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Why Ichung'wa is wrong on Gen Z protests

Opinion
Citizens demonstrate along the streets of Nairobi's CBD to reject the Finance Bill. June 20, 2024. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

I watched with anger the clip of a Kenya Kwanza legislator dismissing anti-Finance Bill protests that rocked Nairobi and other parts of the country earlier this week as fake.

John Kiarie, a former Redykyulass comedian and current Member of National Assembly for Dagoretti South may have been forgiven for taking the joke too far when he claimed that photos of Gen Z protestors on Nairobi streets were graphically manipulated to create a false narrative. He would have been forgiven, but he was not joking.

“Some of the photos we have seen on the streets, I can tell you as a graphics editor that they do not belong to this country.” Said the politician during a debate in Parliament on Tuesday.

Ironically, while he was speaking, police had already arrested hundreds of Kenyans in Nairobi's Central Business District to prevent them from carrying out their threat to occupy Parliament Buildings.

The protests escalated for an additional two days in various parts of Kenya, including Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu, Nyeri, Meru, Kericho, and the president’s backyard, Eldoret.

Mr graphics editor and photo expert, KJ, as the MP is popularly known, owes us an explanation as to how the police were able to use AI-generated Gen Zs in clashes and arrests.

The truth is the Gen Z-led demonstrations took the country by storm.

It is obvious the Kenya Kwanza administration did not anticipate that tactics such as hashtags and online lobbying, would lead to significant protests in the country.

A tweet by Dr. David Ndii, one of President William Ruto's economic advisors, may provide insight into why the government seems defensive and resistant to acknowledge the anti-tax protests.

“Politics is a constant sport. Digital activism is just wanking,” Ndii wrote on his X platform last Friday, a few days before the demonstrations started. On Wednesday, the controversial economist swallowed humble pie and congratulated X users for ‘rising to the occasion.’

As I wrote this article on Saturday morning, Dr. Ndii tweeted, "Cool kids are going to start a revolution." Much has happened in just a week.

Much has happened, but not much has changed. I hope that National Assembly Majority Leader  Kimani Ichungw’a also has a Damascus moment, just like the top economist.

The legislator claimed that Gen Zs took online taxis to the CBD, used iPhones for creating content, and then went to fast food restaurants for fried chicken after protesting in Nairobi.

“Someone who enjoys electricity in Nairobi cannot understand your problems,” Ichung’wa told Eldama Ravine residents.

I have identified three issues with the statements made by the Kikuyu MP: a lack of understanding of Gen Z, failure to recognize the nationwide nature of the protests, and a state of denial regarding the shifting political landscape.

Hon. Ichung’wa should understand that Gen Z is not a social class. The 'Hustlers versus Dynasties' narrative used by Kenya Kwanza politicians in the 2022 campaigns does not apply now.

Whether Gen Zs use online cabs or matatus as a mode of transport does not take away the fact that this is a generation (born between 1996 and 2009) that has been agitated by the current regime’s tax policies and is now expressing their views in the best way they know how.

Gen Zs independently used online cabs and purchased food during the demonstrations, demonstrating their self-mobilization and lack of influence from politicians offering incentives.

Gen Zs should also not be castigated for using iPhones or other smartphones for creating content.

MP Racheal Nyamai from Kitui South stated in Parliament that she was aware of a Gen Z individual who was not protesting the Finance Bill on the streets but was seeking to boost views on their TikTok account.

Ms. Nyamai and Mr. Ichung’wa should be aware during the next General Election, the youngest members of Generation Z will turn 18 years old, allowing them to vote. This new voting bloc has the potential to influence the election and shape the future leadership of our country.

Fifteen-year-olds not protesting on the streets are observing their peers demonstrating against an oppressive regime. In three years when they become eligible voters, these TikTok views might just matter.

Furthermore, the Kikuyu MP’s failure to acknowledge nationwide protests is akin to burying the head in the sand. Whether he likes it or not, the Gen Z-led demonstrations will likely shape political discussions moving forward.

Historically, anti-government protests were majorly sponsored by major political parties. Leaders would also mobilise their ethnic communities to join in nationwide demonstrations. The government should be concerned that Gen Zs across the country were able to picket without being facilitated by a politician, political party or tribal leader.

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