After dramatic tax win, Kenya's young protesters plot next moves

After dramatic tax win, Kenya's young protesters plot next moves

By Aaron Ross, Giulia Paravicini

NAIROBI (Reuters) -After their stunning success in forcing the government to shelve $2.7 billion in tax hikes, young Kenyan activists are setting their sights higher, taking aim at ingrained corruption and misgovernance.

Protesters say the finance bill that President William Ruto abandoned on Wednesday was only a symptom of the problems plaguing a country where many young people have few job prospects despite strong economic growth.

The movement has little precedent in its mass mobilisation of Kenyans across ethnic and regional divisions while rejecting any kind of political leadership. Protests in Kenya have historically been led by elites, often ending in power-sharing deals that yielded few tangible benefits for demonstrators.

Protesters now face the challenge of maintaining unity and momentum while pursuing broader, less immediate goals. They will also have to decide how to respond to Ruto's offer of dialogue, made on Wednesday but without specifics.

Writer and activist Nanjala Nyabola said most of those involved in the recent protests were motivated by legitimate, strong grievances against the government.

"Until those grievances are addressed, it's unlikely that they're going to be willing to make concessions."

How the diffuse and leaderless movement, which largely organised via social media, pursues its objectives remains an open question - and a source of internal debate.

Christine Odera, co-chair of the Kenya Coalition on Youth, Peace and Security, a civil society organisation, said it needed to formalise its structures to advance young people's interests and speak to the government.

"If we go organically, then we might lose the whole conversation," said Odera, who participated in the protests. "The president has said we need to have conversations. All of us cannot sit in a stadium and have a conversation."

Others disagree.

Ojango Omondi of the Social Justice Centres Working Group, a community activist group in a poor district of Nairobi, said establishing structures and national representatives could allow the movement to be corrupted by politicians.

"We don't need to negotiate anything," he said. "All we want is better living conditions. All we want is the leaders to stop using our resources ... to sponsor their lavish lifestyle."


Omondi said there was plenty to keep the past week's protesters engaged - from organising funerals for the nearly two dozen people killed in clashes with police on Tuesday to forcing recall elections against members of parliament.

Another key moment could be the government's next proposal to raise revenues. Some protesters suspect it will still try to ram tax rises through.

In a country where protest has traditionally been driven by ethnic affinities, the current youth-driven demonstrations have stood out for building unity around common grievances.

But cracks are already emerging.

Despite Ruto's U-turn on the tax hikes, some protesters called for a planned march on his residence to go ahead on Thursday in an attempt to oust him. Others rejected the idea as a dangerous gambit.

In the end, there were protests in several cities, smaller than on Tuesday.

In Ruto's hometown and political stronghold of Eldoret, where thousands from different ethnic groups took to the streets on Tuesday, a human rights activist said some tensions had resurfaced since the president withdrew the bill.

Nicholas Omito, CEO of the Centre for Human Rights and Mediation, said demonstrators from Ruto's Kalenjin ethnic group were arguing that protests should end now, while ethnic Kikuyus were insisting they should continue until Ruto resigned.

Protesters posting on social media accused local politicians of trying to incite trouble to undermine the movement.

"Do not let these greedy politicIans masquerading as leaders pull the tribal card that once led our country into chaos," one said on X.

Nyabola, the writer, said she did not think that ethnic divisions posed a risk to a movement that had distinguished itself with its sense of national purpose.

"You're never going to get rid of it completely," she said. "But for now, the class and wealth disparity between politicians and ordinary people has been the focus."

(Reporting by Aaron Ross and Giulia ParaviciniAdditional reporting by Edwin OkothEditing by Joe Bavier and Kevin Liffey)