First person: In the heart of Kenya's 'Gen Z' tax bill protests

Kenyan protestors at a anti-finance bill protest in Nairobi, Kenya on June 25, 2024. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Nita Bhalla
first person

Kenyan protestors at a anti-finance bill protest in Nairobi, Kenya on June 25, 2024. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Nita Bhalla

What’s the context?

Our East Africa Correspondent reports on Kenya's finance bill protests from the ground

Kenyan President William Ruto has climbed down on a new finance bill after protesters stormed parliament, police opened fire on demonstrators and more than 20 people were killed across the country.

The bill had proposed a slew of new taxes on a wide range of goods and services such as bread, cars, vegetable oil and sanitary products, hitting Kenyans already overburdened by the high cost of living.

I went to cover the demonstrations in Nairobi on Tuesday and found something markedly different to previous protests I had covered during my seven years in Kenya.

The morning air was thick with anticipation as my Uber drove through the city's suburbs, heightened by the increasing presence of security forces as we drew closer to the city centre.

As I stepped out of the car, the acrid smell of tear gas hit my nostrils - reminding me to pull up the face mask (leftover from Covid-19 days) strapped under my chin.

I glanced around the unusually quiet streets of downtown Nairobi, trying to get my bearings but the noise made it easy to determine my direction.

It would have sounded almost festival-like - a low symphony of whistles, vuvuzelas and rhymthmic chants - had it not been for the frequent loud explosions of tear gas canisters being fired and the cries of people running to take cover.

As I walked past the shuttered shops, cafes and offices, where security guards and staff were peeking through windows, and towards the cacophony, scores of people seemingly emerged from nowhere - all heading in the same direction.

Some wore T-shirts in the colours of Kenya's black, red and green flag while others waved the national flag. Some held placards with "Reject the Finance Bill 2024!", "Overtaxation is killing us" and shouted slogans like "Our Future, Our Fight!"

Most had come prepared.

Kenyan protestors at a anti-finance bill protest in Nairobi, Kenya on June 25, 2024. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Nita Bhalla

Kenyan protestors at a anti-finance bill protest in Nairobi, Kenya on June 25, 2024. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Nita Bhalla

Kenyan protestors at a anti-finance bill protest in Nairobi, Kenya on June 25, 2024. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Nita Bhalla

But even if they hadn't, street vendors were on hand selling everything from Kenyan flag bandanas and face masks to water bottles, whistles and mini toothpaste tubes - toothpaste is popularly smoothed under the eyes to cool the burning sensation from tear gas.

The energy was palpable, the passion infectious. These were not your average, jaded protesters. They were Gen Z and milliennials. Educated, determined and angry over the slew of taxes proposed in the finance bill.

"These protests are different, there is no leader, there is no party, there is no tribe like it has been in the past," Warimu, a 27-year-old dermatologist, told me. "We have risen on our own for our country."

As I approached the epicenter of the protests where thousands had gathered near the parliament buildings, the noise grew deafening and my eyes began burning from the tear gas, tears streaming down my face.

Each time the protesters surged forward, anti-riot police stationed in droves on the other side would fire a volley of tear gas canisters into the crowd, forcing the demonstrators to scatter.

Not over

The running battles with the police continued. The protesters would advance, only to be pushed back by tear gas and water cannons. But each time, they regrouped and pressed forward again - their chants louder, their faces more determined.

I took up a position on the fringes of the crowd, close to a side street where I could move to avoid the tear gas canisters hitting me, but still observe safely.

Admist the chaos, I watched as a young woman coughing and drenched from the water cannon helped an older man to his feet.

People poured water into the hands of others to wash the chemicals from their eyes. Waiters from shuttered restaurants threw bottles of water from their balconies to the people below.

I interviewed protesters as they took cover in the side street. Most of them were protesting for the first time, angered by the burgeoning cost of living, government corruption and lack of opportunities for the country's youth.

"I am here for my parents. I am here for other Gen Zers. No one is willing to continue this suffering. We will fight this bill until the fight is done," said Thomas, a 26-year-old teacher.

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By mid-afternoon, we could hear the live rounds being fired in the distance and my telegram, X and WhatsApp apps started pinging with notifications that protesters outside parliament had been shot dead while some had stormed the assembly.

I left, walking quickly away from the chaos through the city streets and headed home on a bodaboda, or motorbike taxi, to write my story.

Later, I learned that at least 23 people were killed and scores wounded nationwide.

But despite the president's climbdown, I have a feeling this is not the end of it.

Gen Z say this is not just a protest, it's a movement: a campaign to end government corruption and create a fairer society that opens doors for the youth and eases the economic burden on the poor.

Now, they say they have their sights set squarely on the next election in 2027.


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Tags

  • ESG
  • Finance
  • Consumer protection
  • Wealth inequality
  • Financial regulation
  • Cost of living

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