Gen Z Leading Political Change in Kenya: What Does It Mean for African Politics?

Gen Z
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Kenyan President William Ruto has “withdrawna controversial finance bill of 2024. The blame game has ensued in earnest of who slept in his job causing all the disruption while acknowledging the mammoth task of addressing all issues behind the budget rupture. Promises of rewriting an austerity budget have been made, which may include changes to the guard at the National Intelligence Service, (NIS).

The president also is eager to get Gen-Z involved in the planning and execution of government business. But who are Gen-Z? Although, they were able to mobilise themselves in a matter of few weeks, do they have a hierarchical system that can productively engage with the government? This article dives deep into these intriguing matters of governance in Kenyan politics.

Anti-Finance Bill protests, largely led by Generation Z (Gen Z) and human rights activists, started in Nairobi on June 18, the day the controversial document was tabled in parliament for debate by the National Assembly Finance Committee Chair Kuria Kimani.

Gen-Z includes a generation of youth that are around 18-35 years old. This generation did not register in large numbers in the last general election and was dismissed as apolitical or politically aloof and disinterested in governance issues. It was a generation that has the highest voter apathy but it is a generation whose language is difficult to decode. It is a generation that was infamous for burning schools and has little regard for the rule of law.

Read Related: How Kenya’s Finance Bill 2024 is Shaking Up Politics and Public Opinion – What’s the Real Story?

It is a generation that distrusts politicians and the prevailing system of governance. It exudes perceptions that the government is out to get them. It is a generation that resorts to violence to settle old scores. It is impatient, angry and insular to reasoning. If it is Finance Bill 2024 that they do not like,  to this generation, it is not about “nips and tucks” but the whole Bill be discarded without amendment! For them, it is not about fixing what they don’t like but killing the budget and burying it. No middle ground is a preferred option; it is either their way or the highway!

From my listening to what Gen-Z is demanding I can see no path for the two sides to reconcile their differences. While I must concede that Gen-Z is not a homogenous stratum but a heterogeneous one there are a few basic values that unify them. First, they want the official corruption to end. Second, they want elected officials to take full responsibility for all the economic malaise Kenya is facing today. As far as this youth is concerned the buck stops with their elected officials.

They understand that irresponsible borrowing has strangled the Kenyan economy into her deathbed and that austerity measures are required. However, they refuse to subscribe to the notion that the pain too must be induced “bottom up”. They want a dramatic reversal of the fortunes.

They are agitating for elected officials to accept a pay cut that is significant enough culminating into budgetary allocations for their favourite programs like hiring school teachers, free public healthcare, education and an aggressive job creation effort for the youth all included. There is one snag.

What the Gen-Z are advocating for is a cultural change in the public sector. Post-independence Kenya was programmed to ensure elected leaders are served by the citizens, and not the other way around.

Now a generational change is at odds with their elders who would prefer “business as usual.” That is a point of departure for the two warring sides. Listening to President William Ruto’s concession speech that chopped off the Finance Bill 2024 from his high table, and the vague austere measures he announced about his office, clearly there is a yawning gulf between the expectations and hopes of the two sides.

Gen-Z is violently challenging the Ruto regime to undertake draconian sacrifices from the elected officials. Ruto either is unwilling or unable to persuade the Parliament to heed the call to cut their perks.

Gen-Z is after public cultural changes that will humble elected officials in a manner that will have a pay package that reflects the national economic status. In other words, elected officials’ compensation packages cannot be above those in similar positions in the developed World. Our puny economies cannot afford that elitist bonanza. The Gen-Z is desirous of public leaders who are really public servants indeed, not only in lip service.

President Ruto did not offer any specific budgetary cuts, and to what extent those austere measures will plug the budget. It is important not to mince words that the Kenyan economy is in an utter mess. From President Ruto’s speech, we learnt the ramifications of reckless borrowing.

For every Kshs 100 collected as taxes, Kenya parts with Kshs 61 to clear interest payments of debt. What is left Kshs 39 for the recurrent and development budget? The Kenyan economy is in a damning fix. On one hand, the Ruto administration despised borrowing but to meet public expectations they had to borrow more until they were declared bankrupt. That Kenyan international credit rating is so low that the risk of lending her money exceeds the potential profit that can be generated.

President Ruto has also urged the Parliament and the Senate to consider budgetary cuts of their own. That is a terrain he tried to clamber once when he was sworn in but had faced stiff opposition from his political coalition. Few may remember that no sooner than President Ruto was sworn in office, he asked the bicameral houses to knife the fat in specific areas of

Waheshimiwa loans for expensive cars and houses. I heard the Speaker of the Parliament Hon. Moses Wetangula saying that was unacceptable because those loans cater for rookie parliamentarians, and were a time affair.

Also, read: Ruto’s Decision to Deploy Kenyan Police to Haiti Sparks Debate: But at What Cost?

It is imperative to note not a single member of the Azimio opposition coalition voted down their goodies. When it comes to looting national coffers those in the government and those in the opposition appear to have stricken a convivial detente! The political hatchet was hastily buried to clear a way of filling their potbellies. It is an axis of convenience.

However, the changes Gen-Z wants to see are selfless leaders as their representatives,  mostly likely ones of their generation. If a common mwananchi can neither afford a car nor a house why should their representatives have them? Gen-Z is vociferously demanding a creation of a classless society, that many in the government perceive as utopia. So, a clash of heads is imminent between the protagonists.

Can Gen-Z Play a Major Role in Kenyan Politics?

Prof XN Iraki, a University of Nairobi lecturer who has researched voting patterns in Kenya, in an article in The Conversation, blamed the low political participation among the youth on voting not being sensitive to their habits, lack of faith in voting improving their fortunes, underrepresentation in politics, political dynasties on the ballot, and the perception that their votes don’t count.

Going by the sentiment expressed in the wave of Gen Z protests across the country this week, that might change in the next elections. We are likely to witness the majority of the MPs regardless of political affiliations being kicked out at the ballot box, once and for good.

Some of the angry youth invaded and damaged the homes and investments of MPs who voted for the Finance Bill while one MP posted his mugshot after being beaten by an unruly youth. The office of the governor of Nairobi County was razed down. Kenyatta University library was gutted down by the marauding youths.

The Kenyan bicameral houses were temporarily occupied and vandalized. These are political signatures, and Kenyan youth are becoming aware that unless they take an active role in politics their future hangs in balance. Nobody is gonna take them for granted again after the mayhem that unfolded.

The Blame Game Has Begun in Earnest

Rarely, do African politicians willingly take responsibility when things go wrong. They blame others for their failures. In this situation, Deputy President Githae Gachagua in his address to the nation blamed the director of the National Intelligence Service (NIS) for a failure to appropriately advise the president so that he could have made decisions that would have averted the chaos, property losses, human injuries and deaths that ensued.

The incumbent Noordin Haji, the director of the NIS, was recommended by the current defence secretary Aden Bare Duale for the presidential appointment. Before the Finance Bill nightmare, the ruling coalition was undergoing a rude awakening and metamorphosis of its own. Ruto’s allies were blaming Gachagua for fomenting discord in their political tent demanding his resignation.

Unfortunately, in Kenyan politics, there is no discipline as senior civil servants came out to accuse the deputy president of sabotage and treason. Aden Duale was one of them! Now, it seems, Gachagua is fighting back. By pouring cold water on the competence of the director of the NIS – a Duale homeboy, it is clear what is most likely to follow.

Gachagua was very specific when he lambasted the director of intelligence for dismissing three directors who were more competent than the greenhorns the director had replaced! Gachagua said those axed directors should be immediately reinstated in a direct back-stab to the defence secretary Duale.

If Gachagua has his way Duale’s position at the Ministry of Defence will be untenable, possibly, initiating his demotion to a junior ministry. Duale, a key figure in the Ruto presidential triumph of 2022, is unlikely to be ousted from the government. The ethnic calculation demands a Somali Kenyan hold a cabinet position to reflect and capture national identity. And, a vocal Duale fills that void sumptuously.

Can the President Withdraw the Finance Bill?

Technically, he can reject it, and instruct the Ministry of Finance to go back to the drawing board. Since the president has hinted that he will be carrying out the surgical measures that will prune the fat, the amendment is the direction he will most likely pursue. If he does nothing in two weeks the Kenyan constitution says the withdrawn law becomes the law of the land!

So, every Kenyan will be furtively watching what happens within two weeks from now. Will President Ruto rewrite the Finance Bill and send it back to parliament for approval before he assents it or will he let it become a law by inaction? We will soon know.

President Ruto’s Secret Weapon is “Divide and Rule”.

Gen-Z’s claim of being above tribalism will soon get its first electric shock test. My assessment of Rift Valley politics, the youth’s demos were not a referendum on President Ruto’s legitimacy to govern. Rift Valley youths just want the Finance Bill exterminated and buried. Since now it is buried, they will have no reason to take part in future demos but looking forward to getting their fair share of national interactive dialogue.

The youths associated with the opposition, the Azimio coalition, will be plotting to oust the Ruto regime and replace it with the Raila-led government. By humbling himself before Kenyans, President Ruto has intentionally aroused tribal divisions. What was once unified opposition against the Finance Bill now stands for divisions and ethnic suspicions.

The youths associated with the ruling coalition once part of the Gen-Z will not play opposition since their demands have been met while those in the opposition strongholds will jostle for power and reveal their true colour: RUTO MUST GO!

From the above analysis, Gen-Z has no owners, and hence devoid of a hierarchical structure to provide national leadership. What brought them together, and dissolved their ethnic, religious and economic classes was the genuine fear of being robbed of whatever little they still possess. Once they know, the Finance Bill is in the grave, that flimsy glue needed to keep them unified is now ashes to ashes, and dust to dust. President Ruto’s soft-spoken demeanour conceals a brilliant political acumen that will be useful as he negotiates his way out of this national crisis.

As President Ruto previously agonized that the violent demos nationwide were not about the Finance Bill but were treasonous acts, he will soon find out that he was partially right!

The author is a Development Administration specialist in Tanzania with over 30 years of practical experience, and has been penning down a number of articles in local printing and digital newspapers for some time now.

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