Kenyan Protests Against 2024 Finance Bill: A New Chapter in Citizen Resistance

Articles & Insights

June 18, 2023


Wanjiku Muchai

The streets of Nairobi and other major cities in Kenya are once again echoing with the voices of disgruntled citizens protesting against the controversial 2024 Finance Bill. While demonstrations are not new to the Kenyan landscape, the current wave of dissent stands out due to several key distinctions and its alignment with global trends of citizen resistance against government policies perceived as punitive. Unlike previous demonstrations often driven by specific groups or factions, this movement has united a broad coalition of professionals, students, workers, civil society organizations, and even religious leaders. This widespread opposition underscores the deep-seated concerns about the bill’s potential negative impact on the cost of living and economic well-being, with religious leaders adding a moral dimension to the protests.

Furthermore, digital activism has played a pivotal role in amplifying these protests. Social media platforms have become powerful tools for mobilizing support, disseminating information, and documenting police excesses. Trending hashtags like #ResistTheBill and #TaxpayersInPain have facilitated real-time updates and coordination among protesters, galvanizing local participation and attracting international attention to the grievances of the Kenyan people. While past protests typically revolved around political issues, economic concerns primarily fuel the current demonstrations. The proposed tax hikes on essential goods and services, such as fuel and food, have ignited widespread anger and frustration, especially among the most vulnerable populations already grappling with rising costs. This economic focus; reflecting a growing discontent with the government’s policies and their tangible impact on the lives of ordinary Kenyans.

Despite facing heavy-handed police responses in some cases, the majority of protesters remained committed to peaceful resistance. This approach garnered public sympathy and made it difficult for the government to dismiss the movement as disruptive. The use of creative tactics like silent marches, proposed sit-ins along parliament, and symbolic displays, further emphasizes the protesters’ commitment to non-violence while effectively conveying their message. Another unique aspect of these protests is their decentralized leadership and the use of leaked contact addresses from the Members of Parliament. Unlike previous demonstrations with identifiable leaders or figureheads, this movement has operated without a centralized authority, and has focused on the economic challenge – central to all Kenyans. This decentralized structure has made it harder for the government to suppress the protests and reflects a broader shift in Kenyan society towards grassroots activism and a rejection of traditional top-down political structures.

The Kenyan protests against the 2024 Finance Bill are not a solitary event, but rather a part of a larger wave of citizen-led movements sweeping across Africa. These movements challenge government policies perceived as detrimental to the well-being of the people, signaling a significant shift in the continent’s political landscape. Citizens are increasingly asserting their agency, demanding accountability from their leaders, and refusing to remain silent in the face of injustice. In Nigeria, the youth-led #EndSARS movement rose against police brutality and systemic corruption, successfully disbanding the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad and bringing international attention to the issues of police violence and governance.

Similarly, Sudan’s revolution saw sustained civil disobedience leading to the ousting of long-time President Omar al-Bashir, driven by grievances over economic hardships and political repression. In Senegal. the anti-government protests, sparked by the arrest of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, highlighted growing frustration with economic mismanagement and perceived authoritarianism. Similarly, in South Africa, service delivery protests persist, fueled by grievances over inadequate access to basic services like water, electricity, and housing.

Globally, such protests are part of a growing global trend of citizen-led movements challenging government policies perceived as detrimental to their well-being. From the Yellow Vest movement in France to the anti-austerity protests in Greece and the recent demonstrations in Chile, citizens around the world are increasingly taking to the streets to demand economic justice and accountability from their leaders. The examples, spanning diverse countries and contexts, collectively underscore a mounting discontent with government policies that exacerbate economic inequalities, stifle dissent, and fail to address the fundamental needs of the population.

Should the 2024 Finance Bill pass in its current form, Kenya could face a tumultuous period marked by heightened tensions and economic uncertainty. In the immediate aftermath, intensified protests could erupt as citizens express their frustration and disappointment, potentially disrupting daily life and economic activities. The government’s likely response of deploying a heavier police presence could further escalate tensions and lead to clashes, fueling public anger and eroding trust. Economically, the passing of the bill would likely trigger immediate anxiety, prompting consumers to hoard essential goods in anticipation of price hikes and businesses to postpone investments due to the uncertain economic outlook. In the medium term, the proposed tax hikes could significantly increase the cost of living, pushing more households into poverty and exacerbating existing inequalities. Businesses, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, may struggle to cope with the increased tax burden and rising input costs, leading to layoffs, reduced production, and a potential economic slowdown.

Furthermore, the government’s handling of the protests and the economic fallout of the bill could have severe political ramifications, eroding public trust and potentially leading to calls for early elections or other political changes. Legal challenges to the bill’s constitutionality could delay its implementation and open avenues for negotiation – with the Law Society of Kenya expressing posibility of a court process.

For the government, the rising tide of citizen protests, presents significant challenge, showing an out of touch leadership with the needs and aspirations of their people. Prolonged demonstrations can erode public trust, disrupt economic activity, and even lead to political instability or leadership changes. Therefore, the Kenyan government’s response to the 2024 Finance Bill protests is a critical test of its commitment to democratic principles and its ability to address legitimate grievances. The proposed removal of contentious clauses like the tax on bread, componments of the eco levy, vat on various areas, and motor vehicle tax, underscores the bill’s perceived inadequacies and the government’s vulnerability.

The dissatisfaction among both citizens and selected members of parliament highlights the imperfect nature of the proposed ammendements to the bill, and signals that further work is needed to craft equitable and beneficial legislation. The general dissent within parliament, even among ruling party members, suggests a shifting political landscape and potential challenges to the government’s authority.

These demonstrate that citizen voices remain at the centre of policy decisions, potentially leading to greater public engagement and a more inclusive approach to policymaking in the future. The path forward is uncertain, with potential for further amendments, continued public pressure, and a renewed focus on finding solutions that address the economic concerns of all Kenyans. The overall economic climate remains uncertain, with businesses facing the challenge of adapting to new policies amidst a lingering sense of instability. These protests underscore the importance and consideration of public participation in the legislative process, potentially leading to greater scrutiny and inclusivity in future policymaking. In a more optimistic outcome, the government could engage in genuine dialogue with the Kenyan public, seeking compromises and revisiting the provisions of the Finance bill 2024, to mitigate its impact on vulnerable populations.

In the face of these challenges, the Bretton Woods Institutions (BWI’s) can play a crucial role in supporting Kenya. In the short term, they could offer technical assistance, and consider debt relief or restructuring. These institutions could also consider a constructive policy dialogue, emphasizing inclusive decision-making and social safety nets. In the medium to long term, support for structural reforms, social inclusion, governance improvements, and alignment with Sustainable Development Goals could foster a more resilient and equitable economy. Crucially, the BWI’s should adapt their engagement based on Kenya’s evolving situation, coordinate with other development partners, and prioritize transparency and accountability. This multifaceted approach can guide Kenya through its current challenges, foster sustainable growth, and ensure that the benefits of economic policies reach all segments of society.

Ultimately, the path forward for Kenya lies in a delicate balance between fiscal responsibility, public welfare, and inclusive governance. The lessons learned from the Finance Bill protests can pave the way for a more responsive and equitable economic framework, one that prioritizes the needs of its citizens and fosters sustainable development for all.

An adept International Relations and Communications expert, operating within the African context, with extensive experience in fostering cross-cultural dialogues and diplomatic relations.

Wanjiku Muchai
Operations Manager - Scofield Associates
Wanjiku Muchai