The Other Side Of The Kenyan Tax Riots


There is something eerily familiar about the protests that engulfed Kenya last week. Many Nigerians would easily recognize the parallels between this and the #EndSars protests in Nigeria in 2020. Four years ago, confronted with a police force that had become notorious for corruption, accidental killing, torture and brutality, the youths of Nigeria trooped into the streets in protest. They gathered at the tollgate in Lekki, Lagos, waving flags, singing the national anthem but the #Endsars protest, also involving ladies, students, even children, soon became a riot, acquiring a life of its own, spreading to other parts of the country. The angry youths were labelled the Soro-Soke generation, and indeed, they spoke up, demanding accountability from Nigerian leaders and psychiatric tests for members of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), and other policemen as well. The protesters had no single leader, they were driven by their youthfulness and their anger. Things eventually got violent and bloody. People died. Thousands were arrested or intimidated. Many of the youths fled into exile. Some of the youths who participated in the protests are still in detention. Not much has changed since then.

Kenya has just experienced its own version of #EndSars, further exposing the alienation between the leaders and the young people of Africa. The population of Africa is predominantly young, a strategic demographic that is often projected as the engine room of the future, but this is a category that is poorly served and hence, it is angry and disillusioned. In Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana, we have a growing population of young people: they are educated but they have no jobs, their parents once lived in a country that prospered but which has been mismanaged, basic infrastructure for healthy living has collapsed, the cost of living is high. While the older generation may have resigned to their fate, for the most part, the youth are finding their voice, and they are speaking up, and when they do, they make sure their voices are loud and clear and that they are heard. They are no longer silent voices, but a loud majority.  The trigger for the youth revolution in Kenya is the Finance Bill of 2024. Last year there had been protests over the same Bill, resulting in the death of about six persons. But this year, Kenya’s parliamentarians returned to the same piece of legislation. The story is that Kenya had been advised by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to increase its tax to GDP ratio from 13.5%% to at least 20%. This is supposed to generate about $2.3 billion and help reduce fiscal deficit. Kenya is a heavily indebted country – 68% of its GDP- about $80 billion in domestic and foreign debt. When President Ruto was invited on a state visit to the United States in May, one of the major gains of the trip was the pledge by the Biden administration to assist the country with part of its debt. But even that was not enough. Kenya owes China alone over $5.7 billion, a victim obviously of China’s debt trap diplomacy.  The country was left with no option to avoid default, and raise revenue, but to take IMF’s advice. IMF prescriptions may be fine on paper, but they do not often align with the psychology of the streets in developing countries.

Kenya’s parliament tabled the Finance Bill in May/June, and all hell broke loose, first on social media, with young Kenyans actively protesting with #RejectFinaceBill. Kenya’s leaders underestimated the anger of the youths. They dismissed their protest as the rantings of over-pampered youths, with a sense of entitlement. The Bill as proposed has a long list of taxes: 16% Value Added Tax on bread, eggs, onions, potatoes and all petroleum products, 15 -20% tax on mobile money transfer charges and similar additional taxes to widen the country’s tax base. In the face of the protests, Kenya’s parliament, June 18 modified parts of the Bill, and removed other parts completely and quickly passed the Bill. The angry youths of Kenya were inconsolable. They did not want any modification. They want the entire Bill dropped. They took to the streets in protest, and from the capital, Nairobi the voices of dissent were echoed in 35 of the 47 counties. Last Tuesday, President Ruto reportedly said those on the streets were “criminals”, and they would be dealt with. On June 24, the lawmakers passed the Bill to be sent for President Ruto’s assent. It was a grave miscalculation. On June 26, the people took their physical anger to Parliament, with the slogan #tupataneThursday – “see you on Thursday.”  Many of the lawmakers took to their heels. Not even the cafeteria was spared.  Outside, Kenya burned. The fire of the people’s anger raged like wildfire. President Ruto did not wait for Thursday, penitently he quickly announced that he would not sign the Bill and that he would respect the will of the people. He further announced austerity measures in government spending and promised to hold a multi-sectoral, multi-stakeholder consultation process with the people. On Thursday as promised, the protests continued. The President’s promise not to sign the Bill was not enough. The chant had become #RutomustGo.”

The youths of Kenya have every justification to express personal disappointment with their President. They believe it is Ruto himself that is behind the Finance Bill, using members of his party to see it through parliament. And yet this is the same President who while looking for the job, told the people that he came from a low background like most of the people, he even described himself as “a hustler”, and a champion of the poor and the downtrodden.  “I sold chicken at a railway crossing near my home as a child…” he said. “I paid fees for my siblings. God has been kind to me…” It is the same Ruto who wants to tax the people? After the fact, he now wants to consult the people after calling the youths criminals: his arrogance is his undoing. The consultation should have been the first thing to do. Kenya is one of Africa’s richest economies, but the people have seen their country mismanaged. Even if Kenya wants to take a credit facility from the IMF, the people have the right to know what has been done with all the debts that their government accumulated over the years.

Ruto cannot exonerate himself. He was Vice President for 10 years. He has been President since 2022.The youths of Kenya have taught their leader a very strong lesson: that the people own the government, not the other way round. The usual tricks of divide and rule, through ethnicization of all matters political, did not work this time around in Kenya. Neither the ethnic nor the class card could be played against the youths, in Eldoret, Ruto’s home town and among his kith and kin, the Kalenjin, there are on-going protests. To worsen President Ruto’s agony, his own Deputy President, Rigathi Gachagua does not seem to be on the same side with him. It is not only the IMF that he has to worry about. He has his Deputy and the angry youth too, making three sources of headache.  Gachagua has openly picked a quarrel with members of the cabinet and he recently accused the Director of the National Intelligence Service of causing the protests because of his incompetence. The Kenya Kwanza Alliance of 2022 seems to be unravelling.

Former President Uhuru Kenyatta and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga must be chuckling. But first, President Ruto needs to rebuild trust with the young people of Kenya who as recently as June 30 were besieging hospitals to donate blood for their colleagues who were shot by the police.  What Ruto has done as of yesterday was to scrap the office of the First Lady, Rachel Ruto and the Second Lady, Dorcas Rigathi Gachagua from the new Budget. The Office of the Chief Administrative Secretary (CAS) has also been scrapped. Ruto has also promised to halt opulence and extravagance among Kwanza leaders. He will need to do more. His government must ensure that all the wounded persons who are currently in hospital have their bills picked up by the government and the families of the dead are compensated. Like the youths of Nigeria in 2020, Kenyan youths are insisting that they have no leader that is dictating the pace of the rebellion; they are united by their resolve that the people of Kenya deserve good governance. President Ruto must also take steps to ensure that justice is done. Kenyan policemen behaved exactly like their Nigerian counterparts: firing teargas canisters, water cannons, cracking skulls and shooting live bullets into the crowd, and lying about their brutality, with their faces hidden behind masks. They simply helped to drive a wedge between the people and President Ruto. They must not be allowed to get away with their folly. In 2020, Nigerian youths demanded that the policemen must undergo psychiatric tests. It is an option that the Kenyan government should consider. President Ruto must move swiftly and sack all sycophants around him, in uniform or not. Besides, all the protesters who were abducted and are languishing in detention centres across the country must be released. The Independent Policing Oversight Authority is said to be investigating the conduct of the police. Their report should be made public, and the President should stop saying that he is pleased with the conduct of the police until a proper inquiry is carried out.  Many innocent Kenyans lost property running into millions. They deserve to be compensated.

Other African leaders must learn from the Kenyan debacle. Leadership must be driven by respect for the people. The youths of Kenya have set an example that would inspire other young persons in the continent. Already in Ghana, young persons have gone to X (formerly Twitter) to ask questions about the sale of SSNIT hotels (#HandsOffOurHotels) and they are asking President Nana Akufo-Addo to take note of what is happening in Kenya. Here in Nigeria, not a few commentators have been using the Kenyan situation to illustrate how African leaders take their citizens for granted and the risks that they run in doing so.

Youths in Kenya share a lot in common with their Nigerian counterparts, especially in a post-COVID season. Kenya is in debt. Nigeria is also heavily indebted, and the government at the centre is reportedly trying to run four different budgets in one year creating room for suspicion and doubt. In 2023, President Tinubu promised Nigerians “e lo fokan bale, emi lo kan.” We were told that he has done it before in Lagos, at the centre, he would even do better. He became President in 2023. But there is hunger in the land, with the people shouting “ebi n pa wa” or as Eedris Adulkareem, the musician puts it, “ebi lo kan.”  The cost of living is high in Kenya, so it is in Nigeria. Food has become so expensive around here, people who live in communal spaces have learnt to avoid that old practice of leaving your pot of soup on fire to go and pick something in the room. Your pot of soup could get stolen before you get back. In the past, if you went to visit a friend and you met him eating, you were likely to be told to “come and join me, let’s eat.”  Not many Nigerians can offer free food again. There is insecurity in the land and it keeps getting worse. Only last weekend, female suicide bombers wreaked havoc in Gwoza and Monguno areas of Borno state, at a wedding, a funeral and a hospital. It is not even safe to get married or fall sick or go to a hospital in Nigeria. Not too long ago, Nigerians were told that terrorists had been decimated, and that the government was winning the war. But it looks like the Boko Haram terrorists are back with greater ferocity. It is frightening. The Tinubu administration has been careful not to tell Nigerians that they would raise taxes. One of the officials has also said Nigeria is not considering asking the IMF for a loan, even if there is widespread suspicion that the government is unusually “friendly” with the IMF/World Bank.

One preliminary lesson that Nigerian leaders can take away from the Kenya situation is to avoid the error of careless talk that often gives the impression that the leaders are insensitive. This is certainly not the time for any Nigerian leader to keep saying there is no money to pay Nigerian workers and pensioners a minimum wage. Or that the people should be ready to make sacrifices. The people want better pay, and if there is no money, the leaders should be the ones to take a pay cut. Nigerian leaders cannot ask the people to make sacrifices, and they would be talking about buying new jets, SUVs and building new houses, with taxpayers’ money. Nigerians don’t want to be told by members of the National Assembly that any request that the Executive brings to the Assembly will be granted automatically and there is nothing any citizen can do about it. What Nigerians want to hear are words of hope, reassurance and clear, meaningful attempts to make their lives better. African leaders like to talk loosely. Once they get to power, they forget all the promises that they made, and begin to blame other people for their omissions. President Ruto of Kenya called the youth “treasonous criminals.” He got the answer he did not expect. We can only hope that he has learnt his lesson.

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