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Of Generation Z protests and State officials' deflection tactics

Opinion
 Anti-Finance Bill protestors outside ACK Church of Christ the King Pro-Cathedral in Nyahururu, Nyandarua County on June 23, 2024. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

As the protests against the Finance Bill 2024 and the uncontrolled spending of the government continue this week, a lot has already been learnt about the movement.

Just this past week, through X and TikTok, the young people at the forefront of the movement have been able to pool together in order to organise nationwide protests, protect one another from harm, provide free healthcare upon violent encounters with the police, provide legal services for protestors unlawfully held in custody, and fund-raise for the families of Rex Kanyike and Evans Kiratu, who were killed by police during the protests.

On its part, the government has responded with violence, confusion and derision. Upon witnessing the unprecedented success of Thursday’s protests, for instance, National Assembly Majority Leader Kimani Ichung’wah surmised that the protestors must be the children of the elite as they arrive at the protests in Ubers with iPhones in hand and a plan to have KFC chicken after maandamano. Government Spokesman Isaac Mwaura argued contrarily that the protestors must be paid. On the ground, peaceful protestors in Nairobi were assailed with tear gas and, eventually, live bullets that injured many.

On the intellectual front, it seems that an innocuous yet potentially dangerous narrative that has arisen from the protests is that it is dominated by Gen Z, the population of youth in their early 20s. Sometimes, Gen Y (millennials) are also mentioned as collaborators. The media, in discussing the new Gen Z protest phenomenon with the older generations, has at times created a divisive narrative, with the elders speaking to Gen Z from a place of condescension and distance.

Many argue that their children are on the street and hope that they will be safe, not taking into account that the fight that these children have taken up is one that would benefit us all. The government, on the other hand, as illustrated above, is attempting to paint a narrative of rich-versus-poor, in line with their Hustler Movement talking point, arguing that only wealthy children are at the protests, and that they lack an understanding of the true issues plaguing the country. Inadvertently, (although perhaps not so for the political elite), what is happening is an ahistorical painting of an ‘us-versus-them’ political movement.

In reality, this movement for change, as with all movements before it, is inter-generational in nature, and indeed must remain so if true change is to be attained. Solidarity is necessary, and even as Gen Z protesters proclaim that they are not like their parents, that they are more willing to rise up for what is true, they ought to recognise that they stand on the shoulders of giants who went before them. Giants who granted them the rights that they now have under the Constitution to peacefully protest. Revolution is not a one-day event; it takes generations for incremental change to be made, and the youth cannot do it on their own.

In the meantime, deflection continues to reign in the government narrative. On Sunday, in an unsurprising turnaround of opinion, Mr Ichung’wah commended Gen Z for their active participation in the governance of the country, and encouraged security forces to let them peacefully demonstrate, whilst the rest of “us” get back to work. The statement seems to be supportive of the youth-led movement, but an unpacking shows a deep contempt for what it is that all of us, collectively, should be trying to achieve.

Ichung’wah, by phrasing the anti-Finance Bill protests as something that the rest of us should view as background noise whilst we get back to the serious work of building the nation, completely discredits the foresight of the youth. Those of us, who the government is leaning on as being more rational than the youth, must call out this infantilisation and show our full support of Gen Z as they protest, as well as point out to them the form that deflection tactics take so that they may not fall prey to the trap that is being set for them, and instead hanker down and focus on fixing this nation.

-Ms Gitahi is an international lawyer

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