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Don't let the elders steal your revolution

Kenya’s political class scrambles to catch up with its youth.

This is a political cartoon titled "Ruto leads the hobbits to dialogue". We see Kenyan President William Ruto as Smeagol/Gollum. Written as dialogue, he says to a smaller figure: "Gen-z must go into the tunnel!" as they stand in front of a tunnel. Patrick Gathara/TNH

In the space of just three weeks, the political scene in Kenya has been completely upended by a youth protest movement that threatens to render all the normal rules of political engagement obsolete.

The upstart Generation Z has rejected much of the wisdom and tradition of their elders and created a “fearless, leaderless, partyless, and tribeless” movement that has left the political class – both within government and outside of it – scrambling to catch up.

Kenya hasn’t seen anything like it.

In the past, political action has been centred around a clutch of key charismatic political leaders, and around institutions such as political parties, civil society organisations, churches, and the mainstream media. But this new brand of younger protester bypasses all that and prefers digital platforms like TikTok and X as forums for organising countrywide protests, spreading the word, and even debating strategy and conducting civic education.

This has confounded the regime of President William Ruto, who initially responded with the tried and tested tactic of brute force: police violently disrupting the peaceful protests, killing at least 41 people, and abducting and disappearing dozens more; the military deploying on the streets; and eventually paying thugs to infiltrate the demonstrations and loot businesses to try to delegitimise the movement.

The politicians who today claim to stand with Gen Z are the same ones who were happy to stand with oppressive regimes such as that of Ruto’s predecessor, Uhuru Kenyatta, when it suited them.

The opposition, meanwhile, has been surprised by its newfound irrelevance. Like the 19th century French politician Alexandre Ledru-Rollin, who during the French revolution is said to have declared, “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader”, opposition leaders are belatedly rushing to hitch their wagon to the movement. How far their light has dimmed is illustrated by contrasting today’s movement with their attempt last year to capitalise on popular discontent over tax hikes, which failed to generate much lasting political pressure.

In fact, the political class shouldn’t be shocked as it only has itself to blame.

It is reaping the fruit of its consistent and cynical exploitation of popular grievances for personal political and financial reward. The politicians who today claim to stand with Gen Z are the same ones who were happy to stand with oppressive regimes such as that of Ruto’s predecessor, Uhuru Kenyatta, when it suited them. Even now, they remain an unrepentant lot. Some of the loudest politicians expressing support for the movement on social media had no qualms voting in the Senate last week to water down a proposed law to prevent public officials and their relatives competing for government contracts.

But it isn’t just the politicians who have been left flailing.

Similarly adrift are the other institutions – civil society organisations, religious institutions, and media – that made possible the “Second Liberation”: the 1990s movement that ejected the authoritarian Daniel arap Moi and his KANU party from power in December 2002.

Many of their shining lights were co-opted into the administration of Moi’s successor, Mwai Kibaki, ushering in a new era that saw them effectively step away from their watchdog role and become part of the same corrupt system they had been fighting. Churches were happy to platform thieving politicians in return for donations; the media has acted more like a lapdog than a watchdog, and in the 2017 election was happy to pocket proceeds from illegal government advertising.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that today’s young protesters don’t exactly see them as allies. It is noteworthy that they are demanding that churches abandon the practice of giving a platform to politicians during Sunday services. They have also asked for a ban on contributions from public officials – which Ruto has acceded to. Many Gen Z activists have also refrained from going on mainstream media to articulate their struggle for fear of having their message distorted.

The empire is attempting to fight back

Ruto has withdrawn the tax measures that sparked the protests and announced cutbacks on wasteful spending. He has also tried to engage with the protesters online. However, these have not won them over, with many rightly suspicious that the president is simply trying to dent their momentum rather than deal with the actual issues raised.

Perhaps reasoning that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, he has now joined hands with opposition leader Raila Odinga to propose six days of talks next week under the auspices of a “multi-sectoral forum”. This would be composed of around 150 people, with 50 places reserved for the youth protesters, who have rejected them.

It’s a tactic Kenya has seen before. Its presidents have long been adept at using such talks to divide their enemies and protect their power.

For example, in 1997, after civil society activists and opposition politicians staged mass protests and a civil disobedience campaign to demand electoral reform, Moi arranged for what he called the Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group (IPPG) talks, which, though leading to important reforms, cut the legs out from under civil society and preserved executive control over elections.

Kenya would pay the price for this a decade later as the legitimacy of the 2007 elections was fatally undermined by then-president Kibaki’s refusal to honour aspects of the IPPG deal that allowed the opposition to appoint some members of the electoral commission. In the violence that followed the disputed elections, over 1,300 people were killed and up to 600,000 were displaced.

So what comes next? That largely depends on whether the Gen Z movement will continue to resist co-option and sabotage by the elders while still generating pressure for change. It is heartening that they have spotted the trap Ruto has laid for them (Odinga is also walking back his support for the talks, posting on X that he has gotten the message that the youth aren't interested).

They are demonstrating that the essence of democracy isn’t necessarily the ability to take control of the state via elections, but rather the ability to hold it to account and to make it serve the people in the years between elections. 

It’s important to remember that these youths were the same people being derided two years ago as politically “disengaged” for failing to register to vote or turn up at polling stations when they did register.

What they’re now engaged in is an effort to reshape how the country understands politics and to show that power is not always – or even primarily – the end goal of civic participation. They are demonstrating that the essence of democracy isn’t necessarily the ability to take control of the state via elections, but rather the ability to hold it to account and to make it serve the people in the years between elections. 

Furthermore, the young are also teaching their elders new ways of political organisation that eschew hierarchies and selfish interest in favour of solidarity and egalitarianism. The movement has been able to rely on volunteers organising themselves to provide support for the protests, whether it is food, medical attention, blood banks, legal representation, or raising money to support families of victims and to pay medical bills, without having a central leadership that can be targeted or compromised.

Last weekend, on 7/7, honouring the 1990 Saba Saba protests in which more than 20 demonstrators were killed and hundreds injured by the Moi regime, Gen Z organised a free music concert to honour their fallen comrades, attended by thousands in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park.

In some ways, this feels like the culmination of all that Kenyans have been fighting for. During the concert they sang the same song that in the early 2000’s encapsulated their parent’s victory over Moi – Gidi Gidi Maji Maji’s “Unbwogable” (“You cannot scare me”). Back then, the song and its defiant sentiment were both appropriated by politicians. Today, the young have wrested them back. Long may they keep them.

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