How Gen Z protests mirror French Revolution

Demonstrators match along the streets of Nakuru City to protest controversial Finance Bill 2024 on June 20,2024. [Kipsang Joseph,Standard]

If bad history appears to repeat itself, it is because we ignore the lessons. Or we don’t know them.

It has been written of the French Revolution (1789–1792): “The French Revolution was gunpowder. When it was touched off, the blast rocked Europe. The like of it had never been known before.”

And discontented youth are gunpowder. When touched off, they rock countries. Has the gunpowder that is Kenyan youth been touched off? Will it rock the country and East Africa?

To appreciate the unprecedented youthful unrest in Kenyan streets, it is in order to take liberty in citing copiously from historical text on France, on the eve of her events that rocked Europe.

Gareth H. Browning writes in The World of Living History, “On the eve of the revolution, France presented the picture of a landscape black with stormy discontent. The autocratic Louis XVI could tax, imprison, or silence his subjects at will. The favoured and proudly exclusive nobility idled away their days in the gaieties of the luxurious and extravagant palace in Versailles. Both they and the clergy had lost the people’s respect.”

This sounds very familiar. Things that happened in a faraway European country, some two-and-a-half centuries ago read as if they have been written of Kenya today. All we need is to substitute the names, places and times, and the rest will fit bang on, like a pair of new gloves.

Browning writes further, “The industrious middle classes chafed against unequal taxation and privilege. The toiling peasantry, though often hungry, were not on the whole badly off as those of some other countries. But they were taxed almost to the limit. The administration was hopelessly corrupt, inefficient and confused in its policy. No national parliament existed to ventilate the country’s grievances.”

History is repeating itself in Kenya as a factor of Executive refusal to learn. You have often heard persons in high office say things like, “History should be removed from our syllabuses.” They will go on to say that at the very least, it should be starved of both emphasis and funds. So much the worse for such leaderships and their nations.

An educated class of Kenyan youth is today bringing home to roost the chickens of history. You can only ignore their grief at your own risk and doom.

Like France in 1789, the like of these happenings have not been known in Kenya’s history. There has previously been agitation for change, yes. But its engines, gears and fuel have all been from the political classes of the day. Today’s unfolding events are riding on widespread national discontent, and on independent youthful fuel and agency.

Well-educated youth are wasting away at home. They are not sure of what the future holds for them. They have watched in disbelief as their equally qualified older siblings, friends and neighbours have sunk into frustrating vagrancy at the behest of successive callous regimes.

We are proud to educate youth whom we dump on the rubbish heap of unemployment in the post-training dispensation. They end up as guards and sundry sentinels, errand boys and girls on motorbikes, charcoal burners, and as assorted petty street peddlers of tea, scones, and haberdashery.

In the midst of their hopelessness, they are witnesses to the gay, frivolous and pleasure-loving lifestyles of the political leadership in the country. They read daily of billions of shillings stolen with impunity by politically correct public servants. All day long, they see privileged people cutting across the skies in choppers, at public expense.

Then they see a Parliament that has reinvented itself as a tool of Executive licence and tyranny. To echo Prince Metternich of the 19th century Concert of Europe fame, “I am an old doctor. I can tell a mortal ailment from a passing cold.”

The emerging youthful rumpus in Kenyan streets is not a passing cold or cloud. It is going to change us, for better or worse. If it does not change us in 2027, it will change us sooner. This is the one thing that every legislator should know.

Moreover, the old physician has a special message for MPs Kimani Ichung’wah (Kikuyu), Ndindi Nyoro (Kiharu) and John Kiarie (Dagoretti South). If you see them, tell them that we have living memory of what happened to those who previously did what they are doing today. Tell them that they are counting their footsteps towards political oblivion. And so, too, are the people in the National Executive.

Dr Muluka is a strategic communications advisor.