Protests against Finance Bill 2024 in Kenya

Tens of thousands of young people have successfully demonstrated throughout Kenya against tax increases on consumer goods and internet services. Roger Peltzer analyzes how this movement should be assessed in the context of the current conflicts over democracy across Africa.

At the end of June, tens, if not hundreds of thousands of young people took to the streets in Nairobi and other major cities in Kenya to protest against planned tax increases on everyday products and internet services. The movement came practically out of nowhere and is not linked to any existing political structures or organizations. The teenagers and young adults organize exclusively via social media, but receive a lot of sympathy in the established free press.

After the government under President Ruto initially tried in vain to put a stop to the movement by clamping down and slowing down internet connections, it quickly relented after the movement spread rapidly and gained a lot of public support, and withdrew the tax increases.

To what extent is the youth uprising in Kenya comparable to similar movements in Senegal or the support given by many young people and young academics to the military coup plotters in the Sahel?

The unifying element is certainly the fact that millions of well-educated young people and graduates are flooding onto the labor market in all of the countries mentioned and are largely unable to find suitable jobs there. Although the birth rate in Kenya, at 3.34 children per woman, is now only half as high as in Niger – which is also a reflection of the fact that the country is at a much higher level of development – young people who were born 20 years ago with much higher fertility rates are of course now entering the labor market. And although Kenya has quite decent economic growth by African standards and the most vibrant start-up scene on the entire continent, this is nowhere near enough to create enough skilled jobs.

In contrast to the military dictatorships in the Sahel, Kenya is a fairly stable democracy with an independent judiciary and a free and highly critical press. Nevertheless, the elites (Ruto, Odinga, Kenyatta), who sometimes fight each other politically but then cooperate with each other again in changing constellations and are strongly influenced by ethnic calculations, are so interlinked that large sections of the politically interested youth feel excluded from the political system. In addition, all the political leaders have become filthy rich through their political activities or those of their fathers (Kenyatta), with corruption often playing a role. When civil war-like ethnic conflicts broke out after the controversial election of Kibaki in 2007, resulting in several hundred deaths and tens of thousands of displaced persons, it quickly became clear that some of the politicians (Ruto, Kenyatta) had fomented this unrest for party-political/ethnic reasons. Both were therefore indicted by the International Criminal Court. However, the trial had to be stopped because many witnesses either disappeared or died, or withdrew their statements under pressure. The great wealth of leading politicians, the feeling that the elites ultimately support each other despite all the often ethnically motivated disputes, the experience that the burdens of economic adjustment always have to be borne by those who have little anyway, promote the pan-African anger of a well-educated young generation, which also knows the conditions in other countries well via the Internet. What is remarkable and encouraging for Kenya, however, is that the young people’s protest no longer seems to recognize any ethnic divisions or borders. This is another reason why the youth protest is perceived by many Kenyans of all generations as a great positive signal for the future.

What’s next for Kenya? The government is facing a major dilemma. In recent years, it has invested massively in infrastructure, for example. With Chinese help, the traffic situation in Nairobi has improved significantly, the railroad line from Nairobi to Mombasa – a key infrastructure project – has been built and the deep-sea port in Lamu has been tackled. Even though some of these projects may be somewhat oversized, they represent important investments in the country’s future. The downside, however, is a significant increase in Kenya’s debt, particularly to China. At around 75% of GDP, Kenya’s level of debt is not yet very high compared to some European countries. But Kenya has fewer opportunities to refinance itself cheaply on the international capital market and probably has problems servicing the rising interest rates, particularly on Chinese loans. If the country wants to continue investing, it must solve its debt problems. This requires our own efforts, but also comprehensive debt restructuring. This time, it is primarily the Chinese, who are by far Kenya’s biggest creditors, who are in demand. Incidentally, Chinese loans are also significantly more expensive than those from the EU. In the case of Kenya, the West – unlike in the Sahel – no longer serves as an enemy. This is another reason why no Russian or Chinese flags were seen at the demonstrations in Nairobi.

It is to be hoped that many of the committed young people will find their way into Kenyan politics and shake up the structures and parties there. This scenario is not quite so unlikely in democratic, liberal Kenya. Germany and the West could help Kenya in particular by paving the way for tens of thousands of qualified young Kenyans to enter the European and German labor market. Of course, this alone will not solve the labor market problem in Kenya, but it can send an important psychological signal.

Cover photo by Akofa Bruce


  • Roger Peltzer

    70 years old, married, 3 children and soon 4 grandchildren. I studied economics at the University of Münster and then completed a postgraduate course at the German Institute for Development Policy (now IDOS).

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Youth uprisings in Kenya: a gain for democracy in Africa?

Roger Peltzer

[wpml-string context="pb-bioinfo" name="info-1"]70 Jahre alt, verheiratet, 3 Kinder und bald 4 Enkel. Ich habe an der Universität Münster Volkswirtschaft studiert und anschließend den postgraduierten Kurs am deutschen Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (heute IDOS) absolviert.[/wpml-string]

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