangi, said politicians had “hired goons to infiltrate” the marchers. He blamed the “police and criminals” for the violence that unfolded around parliament. In scenes familiar from other countries but never before witnessed in Kenya, a group of protesters massed around the police guarding parliament and broke through the barricades, storming the chamber. MPs, who hours earlier had voted 195 to 106 in favour of the finance bill during its final reading, were smuggled to safety after first huddling in the chamber’s basement. Outside the house, mayhem ensued. Police fought running battles with protesters, shooting live rounds into the crowds. Several other buildings including the City Hall and a number of buildings were set ablaze, and some protesters carried out acts of vandalism and looting in the city centre. A number of protesters were killed in the pandemonium around parliament. 

In an evening address to the nation, President Ruto vowed a “full, effective and expeditious response” to what he described as “treasonous events”. The defence minister declared a security emergency and urged the Kenya Defence Forces to assist police in restoring order. On 26 June, the president finally backed down, announcing he would not assent to the finance bill. He said the deficit would instead be covered by cost-cutting measures, including a hiring freeze and other reductions in executive, judicial and legislative branch spending. 

In many ways, the deaths and chaos during the 25 June unrest should have been preventable. The Kenyan constitution, one of the most progressive in Africa, says legislation should come to the floor of parliament only after meaningful “public participation”. Before legislation is debated, the law stipulates that advertisements should be published in media outlets inviting public comment on the proposal in question. Although parliament generally technically complies with these requirements, critics say it does so in a perfunctory fashion, and that MPs rarely consider the public’s views. In the case of the Finance Bill, only after a major public outcry and the first round of protests did ruling-party MPs remove the most unpopular provisions, including the tax on bread and the aforementioned “eco tax”. But given the scale of protests and the opposition to the bill in its entirety, the decision to ram it through parliament rather than allow for more consultation was unwise. 

What comes now?

In the short term, preventing more deaths should be the overwhelming priority as protesters continue to fan out sporadically into the streets. The Kenyan constitution asserts the right to freedom of assembly and peaceful picketing. There is little doubt that the police have breached the law in recent days, first by violently dispersing unarmed protesters and secondly by repeatedly abducting protest leaders. Authorities should start repairing the damage by directing police chiefs to stop harassing peaceful campaigners and making clear that those who step over the line will be subject to prosecution. The Independent Policing Oversight Authority, a state agency, should follow through on promises to identify for prosecution those involved in killing protesters. 

President Ruto’s Western allies have a particularly important role to play in this respect. In recent months, Western partners, particularly the U.S., have built an increasingly strong partnership with Nairobi, a stalwart ally of the West at a time when other geopolitical actors such as Russia and China are ascendant in Africa. In May, U.S. President Joe Biden hosted Ruto on a state visit, the first of its kind by an African leader since 2008. On 24 June, the U.S. formally designated Kenya a major non-NATO U.S. ally, presaging closer security cooperation. The European Union, for its part, has awarded Kenya 20 million euros for security-sector support from the European Peace Fund. All these partners should use their access to Ruto to call for restraint, noting that their own reputations are implicated when Kenyan security forces use strong-arm tactics.

While it is encouraging that Ruto has offered a string of concessions to defuse tensions, ... many younger Kenyans have lost trust in the political establishment.

Grilled on live television on 30 June, Ruto said he had heard the protesters’ demands for fundamental changes in management of public funds. He promised to scrap unpopular budget lines such as funds dedicated for use by the president’s and deputy president’s spouses. He also said authorities would consider a ban on public fundraisers (known in Kenya as harambees), where politicians make large cash donations ostensibly to support social causes. Critics view these events as occasions for politicians to dole out dubiously acquired funds as a form of political patronage. While it is encouraging that Ruto has offered a string of concessions to defuse tensions, it is clear many younger Kenyans have lost trust in the political establishment. The onus is on the Kenyan leader and his colleagues to repair their relationship with the public. They should begin by cooperating with an independent investigation led by the policing oversight authority into the violence of the last two weeks, pursuing accountability from security forces and ensuring that victims receive justice. Also, Ruto could offer a clear timeline for carrying out the cost-cutting measures and other reforms he has promised given widespread scepticism about his sincerity. 

Demonstrators, too, have a responsibility to exercise caution given their own admission that peaceful marches are prone to infiltration by saboteurs. They should avoid dismissing offhand the call for talks. Protesters should take advantage of the president’s promise to engage with them, including in an X space scheduled for 4 July in which he has invited his critics to participate. They should use the opportunity to outline their demands for change to the authorities. 

More broadly, the economic roots of the current wave of protests highlight anew the urgent need to address the deep fiscal malaise many African countries are confronting. Africa has struggled more than most other parts of the world to respond to the triple economic shocks accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine and growing climate stresses. In many ways, Kenya is doing better than much of the continent. Annual inflation stands at just under 5 per cent, compared to the continent-wide average of 15.7 per cent at the end of 2023. Up to 22 African countries are listed as facing debt distress, but Kenya, which appeared particularly vulnerable at first, managed to settle a Eurobond payment due by the end of June. 

The cost of those efforts to meet its external debt obligations, however, is partly manifest in unrest at home. To avert more instability, Western partners and international financial institutions should show more generosity in tackling this challenge across the continent, potentially by exploring measures Crisis Group has advocated in the past, including debt restructuring with lower payments and extended repayment periods and rewriting the value of loans in some cases. Following South Africa, which saw elections in May usher in a coalition government, Kenya is the latest country in the continent to have encountered large-scale fallout from the economic pain rippling through the continent. It is unlikely to be the last. 

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