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After dramatic tax win, Kenyan protesters plot next moves

Protesters now face the challenge of maintaining unity and momentum while pursuing broader, less immediate goals. They will also have to decide how to respond to Ruto's offer of dialogue, which the president made on Wednesday without offering specifics.
Last Updated : 28 June 2024, 05:24 IST

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Nairobi: After their stunning success forcing the government to shelve $2.7 billion in tax hikes, young Kenyan activists are setting their sights higher, taking aim at deeply ingrained corruption and misgovernance.

Protesters say the finance bill President William Ruto abandoned on Wednesday was only a symptom of the problems plaguing a country where many young people face dwindling job prospects despite strong economic growth.

The movement has little precedent in its mass mobilisation of Kenyans across ethnic and regional divisions while rejecting any kind of political leadership. Protests in Kenya have historically been led by elites, often ending in power-sharing deals that yielded few tangible benefits for demonstrators.

Protesters now face the challenge of maintaining unity and momentum while pursuing broader, less immediate goals. They will also have to decide how to respond to Ruto's offer of dialogue, which the president made on Wednesday without offering specifics.

Writer and activist Nanjala Nyabola said most of those involved in the recent protests were motivated by legitimate, strongly held grievances with the government.

"Until those grievances are addressed, it's unlikely that they're going to be willing to make concessions."

How the diffuse and leaderless movement, which largely organised via social media, pursues its objectives moving forward remains an open question - and a source of internal debate.

Christine Odera, co-chair of the Kenya Coalition on Youth, Peace and Security, a civil society organisation, said there was a need for it to develop more formalised structures to advance the interests of young people and speak to the government.

"If we go organically then we might lose the whole conversation," said Odera, who participated in the protests. "The president has said we need to have conversations. All of us cannot sit in a stadium and have a conversation."

Others strongly disagree.

Ojango Omondi, a member of the Social Justice Centres Working Group, a community activist group in a poor district of Nairobi, said creating formal structures and designating national representatives could let the movement be corrupted by politicians.

"We don't need to negotiate anything," he said. "All we want is better living conditions. All we want is the leaders to stop using our resources ... to sponsor their lavish lifestyle."

Question of unity

Omondi said there was plenty to keep the past week's protesters engaged - from organising funerals for the nearly two dozen people killed in clashes with police on Tuesday to forcing recall elections against members of parliament.

Another key moment could be the government's next bid to pass a finance bill, which is needed to fund expenditures in the upcoming fiscal year. Some protesters suspect the government will still try to jam through tax raises.

In a country where ethnic affinities have traditionally been a key driver of protest, the current youth-driven demonstrations have stood out for building unity around common grievances.

But cracks are already emerging.

Despite Ruto's U-turn on the tax hikes, some protesters called for a planned march on the presidential residence to go ahead on Thursday in an attempt to force the president from power. Others rejected the idea as a dangerous gambit.

In the end, there were protests in several cities, although they were smaller than on Tuesday.

In Ruto's hometown and political stronghold of Eldoret, where thousands from different ethnic groups took to the streets on Tuesday, a human rights activist said some tensions were resurfacing since the president withdrew the bill.

Nicholas Omito, CEO of the Centre for Human Rights and Mediation, said demonstrators from Ruto's Kalenjin ethnic group were arguing that protests should end now that the bill was dropped. Ethnic Kikuyu demonstrators were insisting they should continue until Ruto resigned.

Nyabola, the writer, conceded that the solidarity on display as Kenyans across all walks of life took to the streets in the bold showdown with their government could not undo the country's long history of ethnic division.

"You're never going to get rid of it completely," she said. "But for now the class and wealth disparity between politicians and ordinary people has been the focus."

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Published 28 June 2024, 05:24 IST

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