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Ruto's dilemma as brazen youth uprising crosses point of no return

Demonstrators march in Nakuru to protest against Finance Bill 2024. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

The recent anti-Finance Bill street protests by young people, some of them who have never voted, mark a watershed in William Ruto’s presidency, scarcely 20 months after assuming office.

Dr Ruto ascended the country's highest office in political leadership on the promise of turning around the fortunes of the youth who solidly backed his candidature.

Observers argue that the protests, which have in four days rapidly spread across various towns in the country herald a new dawn that has the potential to redefine the country’s political landscape.

What started as a modest protest on TikTok moved to the streets of Nairobi in 24 hours and erupted into nationwide protests with large armies of youthful protesters cutting across ethnic and socio-economic status.

Nakuru-based human rights defender and governance expert Joseph Omondi says that Generation Z in their protest against the government had already “crossed the Rubicon.”

Omondi says the youth have tested the waters and assessed their strength, and it was incumbent upon the government to explore on ways of addressing their concerns.

The youth exploited social media platforms – Youtube, X (formerly Twitter), TikTok, Instagram and Facebook – to mobilise.

Although the demonstrators appear to have no organised leadership, social media influencers including content creators and other personalities hosting various platforms on youth-related issues played a vital role in galvanising the youth to come out and oppose the Bill.

The role of social media influencers mirrors that of intellectuals and other professionals who instigated protests that culminated in the French Revolution in 1789, resulting in the storming of the Bastille, the state prison where government critics were remanded.

The protesting mobs in the streets of Paris in France were angered by the rise in the cost of bread, with Queen Maria Antoinette arrogantly telling protesters voicing their concern over the cost of the commodity to go and eat scones.

The mobs in Paris initially had no organised structures of command but radical and rebellious leaders emerged as the protests gathered momentum and spread into other parts of France.

This week’s protests have culminated in the fatal shooting by the police of two persons. The Red Cross said on Friday that 39 demonstrators had been injured during the protest, with four of the victims nursing gunshot wounds.

The huge protest marches staged across various towns in the country have been peaceful, unlike previous demonstrations which had been characterised by violence resulting in deaths of many people and massive destruction of property.

The pulling down of a hoist wheelbarrow in Eldoret town by frenzy demonstrators contrasts sharply with the 2022 ecstatic mood in which most youth were seen mounting the wheelbarrow, the symbol of President Ruto’s UDA party two years ago.

To observers, the pulling down of the wheelbarrow by the protesters at President Ruto’s political bastion is a deep manifestation of anger by the residents who overwhelmingly voted for him and who now perceive the wheelbarrow as the symbol of their oppression.

The dramatic event in Eldoret where agitated mobs perceived the wheelbarrow as the pillar of oppression mirrors the event in Paris, where the Bastille was perceived as the fortress of the King's authoritative leadership.

Political analyst Andrew Nyabuto says youth protests have shaped the trajectory of many governments across the African continent where they have demonstrated that power is inherent in the will of the people.

Lawyer Hari Gakinya argues that President Ruto has an opportunity to stem the Gen Z tidal wave by addressing their concerns or ignoring it at the cost of exposing the country to the possibility of the protests metamorphosing into a major political conflagration.

Gakinya, who has in the past been involved in student activism and the reform movement, says the protesters had voiced their concerns, and “the ball is now in the president’s court.”

The lawyer argues that whereas protests were a hallmark of an open and democratic society, there is a danger they could snowball into a major political crisis if not well handled and grievances adequately addressed.

“The president cannot tell the youth to live with their means yet he and his cohort of government officials are engaging in wasteful activities. The youth are wondering why they cannot access bursary while the spouses of state officers are funded from public coffers,” says Nyabuto.

Nyaburo, who has previously engaged in political mobilisation, said that youth involvement and mobilisation has been critical in shaping the political destiny of the country since independence.

“At any given political epoch in the country, the youth have played a central role in influencing the cause of history and that is why the government needs to listen to the plight of the demonstrators and address their plight before the situation goes out of hand,” he said.

He said the use of technology to pass messages and network has enabled Gen Z to mobilise themselves at a faster rate, with demonstrations spreading across all the country's major cities and municipalities to trading centres in far-flung areas.

Geoffrey Mwangi, a political observer, says the protests by the young people have ushered the country into another level of political mobilisation “where the youth have demonstrated their capacity to come together and voice their concerns without regard to their ethnic backgrounds.”

Mwangi, the former National Health Insurance Fund (NHIF) Chief Executive Officer turned politician, said the youth in the country have now redeemed themselves of their non-active participation in politics for their welfare.

Paul Masese, who is a civil rights leader, said the protests were an expression of anger by Gen Z on the leadership behavior in the country and the impact it has on the people at the grassroots level.

“If the government does not respond to the grievances of the youth appropriately, it will end up radicalising the youth. Already the battle lines have been drawn, and the youth are demanding that their views be considered while enacting the Finance Bill 2024,” Masese said.

He said the youth, majority of whom are jobless, had the passion and energy to sustain the protests if they felt the government was insensitive to their plight.

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