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Kenya has been rocked by massive protests led by the Gen Z generation against the corrupt and populist regime of President Ruto who narrowly won the 2022 election.

It is a revolt by the youth, who represent the overwhelming majority of the population—about 80 percent of Kenya’s population is below the age of 35 years—who are sick and tired of the deferred promises of development since the dawn of multi-party democracy.

It is the revenge of angry and betrayed youth who were cynically mobilized by Ruto with brazenly false promises of jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities. His campaign trumpeted the “hustler vs dynasty” narrative, pitting the rich versus the poor, portraying himself as the latter’s indefatigable champion.

It is a rebellion that is not led by cynical politicians, and with no identifiable leaders who can easily be isolated, intimidated, bribed, or co-opted. It is organized through the public square of contemporary youth communication and engagement, social media, that cannot be easily manipulated like traditional media.

It is a repudiation of the politics of tribalism that Kenya’s political class has mastered to divide and rule this proud, vibrant, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multicultural nation of 55 million and robbed the country of its enormous potential. The protests have engulfed the entire country including the president’s stronghold.

It is a rejection of the disastrous neoliberal injunctions of the international financial institutions and economic and geopolitical subservience to external powers that have a sordid record of exploiting, marginalizing, and underdeveloping Kenya and other countries in Africa and the global South.

It is instructive that the protests erupted after President Ruto’s much publicized and celebrated state visit to the United States that was pilloried by many Kenyans for its financial costs and the geopolitical implications of turning Kenya into a Non-NATO ally, when many African countries are reasserting their non-alignment.

Historical Context

The uprising represents a constellation of forces and aspirations that have marked Kenya’s political economy since World War II. It can be argued that, as elsewhere in Africa, it marks the third pivotal moment in the country’s relentless drive for an inclusive and sustainable democratic developmental state and society. The first moment was for political independence from colonialism, the second for a democratic order from colonial and postcolonial despotisms. This uprising is for economic transformation and accountability.

The first crucial moment in the long, tortured, expansive, and complex journey came after World War II. It was characterized by the struggle for independence from British settler colonialism that was waged on multiple fronts, from the guerrilla warfare of the Land and Freedom Army otherwise known as Mau Mau, to civil disobedience and protests, in which the labor movement played a critical role, and the mushrooming political parties shed their elitist preoccupations and embraced mass nationalism.

The nationalist struggles culminated in the protracted and messy negotiations that culminated in Kenya’s decolonization in 1963. They were largely fueled by the energies and aspirations of young men and women. Remember, Dedan Kimathi and Tom Mboya, the charismatic leaders of Mau Mau and the labor movement, respectively, were in their twenties when they began their political struggles, and most of their followers were concentrated among the youth. This is true of independence movements across Africa and civil rights movements in the diaspora. In 1955 Martin Luther King was 26 when he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott that catapulted him to national prominence as a civil rights leader.

The postcolonial dispensation that emerged after independence was deeply compromised by the stubborn structural legacies of colonialism and the social contradictions and ideological schisms of the nationalist movement. The political kingdom was not inherited by the peasants and workers who had borne the brunt of Britain’s murderous gulag with its concentration camps, but by the “loyalists” and aspiring national bourgeoisie.  The intoxicating promises of freedom—Uhuru—soon gave way to the autocracy of the one-party state led by the Kenya African National Union (KANU). The tantalizing dreams of economic growth and transformation turned into what I call authoritarian developmentalism characterized by persistent external dependence, rising socioeconomic inequalities, mass unemployment and underemployment, and kleptocracy.

The second critical moment came in the 1980s and 1990s, in the struggles for the “second independence.” The structural deformities of Kenya’s political economy were exposed and exacerbated with brutal clarity by the structural adjustment programs that were imposed with fundamentalist zeal by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, the age-old gendarmes of global capitalism, now wedded to the uncompromising gospel of neoliberalism that led to the dismantling of the welfare state in the global North and the developmentalist state in the global South. It marked the final nail in the coffin of the independence social contract.

The disenchanted and disenfranchised masses, overwhelmingly represented by a new generation of frustrated, impatient, idealistic, and militant  young people in schools and universities, the informal sector and the proverbial streets of Kenya’s rapidly expanding cities, rose to demand democracy. They were supported by their disenchanted elders that had fought for independence, the increasingly pauperized peasantry and working classes, the expanding but struggling middle classes, and marginalized fractions of the political class.

It is revealing that as the struggles for democracy were gathering momentum, William Ruto, the current president, and his ilk formed Youth for Kanu ’92 in support of the Moi dictatorship in Kenya’s first multiparty elections held in 1992. Thus, Ruto and his predecessor, Uhuru Kenyatta, never forged their political careers in the furnace of Kenya’s democratic movement. Rather, they were protégés of President Moi, postcolonial Kenya’s longest ruler. Ruto inherited his godfather’s ruthless political instincts, populism, and disdain for democratic governance and values, notwithstanding his rhetoric that often beguiles foreign audiences, but it doesn’t fool many Kenyans.

The rapidity with which Ruto has lost public trust within two years of assuming the presidency is almost unprecedented in Kenyan political history. The remorseless response by his government to the youth uprising characterized by brutal and massive crackdown by the security forces, killings of unarmed protesters, and abductions of activists, and intimidation of sympathizers is straight out of the repressive playbook of the Moi dictatorship.

The Finance Bill as Lightning Rod

It is instructive that the protests were triggered by widespread opposition to the finance bill that sought to increase taxes on a range of items including everyday essentials on a population already reeling from high rates of inflation and unemployment. The government’s apparent motivation was to pay the country’s staggering debt. The protesters saw the malevolent hand of corruption and bad governance because of a lack of serious public consultation as stipulated by the 2010 Constitution and the Public Finance Management Act of 2012.

The Constitution states that “there shall be openness and accountability, including public participation in financial matters” by ensuring “(i) the burden of taxation shall be shared fairly; (ii) revenue raised nationally shall be shared equitably among national and county governments; and (iii) expenditure shall promote the equitable development of the country, including by making special provision for marginalized groups and areas.” The Act of 2012 mandates “Openness and accountability.” The National Treasury is expected to ensure effective public participation in the annual budget development process and the public shall have timely access to financial information, through “establishing a focal point to facilitate access to financial information; making information available in the media; and presenting information in national languages, summarized and user-friendly forms.”

The protesters accused the government of trying to force an unpopular budget ignoring public sentiment as they had done the previous year. The economic pain wrought by that budget made the population super vigilant and many were determined not to allow the government to get away with their economic shenanigans for the second year in a row. The militant youth of Gen Z are well-informed high school and university graduates whose economic fortunes have been frustrated by worsening economic conditions, despite the country’s relatively rapid economic growth. They and their supporters understand that the government is more interested in meeting the conditionalities of the IMF and its western backers than the wellbeing of its citizens.

Kenya has ratcheted up its debts, but to the financially strapped citizenry the fruits of those loans are not evident. Given the long history of rampant corruption by the political elites including the President and his lieutenants in government, the public and private sectors—the tenderpreneurs—many have lost faith in the state’s capacity to manage the country’s economic affairs prudently for the benefit of the wananchi. According to a report by the Kenya National Treasury issued in January 2024, “public and publicly guaranteed debt in nominal terms as at the end of June 2023 was Ksh. 10,287.7 billion (70.8 percent of GDP). This comprises external debt stock of Ksh.5,446.5 billion and domestic debt stock of Ksh. 4,832.1. Kenya’s debt remains sustainable with high risk of debt distress as per Debt Sustainability (DSA) report by International Monetary Fund.”

For the youth protesters the mounting external debt was a reflection and an indictment of an avaricious but politically bankrupt ruling class, a ruse for the continued expatriation of national resources to the global North mediated by the international financial institutions. As dependence scholars taught us in the 1960s and 1970s, poignantly captured in Walter Rodney’s classic 1972 tome, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, the repatriation of resources from Africa to the West has been the engine of Africa’s underdevelopment, from the era of the Atlantic slave trade in which human capital was exchanged for trinkets to disarticulated colonial capitalism characterized by the export of raw materials for a pittance to contemporary debt imperialism in which Africa repatriates more money than it receives..

Ironically, in his endless global trotting President Ruto has positioned himself as the champion of a new international economic order. On June 15, a few days before the eruption of the protests, the President’s website proclaimed, “During the summit in Italy, President Ruto urged the G7 leaders to champion the reform of the international financial architecture to foster equity and inclusion… On its part, the G7 has committed to modernizing the international financial architecture and enable it to meet contemporary global challenges.”

Perhaps President Ruto might be hoping that his “friends” in Euro-America including the Biden administration to which Kenya has gravitated, shedding its equidistance between China and the United States, will come to his rescue and listen to his plaintive quest. However, this is unlikely. There’s a long list of the lackeys of imperialism in the global South who were abandoned when their people revolted. Think of Mobutu, Mubarak, and even the Boers in South Africa. To paraphrase a popular saying, imperialism, like nations, has no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, only permanent interests, which is Accumulation on a World Scale, to quote the title of the two-volume magisterial study by Samir Amin, the renowned late Egyptian political economist.

When public discontent gathered momentum against his government, Ruto revived the hustler vs dynasty narrative. But the restive youth could no longer be fooled. When the protests began the hardliners around the President contemptuously dismissed them. In the words of the Daily Nation “the cynical attitude by the top Kenya Kwanza leaders towards the burdened taxpayer and insensitive display of opulence and extravagance in the face of scarcity are at the heart of the current public outrage, especially among the unemployed youth. Some of President William Ruto’s top officials — in the Executive and Legislature — have adopted a dismissive demeanor towards the struggling population that they rode on to power on August 9, 2022.”

Members of the parliament from the ruling party arrogantly declared, in what was obviously the party’s talking points, that their loyalty lay with the president, not the people who had elected them. As one put it, “Yes the people of Kiambaa elected me, but I am in Parliament to serve/represent the will and wishes of President William Ruto and his government.I cannot go against my master and friend the Majority Leader Kimani Ichungw’a. I will vote yes.” Another said, “I agree the people of Mwea voted me in 2022. But let me make this clear for the avoidance of doubts, the people of Mwea were voting for UDA and I happened to be the candidate. So it is the party that made me an MP not the people. Otherwise my predecessor would be in power. So I will be loyal to my party leader H.E. William Ruto agenda as a way of thanking him. I will vote YES for this FINANCE Bill. I cannot fight what is immoral, therefore I choose peace with Ruto.

Despite spirited objections from the opposition parties, on June 24, out of the 319 members who took the vote on the finance bill, 204 voted yes, and 115 no and it was forwarded to the President to sign to become law. The national conflagration boiled over. The next day, mass protests erupted all over the country and at Kenyan diplomatic missions abroad. Parliament was invaded. The trigger happy security forces fired live ammunition killing dozens of people. The country faced the precipice reminiscent of the post-election violence of 2007 that killed more than 1,000 people and rendered hundreds of thousands internally displaced.

In an editorial the next day titled, “Let us reason together, Kenya belongs to us all,” the Daily Nation wrote,

June 25, 2024. The date will remain etched in Kenyans’ collective memory. The foundations of the country have been shaken to the core, and the historical trajectory will never be the same again. The sacred social and legal fabric that holds the country together has been torn apart in a manner never seen before. Previous lives have been lost, limbs maimed, and bucket-loads of blood spilled. The hallowed institution of parliament was set on fire and breached in a manner never seen before in Kenya.

The paper implored

the country to take stock, and pull back from the brink. The solution must start by identifying the cause of the fire, and not merely dousing the flames. The groundswell of anger that galvanized the country’s youths against the ruling class should inform meaningful change to our governance and political structures… The unique organizational structure of the protests has not been witnessed before in this country… The root cause of the anger is economic pain visited on Kenyans in the past two years, wanton theft, corruption and plunder by the political class. Let us reason together, Kenya belongs to us all.

In an address to the nation that night, an angry and defiant Ruto condemned the protests as a grave threat to “national security,” which had been “hijacked by dangerous people,” and were “treasonous.” He warned that the country’s “security infrastructures” would “be deployed to secure the country and restore normalcy.” But the next day, he announced, in front of members of his party sitting in stony silence who had voted for the bill, that he would not be signing it.

Apparently the same night the president held high-stakes with “his core teams of advisers as well as diplomats,” in which he “was caught between two factions; the headliners who saw the national crisis as a chance for the President to assert his authority by using security forces to suppress protesters and handle subsequent political consequences, and the voices of reason who provided counter-arguments that this was an opportune moment to display statesmanship and steer the country away from the tumultuous protests and intense atmosphere surrounding the Finance Bill, 2024… the President also received calls on Tuesday and Wednesday from diplomatic representatives of powerful Western nations and the Guff States urging him to retreat from the hardline position and pursue a more conciliatory path.”

The embattled government deployed the Kenya Defence Forces, which legal experts quickly pointed out violated “the Constitution in several respects.” To begin with, the announcement was made by the Secretary of Defense, not the President. Clearly, it was intended “to escape the constraints imposed by the Constitution regarding the declaration of a state of emergency. These are that the declaration must be time-limited, based on the approval of the National Assembly, and subject to review by the Supreme Court.” The Kenya Law Society filed a petition, but the Supreme Court temporarily upheld the deployment of the KDF. However, “Government was given two days to set the scope, duration and areas of intervention by KDF.”

Soon, it was reported that there was “a heavy presence of military personnel in the streets of Nairobi in efforts to assist the police in handling protesters.” But “unlike their police counterparts who fired numerous tear gas canisters around the city to disperse the protesters, the soldiers did not engage civilians in any way. At some point, youthful protesters waved and even hung on the military vehicles while chanting anti-tax slogans.”

Elections Have Consequences

The nation-wide protests put the lie to the inter-generational stereotype that the youth, represented by Gen Z, were apolitical, weak, and self indulgent. Like their grandparents and parents’ generations when they were fighting for independence and democratization, they had reached a turning point when the burden of the crosses they were forced to bear became too heavy. The finance bill was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back of their generation and other segments of the Kenyan population.

The youth were clearly political beneficiaries of their parents’ struggles for democracy in the 1980s and 1990s that ushered in multi-party politics. The first post-KANU government under the dispensation was led by President Mwai Kibaki, a former long-serving finance minister under President Moi, who broke ranks with KANU to join the opposition democratic  movement. So he was unusually sensitive to the demands of building a democratic developmental state.

Many believe the ten years of the Kibaki presidency made faster socioeconomic and political strides than the Moi regime that left the country stagnant. According to Kenya’s Business Daily, in 2002, the last year of Moi’s rule, economic growth dropped to 0.6 percent, which rose to 7.1 percent by the end of Kibaki’s first five year term in 2007. But it was not all roses under Kibaki. The election of 2007 was marred by the worst election violence in Kenya’s history. Future Presidents Kenyatta and Ruto were accused of perpetrating much of the violence among their respective supporters. They were referred to the International Criminal Court. As part of the effort to protect themselves, they entered a marriage of convenience in the presidential election of 2012, fanning nationalist flames against external interference.

The US ambassador to Kenya, Johnnie Carson, was the butt of their attacks after he warned, “We live in an interconnected world and people should be thoughtful about the impact that their choices have on their nation, on the region, on the economy, on the society and on the world in which they live. Choices have consequences.” There was none of the unusual camaraderie between the current US ambassador, Meg Whitman, and President Ruto reported by Politico. The warnings by Carson and human rights activists backfired as Kenyans rallied around the two indicted leaders.

In December 2014, the ICC ICC withdrew the case against Kenyatta, who was then the President, “without prejudice” because “several people who may have provided important evidence regarding Mr. Kenyatta’s actions, have died, while others were too terrified to testify for the Prosecution… key witnesses who provided evidence in this case later withdrew or changed their accounts, and the Kenyan Government’s non-compliance compromised the Prosecution’s ability to thoroughly investigate the charges.” As reported by the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, Ruto, then Kenyatta’s Deputy President, met the same beneficent fate. “In April 2016, ICC judges ended the trial due to a lack of evidence, with the ICC prosecutor alleging widespread witness-tampering. Judges said the case may reopen should further evidence come to light.”

Having survived their ICC indictments, Kenyatta and Ruto’s marriage of convenience did not last after their first term. Their second term, during which they had a bitter falling out. started inauspiciously with the annulment of the September 2017 election by the Supreme Court, due to irregularities, for the first time in the country’s history, and a rare occurrence in presidential elections around the world. They won the rescheduled election a few weeks later, which was boycotted by the leading opposition party.

As Moi’s protégés, who had never participated in the democratic movement, Kenyatta and Ruto, especially the latter, shared their political godfather’s autocratic reflexes. During the 2022 election many worried that Ruto would become Moi 2.0. But Kenya had changed. The Millennials and Gen Z were politically socialized in a multiparty, democratic Kenya. As several put it at a demonstration at the Kenyan embassy in Washington DC that I attended yesterday afternoon, they either came of age or their political awareness was triggered by the national debates on the 2010 constitution.

Gen Z Comes of Political Age

History shows that all that seems solid and stable can turn topsy turvy in a whirlwind of mass protests that erupt with sudden ferocity. Reuters marveled, “Over just one week, what began as an online outpouring of anger by young, tech-savvy Kenyans at proposed taxes on bread and diapers has morphed into nationwide movement untethered from the politicians who have traditionally rallied the masses. Ruto’s allies initially dismissed the protests as a fit of pique by wealthy, entitled kids.”

The biggest strength of the youth movement is that it is largely leaderless, which makes it difficult for the ruling elite long used to circulating from party to party at the right price and the political cooptation of social movements, to control. However, in other contexts, such Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring in the early 2010s, which were seen as harbingers of radical transformation, leaderlessness eventually proved an Achilles heel. There may be a lesson in that for the Kenyan Gen Z protesters.

There is nothing more dangerous than scorned youth:  many young people had rallied to Ruto during the election because of the promises he made to them, that he had their best interests at heart, that their lot would improve. Two years later, their sense of betrayal by Ruto and his government is profound, giving rise to the mantra: “he lies all the time, all the time he lies.”The protesters insisted their movement was tribeless, classless, and partless, shunning the social divides that Kenyan political class is adept at inflaming, exploiting, and manipulating during political contests and elections. It is a characterization most Kenyan observers agree with and admire.

The protesters are remarkably well informed and savvy in their use of social media and mobilizing popular support across the nation. In the words of the Daily Nation “What sets these demonstrations apart is their meticulous organization through social media channels, a tactic that has mobilized thousands of passionate protesters. Key among these digital platforms is Zello, an app that facilitates real-time communication, allowing most of them to coordinate, share protest updates and even connect with emergency services.” Another platform is WhatsApp also “with over 50 groups created to discuss the revolution and coordinate meeting points… GenZs are also using platforms such as Facebook Live and X Space  Live to broadcast live footage of demonstrations.”

The protesters translated the finance bill and explained it in local languages to ensure people not fluent in English understood what it contained. This was a political act of linguistic decolonization in a postcolonial society where official discourse is squestered in a linguistic enclosure available only to the Europhone elite and the educated classes. Inspired by the fearless example of their children, parents incrrasingly joined the anti-finance bill protests.

At first, they thought it was a bad idea for their children to take the front line of the battle against high taxes. But by Tuesday, together with their children, on the streets, they chanted ‘Ruto must go’… Besides the Finance Bill, the parents said they are rioting over the tough economic times, opulence and wastage displayed by politicians, as some MPs accumulate wealth and marginalize ordinary people, and slowing job growth, meaning their children are graduated but still living at home… the younger generation has achieved things that many of the older folks who have been complaining about poor leadership have failed to do because they are fearless.

The protesters have also had a discernible impact on dissolving the costly and unhealthy relationship between the church and the state in a democratic society.

There’s a popular joke doing the rounds,” one columnist writes, “that Gen Zs, in their anti-Finance Bill protests, have driven the Church back to God.  The clerics have been put on the spot as they struggle to confront accusations of being in Bed with the State. Amid intense pressure on the government to live up to its promises and address the high cost of living occasioned by heavy taxation on the people, the Church has found itself at crossroads and seems to be in overdrive to reclaim integrity and independence. Over the past couple of days, the clergy has continued to call out the State over the brutality meted out on anti-tax protesters, a move seen as an attempt to endear the Church to the people after being on the receiving end of ‘cozying up to the government.’.. Some churches have also taken the initiative to provide safe havens for protesters in a bid to endear themselves to the public.

Besides the church, the protests have also put other societal actors in what a commentator calls the citizen accountability juggernaut.

Events in the last few days have put institutions, political leaders and other influential individuals under the sort of intense pressure they have probably never experienced before as the electorate—led by young Kenyans—has taken to questioning their decisions and putting their property and conduct under the microscope. Through means that are legal and others that the authorities say border on harassment: mobile phone numbers are being shared publicly, leaders are being booed or walked out on, online accountability tools are being tested, recall processes are being considered and the ‘Occupy’ movement is targeting institutions like State House, Parliament and further, among other actions… It has also led to a growing list of public apologies from lawmakers, embattled for voting in favor of the now-shelved Finance Bill, 2024.

Elite solidarity has shown signs of fracture. The business community, which has suffered heavy losses, “expressed their frustrations with the Head of State for not heeding the  grievances of the citizens.” The Deputy President distanced himself from the president. He said,

The fall out in the Kenya Kwanza administration… was being fuelled by people who recently joined the government and were now dictating on how those who have stood by Dr Ruto in good and bad times, should relate with him. In a further indicator that the two top political guns in the country had frosty relationship, Mr Gachagua said he will engage the youths (Generation Z) on issues they have raised on governance in the country, in a process outside the one step by President Ruto… The DP also alluded to the fact that some people in the Kwanza Alliance coalition did not respect him and the office he holds.”

The DP threw a political bombshell when he “laid the blame on the spiral of the anti-Finance Bill protests on the National Intelligence Service and its boss.” The NIS chief angrily lashed out and was vehemently supported by elders and MPs from his region in Northern Kenya who “demanded that DP Gachagua resign or face impeachment for trying to destabilize the government.”

As often happens in protest movements that obdurate politicians misread, blinded by their misguided sense of omnipotence and omniscience, the demands of the protesters metamorphosed beyond the tax bill into calls for Ruto’s resignation. Following the president’s concession declining to sign the finance bill, the goal posts moved. “In an open memorandum to President William Ruto, the more than 10 youth groups operating under #Reject FinanceBill2024, #ProtectTheChildren and #FreeTheAbducted, condemned the killing of protesters by the police and demanded the release of those abducted and detained by the security agencies.” They “also demanded the removal of ‘unconstitutional’ offices such as the Chief Administrative Secretaries (CAS) positions… On leadership integrity, they demanded for dismissal of government officials who have been adversely mentioned in corruption cases.”

Moreover, “they demanded disclosure of the national debt to empower them to restrain future regimes from exploiting the debt matter and binding Kenyans to ‘punitive measures.” Additionally, they “dismissed the housing levy as illegitimate and demanded its termination and accountability for the monies already collected by the government under the scheme.” Further, they “called for public participation and access to information to empower them to articulate issues that affect them and further the right to life and peaceful protest.” They also demanded “an immediate and permanent cessation of violence, killings, kidnappings, and disappearances of peaceful protesters by the security agencies. We demand an end to profiling and targeting of protesters and active citizens for expressing their democratic right to protest and hold an opinion.”

In an interview on June 30, the beleaguered president conceded to some of the demands. He promised that the government

will not fund the offices of the First Lady and spouse of the Deputy President in the financial year that starts on Monday, July 1, 2024. Present William Ruto will also not hire Chief Administrative Secretaries and has expressed an intention to ban fundraisers across the country… [A] largely defensive Dr. Ruto announced the budget cuts and also said he was ready to engage Kenya’s young people on whatever platform they prefer. Some have been calling him to an X-Space to address their grievances… Moved by the numerous complaints about government officials and his key allies living large, Dr.Ruto said there would be changes in the way his inner circle operates.

But he continued to insist that

He disputed the figures that 24 people were killed during the protests, insisting “that there were 19 and said there was no blood on his hands… Dr Ruto tore at the Kenya Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) following alarmist reports about the death toll in Githurai… The President also claimed that peaceful protesters were infiltrated by criminals out to steal and attack others… in line with an olive branch he extended to Kenya’s young people on Wednesday, Dr Ruto said he was ready for an engagement on whatever platform, expressing willingness to heed the calls to attend a Space on social media media X to iron out matters.

The last point was a reference to an announcement on “the formation of the National Multi-Sectoral Forum (NMSF) to address the concerns of youth who are dissatisfied with the state of the country’s affairs.” The statement said “the NSC which will comprise 100 people will be the apex organ of the NMSF,” and called on each umbrella body to “formally nominate two representatives of either gender for consideration for appointment to the National Steering Committee (NSC).”

The response was swift in rejecting the forum. One critic termed

the calls for talks by the President a hoax saying the head of State is fully aware of the issues fueling the protests and he should just take action…. Who in the Gen Zs does he want to talk with, those people are leaderless and we want it to remain like that because the moment they have leaders then they will be called by the powers that be and that is how the struggle will be abandoned… People are talking about corruption in his government, over taxation, extrajudicial killings, wastages in government. Our government has become a puppet of the International Monetary Fund and the world Bank.

Kenyans in the diaspora also rejected the President’s call for a forum. Instead, they insisted that “President Ruto speak directly to the Kenyan youths who are dissatisfied with his leadership. They also demanded the immediate release of political prisoners and murdered protest victims’ remains from Githurai 45 that were allegedly taken by the Government.” At the Washington protest some speakers proposed that the president meet the youth on neutral platforms, either at the national stadium or on social media, where they convene.

Further, the statement “raised concerns about the IMF’s conditions imposed on Kenya that resulted in the controversial Finance Bill 2024,” and called for “IMF Mission Chief Haimanot Teferra to take responsibility for her role in creating the economic conditions that have fomented widespread civil unrest in Kenya. As the Diaspora, we are directly affected by over-taxation as we send KES 671 Billion in  remittances which are a target of Ruto regime and the IMF’s tax policies that budget corruption.”

They also “questioned the presence of US congressmen at the National Assembly during the debate on the Finance Bill 2024 which has since been rejected. Additionally, they demanded the recalling of US Ambassador to Kenya Meg Whitman by US President Joe Biden.” They asserted, “We demand that President Biden recall the US Ambassador to Kenya Meg Whitman who has become the Ruto regime’s official fixer and has worked tirelessly to legitimize his regime.”

The last set of demands underscore how unprepared both the Ruto and Biden administrations were for the outbreak of massive popular disaffection in Kenya. A story in The New York Times, captured the quandary, ‘Kenya Protests Are a Blow to Biden’s Embrace of President Ruto.” It noted that, “Just a day earlier, President Biden had formally named Kenya a major non-NATO ally, and Mr. Ruto had seen off a first group of 400 Kenyan police officers headed to Haiti on a contentious security mission that is largely financed by the United States.”

The story continued, “The non-NATO ally designation, which clears the way for greater security cooperation between Kenya and the United States, was one of the main outcomes of Mr. Ruto’s state visit to Washington last month, the first by an African leader in 16 years… For Mr. Ruto, the state visit was the high point of a globe-trotting presidency. He has visited dozens of countries since being declared the winner of a fiercely contested presidential election in August 2022. For the Biden administration, it was an opportunity to cement a major relationship in Africa at a time when rivals like Russia and China have expanded their influence.”

The fact of the matter is that many African countries are reasserting their non-alignment in global affairs especially with regard to the renewed hegemonic rivalries between the US and its Western allies with China and Russia. Recently, Niger asked U.S. troops to leave the country, so did Chad, as both countries question America’s counterterrorism role. In the meantime, to quote the title of a post by the Council on Foreign Relations, Mutual Suspicion Grates US-South Africa Relations. An article in Foreign Affairs argues South Africa’s non-alignment policyis likely to stay even after the recent elections when the ANC lost its majority and entered into a coalition government with the white-dominated and conservative Democratic Alliance party.

Thus, President Ruto is out of sync not only with most Kenyans but also with broader African opinion and their commitment to non-alignment. They have no interest in becoming a pawn of either Washington or Beijing. During the Cold War between the Soviet and American alliances, the continent paid a huge price in endless hot wars sponsored by the two superpowers. Smart and strategic US-Africa policy should be anchored on taking the demands and desires of African peoples, not just their leaders, seriously, or it is doomed to failure. Similarly, African leaders who mortgage the interest of their people to foreign interests will always be vulnerable to popular uprisings.

It’s difficult to predict the trajectory of the Kenyan protests. What can be said for certain is that it marks a profound development as this generation of young people seizes the baton from the democratic struggles of the 1990s for accountable governance, more equitable development, and sustainable futures. In the heat of the moment it is easy to get carried away with excessive euphoria or despondency about the protests. History teaches us that the protest movements have the potential to transform society, but they can also be reversed and contained as happened to the Arab Spring in North Africa and the Middle East in the early 2010s. Eternal vigilance by the protesters is imperative.

The Gen Z uprising in Kenya is part of a much larger African story. The youth bulge, which will give the continent a quarter of the world’s population and a third of its labor force by 2050, and 40 percent of the global population by 2100, is a huge historic asset. But it can only be turned into a demographic dividend if massive educational, employment, and entrepreneurial opportunities are cultivated—and fast. Otherwise, it will become a demographic nightmare, a recipe for mass unrest, insecurity, and instability that will profoundly disrupt both the continent and the world.

Already, opinion polls show young people across the continent have soured on choiceless democracies, growth without development, and clueless governments that behave as supplicants in the global order. As reported by Afrobarimeter, “satisfaction with the way democracy is working has declined across Africa, undermining citizens’ confidence in democratic governance… Recent Afrobarometer data from 36 countries surveyed in 2021/2022 show that two-thirds (66%) of Africans prefer democracy over any other form of government. Additionally, large majorities reject one-man rule (80%), one-party rule (78%), and military rule (67%). But only 38% express satisfaction with the way democracy functions in their countries.”

On the one hand, this has led to the resurgence of coups in parts of West Africa, but also to the emergence of democratically elected young presidents, such as Bassirou Diomaye Faye in Senegal. One hopes Kenya charts another path. It is already electrifying young people across the continent and scaring ineffectual and visionless leaders. That is the wider promise of the courageous Gen Z protesters in Kenya who deserve the support of all those committed to the county’s and the continent’s brighter future.

This article was first published on LinkedIn by Paul Tiyambe Zeleza.