How technology powered Gen Z 'Occupy Parliament' protests

Protesters make signs with their arms in front of Kenya police officers during a demonstration against tax hikes in Nairobi, on June 18, 2024. [AFP]

The Finance Bill 2024 has reignited the spirit of activism among Kenyan youth, particularly Generation Z, who have seemingly avoided the conversation. 

Protests on Tuesday, June 18, and Thursday, June 20, swept the nation in an unprecedented manner.

These demonstrations were focused, well-organized, youth-led, peaceful, and free from political affiliations.

Mobilisation, coordination, and execution were facilitated effortlessly via mobile phones and social media. Hashtags flooded platforms alongside text and video messages opposing the controversial Finance Bill 2024.

This marked a departure from the typical content-dominating platforms like X (formerly Twitter) or TikTok. Organizers of the 'Occupy Parliament' protests and disgruntled Kenyan youth transformed these platforms into tools of dissent against President William Ruto's government.

“Technology was put to the best of use. It would have been impossible to coordinate the stakeholders if we didn’t have the available technologies,” opined Dr. Bright Gameli, a cyber-security expert.

Zello App and USSD codes

Dr. Gameli highlighted technology as pivotal in maintaining order and organisation. For instance, developers utilised internet-free USSD applications to coordinate essential services such as medical assistance and legal support for arrested protestors.

Facing excessive police force, protestors turned to the Zello app for radio communication to evade potential clashes with armed officers.

“The whole walkie-talkie thing was just brilliant,” remarks Bright.

The 'Reject Finance Bill 2024 Nairobi Command' channel on Zello allowed protestors to track police movements in real time, enabling strategic positioning to avoid confrontations.

While the app has gained notoriety — including its use by supporters of President Trump during the January 6, 2020 insurrection — its original purpose was for professional use, according to a New York Post article.

Andrew Franklin, a security expert, raised concerns about potential security risks and public order challenges posed by such technology in protestors' hands.

“The police have acquired very sophisticated equipment over the last ten years. The app doesn’t guarantee confidentiality, meaning users can be tracked,” he observed.

Franklin added that authorities could potentially disrupt protests by shutting down phones or internet access in key areas.