Tax demos show there is hope, but must cut expenditure too

Protestors engage police during their solidarity march to the Kenyan parliament as they protested against punitive taxes proposed in the Finance Bill 2024. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

This has been GenZ week. From the first day they came out in their thousands, to their musically themed protests in the streets and on various social media platforms, to their capacity for instantaneous spreading of key messages through their handhelds, they have shocked many of us.

For many years, this lot looked disconnected from social and political ongoings and disinterested in anything unrelated to battery strength, Netflix, takeout, and “raves”. In one week, they have disabused us of this notion. We have seen that many of this generation are alert to the challenges that ail this country, that they care about where the country is going, and are willing to stand and be counted.

Most impressive are the young ladies who are impressively carrying their weight in this process. Those of us in family Whatsapp groups discussing these issues with this generation have been impressed not just by the depth of feeling, but also by their level of awareness. We have also been impressed by their energy, innovativeness and restraint during the protests. There is hope for Kenya.

I pray their protests are not hijacked by those who would seek anarchy and who benefit from chaos. 

Now, I am not naïve to assume there was no political angle to the demonstrations, at least at inception. I am sure someone spent some cash to get some of the initial action on the streets, which then acted as a catalyst for the demonstrations we have seen expand in numbers and regions over this week. I also know that the history of revolutions is the story of hijackings and I know that even now, there are those planning to hijack this movement for nefarious political ends. May our youth beware.

As I have listened to the various discourses on the Finance Bill during the week, I however thought it important to reiterate certain realities that should inform the content of the demands that those opposing the Bill, including the GenZs, are making.

Firstly, there can be no total rejection of the Finance Bill. The Finance Bill is a constitutional requirement every year and it forms the basis on which government collects revenue to fund the budget for the next financial year.

What can happen is amendments to the Bill to reduce the proposed taxes but not a full withdrawal. Though the Constitution allows some stopgap measures in the event of failure to pass the Bill, it can eventually lead to a crisis of momentous proportions.

Secondly, our timelines for budget-making are very tight. By June 30, which is one week away, Parliament needs to have passed both the budget and the Bill to fund the approved budget. Parliament therefore has no luxury of time to debate this matter ad infinitum.

Thirdly, we have spent a lot of time debating the revenue side of the budget process, the Finance Bill, without interrogating the expenditure side. To Hon Ndindi Nyoro and team, I believe that in a season of a contracting economy and high costs of living, some components of government expenditure should have been jettisoned, even if to symbolically send the message to a distrustful public that the government is belt-tightening.

I believe that along with the taxes that were removed last week, some expenditures should have been removed or grossly reduced as a sign of good faith.  

Let me end by saying that the week's demonstrations speak to a latent frustration about a future that looks bleak for many young people. It is easy to assume that the protests are about the Finance Bill, but my belief is that it goes to a wider concern about a hopeless future in which they feel their voices are not being heard.

The Finance Bill is easy to resolve but this deeper need requires urgent attention by those in leadership. It cannot be right that thousands of young people who should be gainfully engaged can find time to come to towns to demonstrate on working days. We must urgently put more investments in policies that facilitate youth empowerment. And we must be seen to be listening to this generation, even when they do not seem as wise as we believe we are.