In Kenya, tomorrow is here


Protests have returned to the streets of Kenya’s towns and cities, as the country gets to the latest stage of the slow-motion revolution it has been undergoing for over 40 years. Animated by anger over the state’s arrogance, corruption and long-running neglect of their needs as currently manifested in its tax proposals, a new generation has taken up the fight, and it is glorious to behold.

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Two years ago, the same Kenyan youths were derided as “disengaged” for failing to register as voters and to turn up for the general election. “It’s a huge dent in democracy,” wailed one analyst. Yet far from being disengaged, the young are demonstrating that what they reject are what I described at the time as “the political rituals of their parents” – the formalised ways of democratic participation that their elders valorise but that have consistently failed to deliver on their promise. They are “opting for other, more effective modes of engagement with governance in the years in between elections”.

This is not new. Coming of age in the 80s and 90s, their parents too had rejected the rules of participation set for them by the independence generation, which privileged ideas like development, unity and peace – many times at the expense of democratic freedom and individual rights. They developed new ways to engage with an oppressive regime and overbearing state. As they rallied to “mass action” to demand reform of the political system, they adapted to and took advantage of global changes such as the end of the Cold War to create powerful coalitions and institutions outside of the state which channeled popular discontent into meaningful action.

By the early 2000s, their movement had transformed the country’s politics, opened up space for competition for power, expanded the range of freedoms enjoyed by Kenyans, and rebooted the economy. However, following the demise of the 24-year dictatorship of Daniel arap Moi, and with it, the end of the KANU party’s four-decade rule, many of them went to bed with the state, either as elected politicians or appointed into government. Civil society organisations, which had been a bedrock of the anti-Moi agitation, were effectively decapitated. Other important pillars of the movement, such as the independent media and religious institutions, ceased aggressively challenging the state and largely chose to cash in on their relationships with the new actors running it.

Like the independence generation before, which had largely reproduced the predatory colonial state they had fought, they too re-established the old corrupt networks that adulterated competitive politics, undermined accountability, and in some ways attempted to roll back the freedoms Kenyans had won. In the aftermath of the violence that followed the disputed 2007 election, the reform movement briefly regrouped and pushed through their generation’s pinnacle achievement – the adoption of a new constitution, the first to be negotiated in Kenya with involvement of the people.

The current youngsters have grown up in the world their parents built and have taken for granted many of the things their elders saw as achievements. Their eyes are firmly fixed on the future, not the past, and their horizons are necessarily much wider. They are also utilising the tools of the moment – the internet, digital technologies, social media – in ways that confound and subvert the existing order to organise and give effect to their political action. In its baffled response, the duplicitous regime of President William Ruto, who learned his trade at the feet of Moi, is speaking from both sides of its mouth. On the one hand, Ruto himself has spoken in praise of the protesters and suggested he is ready to talk to them. Meanwhile, the police force has attacked, killed and injured them, and resorted to kidnapping and disappearing those it imagines are their leaders.

However, this movement is much less hierarchical and much more egalitarian than any Ruto has so far encountered, and is thus less vulnerable to the tactics Moi taught him. The youth have resisted politicians’ attempts to take it over. They are propagating their messages using social media rather than the mainstream press. On Sunday, they hosted a marathon seven-hour discussion on Twitter Spaces that had 60,000 participants. They use online platforms to plan, fundraise, and organise medical teams and blood donation drives for injured comrades.

The old fogies who had dismissed them as irrelevant “armchair activists” just two years ago are struggling to catch up, but the train has left the station. The young are not interested in the frameworks that have been used by journalists and politicians in the past to manipulate their parents, manage expectations and subvert outcomes. Doubtless they will make mistakes and may even, in some aspects, regress into the ways of their elders. Regardless, we are all living in their world now. They were once called the leaders of tomorrow. Tomorrow is here.

Patrick Gathara
Senior Editor for Inclusive Storytelling at The New Humanitarian

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