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In his famous open letter written on 16 April 1963 while he was incarcerated in the Birmingham City Jail, Martin Luther King Junior, the figurehead of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, asserts, “[C]onversely, everyone has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws”. This quote encapsulates the concept of “civil disobedience”, which advocates for protest strategies such as sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. He proclaims that it is just for activists to frequently disobey laws, especially when those laws are unjust; disobedience is a moral imperative. 

On Tuesday 18 June 2024, thousands of young Kenyans refashioned themselves into activists and swarmed into Nairobi’s Central Business District to protest against the proposed Kenyan Finance Bill 2024. They had moved onto the streets from social media platforms such as TikTok, Instagram and X where a movement fronted by the hashtag #RejectFinanceBill2024 had been conceptualised. They set out to camp outside parliament in protest as the Bill went through the first reading.

The Kenyan Finance Bill 2024 is a legislative proposal presented to the Kenya National Assembly that seeks to amend various tax laws. In its present form, it is proposing amendments that will impact a wide range of tax brackets, such as income tax where legislation concerning impositions on entities such as motor vehicles, goods supplied to public entities, monetised digital content, and interest earned from infrastructure bonds and family trusts is being proposed.   

Changes to Value-Added Tax are also being proposed that include legislation for impositions on certain financial services such as telegraphic money transfer services, an increase of the VAT registration threshold and scrapping of certain VAT exemptions. The Bill also contains other acts that propose changes that will give the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) access to confidential information of Kenyan citizens.

The #RejectFinanceBill2024 campaign began after Kenyans realised the implications of certain provisions within the Bill and gathered momentum, particularly among the youth who realised the potential impact of the Bill on their lives if it is passed. 

The heightened sensitivity towards the Bill can be attributed to several other factors, the primary one being the significant presence of the youth on social media. Platforms like X have been pivotal in driving discussions concerning the Bill. X has enabled the youth to not only raise awareness about the Bill’s potential negative impacts and to also coordinate protests against it. The youth have created content that has gone viral through their hashtags, amplifying the population’s understanding of how the Bill will affect Kenyans’ lives. This rapid circulation of content around civic consciousness has been instrumental in spreading the protest call widely and swiftly.

Youth unemployment and the skyrocketing cost of living have also driven the activism. The measures proposed in the Bill will only exacerbate the economic hardship facing a demographic that is already struggling to provide for themselves and many youths are asking themselves how they will be able to afford the additional taxes on basic commodities. Adding to their frustrations is the fact that the politicians advocating and endorsing these new tax policies have a notorious history of corruption, misappropriation of public funds and abuse of public office.

One young Kenyan who attended the protests, 24-year-old Alvin Obanyi, had this to say when we asked him why he took part: “Attending today’s protest was largely due to an accumulation of hurt, anger, frustration and disappointment with how the government was running the country. On a personal level, I noticed how deeply worried my parents were starting to become about how my future would be, with the introductions of new taxes, and the prevailing economic situation.

“I wanted my voice heard because I knew that my future mattered, not only to me but to those close to me and being able to exercise my right to protest served as a means to quell the rising tide of uncertainty that had begun rising within me. I also wanted to represent the rising tide of political conspicuousness among my age group, the Generation Z. It was paramount for me to be here because if I was not going to stand up and represent the youth who feel adversely affected by the new financial measures, I was certain that no one would.”

Obanyi also alluded to how the protests and the #RejectFinanceBill2024 movement in a significant way represented the awakening of political consciousness among the Kenyan youth. He said, “Today was a tour de force of a rising generation. We witnessed a largely youthful group of citizens who were ready to put everything on the line. We showed up without any prior training on how to organise as a group within the context of a protest. Everyone came from their different places and converged with one pulse and one voice. This was new, new even for me since it was my first time attending a protest of this nature, importance and magnitude.”

That those in the streets were new to civil protest was clearly apparent on Tuesday 18 June, as was the fear and the uncertainty of what to do in the heat of the moment. But nothing stood out more than their collective desire to have their voices heard even if only for a brief moment. For the first time, a younger generation of Kenyans stood up and answered the call of the people as the older generations looked on in bewilderment. Obanyi says, “Today marked the beginning of something that didn’t exist before and I think there can only be more positives from here as Gen Z have astutely made themselves room for growth. We still have a long way to go but as today’s events have shown. The young have broken through the barrier of political apathy that has always been associated with them.”    

The proposed Bill seems to have struck a primal chord in young Kenyans, sparking in them an enthusiasm to participate in the governance of their country. Generation Zoomers, as they are colloquially known, are a digital era generation. They are empowered to easily observe, learn and even question the norms of yesteryears. They have now begun to understand that there are consequences for failing to fulfil their civic responsibilities and to show concern for the affairs of the country.

This has resulted in social and political activism being driven by Kenyan youth and a larger revolution has begun in the minds of young Kenyans. The concerns raised by the Bill have helped highlight the need for Kenyan citizens to actively participate and have informed opinions concerning the running of their country. It is their future that is at stake if the proposed laws are passed, and that is why they cannot afford to remain apathetic. One can only hope that this embodiment of the Kenyan patriotic spirit marks the beginning of repairing a country that they have inherited in a state of disarray.

Martin Luther King Junior said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” By mobilising to fight against obtruding taxation policies, young Kenyans have refused to remain silent. Their voice is loud as they make their stance clear: they shall not stand by while democratically elected leaders engage in totalitarian political practices.