Birth of a new revolt as 'Gen Z' redefines demos in the country

Youth protest against the Finance Bill in Mombasa on June 19, 2024. [Kelvin Karani, Standard]

Crammed up at the back of police vehicles, they sang.

“Ruto must go!” the chant from the anti-Finance Bill protesters, mostly drawn from Kenya’s youthful generation, “Generation Z (Gen Z)”, rang out. Not even the dingy Nairobi cells, infamous for their pungency, could stop the chorus.

And the sights and sounds of their defiance, which spread like wildfire on social media platforms, birthed suggestions that a revolution was in the offing.

“They can unlawfully arrest, and hold us, but they cannot arrest all of us. This is a movement, and the younger generation is woke and cannot be shaken,” rights activist Boniface Mwangi on Wednesday declared.

In Parliament yesterday, Embakasi East Member of Parliament Babu Owino equated the “Gen Z revolution” to revolutions in China, Russia and France, all of which rose from an oppressed citizenry.

Talk of a revolution were sparked by the spontaneity of the protests and their organic development. When planners announced that they would “occupy Parliament” this week, they were met with ridicule.

The #OccupyParliament and #ResistFinanceBill trends on X, formerly Twitter, were dismissed as nonstarters by many, including President William Ruto’s economic advisor Dr David Ndii.

Today, the Occupy Parliament protests resume outside Parliament in Nairobi, with similar protests planned countrywide. 

The success of the protests, which saw young Kenyans weather the customary police brutality, complete with an endless supply of tear gas, jets of water from cannons and blows from batons, surprised many.

Raila Odinga

It had a lot to do with the absence of the typical faces of such demonstrations. Protests have come to be synonymous with the opposition, with Azimio leader Raila Odinga emerging as the face of defiance.

He has been absent throughout the latest spate of demos, only emerging on X to endorse the actions of the young protesters. “I’m a very proud father today!” Raila responded to a video clip of a young Kenyan who took part in the protests. “Hongera sana to the young lady and all those who bravely stood up for their rights.”

Indeed, it felt like a transition of sorts. The young generation, constantly shepherded into fighting for other people’s causes, were seizing control. And their methods, hoisting placards and mobilising through social media, were a departure from the norm.

They took control of all aspects, including maximising coverage through social media. Protesters of old have depended on the traditional media. Not the crop of protesters, dressed in black, who tested the endurance of police officers, ever heavy-handed. 

“What we witnessed yesterday (Tuesday) was very historic and momentous for our nation,” former Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe observed during an interview on Spice FM. They showed us that people do not need to be led by a famous politician to object to a situation they do not like.”

And they are earning recognition, with a section of lawmakers applauding their actions in Parliament on Wednesday.

“...Our audacious Gen Z decided they are going to make their voices heard,” said Bomachoge Borabu MP Obadiah Barongo, who requested his colleagues to honour the protesters.

Suba North MP Millie Odhiambo said that a niece of hers was bought into the Gen Z cause. “I asked her if I could give her a lift to town today and she said, ‘I cannot be associated with Members of Parliament. Your generation has messed up this country’,” said Odhiambo.

Observers have warned that the amorphous nature of the movement threatens the position of those in power, as they lack formal channels of engaging the protesters.

“It is better of when it is known people like, Sifuna and Raila, leading these demonstrations. The day Kenyans take this matter upon themselves, there will be no one to call to the table,” Nairobi Senator Edwin Sifuna said at the height of opposition protests last year.

Former Makueni Governor Kivutha Kibwana, a veteran human rights activist, warned of the power of the youth against governments bulldozing unpopular policies.

University professor of leadership and management Gitile Naituli described Gen Z as “a revolutionary generation”.