Kenya: The Writing On The Wall – By Martins Oloja

LET us pray that our leaders who are quite resourceful at causing distractions would not exploit the CNN presidential debate tragedy in the United States where they have a tale of two strange candidates from both dominant parties to take some steam out of the current significant lessons from Nairobi, Kenya, Africa.

Yes, our leaders’ cyber soldiers are everywhere, blasting social commentators who don’t praise their under-performing principals. Let’s hope that the loud echoes from Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda will arrest their attention this time. Let’s believe that they will realise now that it is a small world of transparency and openness, after all. Here is the thing, I hope propaganda aficionados, lying liars and liars who feed them will realise now what Victor Hugo means when he noted long ago that “there is no power on earth that can stop an idea whose time has come”. Lest we forget, I hope they won’t fall into temptation of their self- deceit that after all, the 2020 table shaking, #EndSARS revolt was unsuccessful, after all.

Back to the brass tacks, KENYA where angry youths are saying ‘No’ to executive tyranny and democratic eccentricities: I think our leaders in Nigeria most people are beginning to see as artful dealers should step aside and analyse the bush that is burning in Kenya. That fire that hasn’t consumed Ruto’s government can spread and consume poor and corrupt leadership in Africa. This is a reflection point in this new world that social technologies that power social media daily shape with the speed of thought. Even our leaders in Nigeria should not feed their spirit with complacency and laissez fair attitude that has brought us to this reproachful crossroads where even food insecurity is compounding our organic insecurity.

‘Not afraid to die’

We have read that President William Ruto has withdrawn his controversial tax bill, but protesters and their families are insisting it’s too late. With more than 20 people killed, they now want him to step down from power.

According to a recent report from Nairobi, Kenya, a determined protester was reported as boasting: “You can’t kill us all,” as heavily armed riot police charge at him. He stands his ground, water bottle in hand, occasionally splashing water on his face, his eyes visibly irritated by tear gas smoke floating in the air and choking police and protesters alike. A group of protesters push forward towards him. They chant, “We are peaceful, we are peaceful.” Some raise their hands above their heads, others kneel down, intent to demonstrate the non-violent nature of the protests to the police. This is reminiscent of the flag of Nigeria the #EndSARS protesters reportedly raised in 2020, which security agents didn’t respect.

Suddenly, sirens blare. Then, pink-coloured water scatters the crowd as a water canon blocks demonstrators from advancing towards Parliament Buildings. These scenes have been played out over and over again this past week in Kenya as angry youth took to the streets to protest against a controversial tax bill, that many say would have made essential commodities costlier. Kenya’s President William Ruto withdrew the bill on Wednesday evening, a day after protesters stormed Parliament.

The weeklong protests began in capital Nairobi but quickly spread across Kenya. Local media reports say protests have taken place in 35 of Kenya’s 47 counties, including in president William Ruto’s home county of Uasin Gishu, which voted overwhelmingly for him nearly two years ago when he came to power.

African leaders, dealers and dinosaurs in power should note this: These protests originally began online, driven mostly by young tech-savvy Kenyans on social media platforms Instagram, TikTok, Instagram and X. The aim was to oppose the Finance bill 2024 fronted by Ruto’s government with an aim of raising an additional $2.9bn in revenue.

Just as our governments all over the place are saying, Ruto’s government said it needed the money to meet its obligations of repaying foreign debts while also executing its ambitious development plans driven by infrastructure development. But Kenyan protesters have argued that they are already overtaxed. The original draft of the bill increased levies on basics such as fuel, mobile money transfers, internet banking, sanitary pads and diapers, etc.

While bowing to the people power on Wednesday, Ruto addressed the nation and agreed to withdraw the bill. His words the angry youth no longer trusted: “Listening keenly to the people of Kenya that have said they want nothing to do with the finance bill 2024, I concede and therefore I will not sign the 2024 finance bill”.

But many Kenyans remain unconvinced — and are demanding Ruto’s resignation, his credibility already in tatters in their eyes. “I am not afraid to die, many have died before us,” said Andrew Ouko as he walked the 18km (11 miles) from Juja on the outskirts of Nairobi to join the protests on Thursday. “Many more will die but we have to stand up for our generation who are being taken for fools by the politicians.” Our leaders should note that these words have spread among the youths in Nigeria where Government isn’t reacting to protests about food price inflation, forex crisis and what is worse 300% hike in electricity tariff that has left many areas outside Band A in utter darkness.

Many observers in Kenya are saying the country should harness this new spirit and organise to have a national conversation with the intention of ushering in a new Kenya. Hopefully, this will fix the politics of the land as a basis for the nation’s economic development. This should be a wake-up call for leaders in Africa, especially in Nigeria.

Why wont African leaders learn from recent history? They should remember the Arab Spring too, which was also touched off by an angry young man Mohammed Bouazizi, a Tunisian fruit and vegetable vendor who set himself on fire on December 17, 2010 in the town of Sidi Bouzid. The angry food vendor’s action triggered the consequential Arab Spring that year. The Spring, which was a response to corruption and economic stagnation from Tunisia, spread to five other countries, Libya, Egypt, Yemen Syria and Bahrain. The effects are still there.

In Kenya, the present focal point, economists are warning that the Kenyan government is now walking a tight rope. Kenya has international debt obligations amounting to nearly $80bn. And so the root of the repression lies in Kenya’s economic crisis. The country is one of several dozen developing economies that are under the crushing burden of debt, which now stands at 68 per cent of its GDP. Besides, more than a quarter of government revenue is spent on interest payments. Kenya has resorted to extreme measures to stave off default, including turning to private creditors at unsustainable 10 per cent interest rates.

Reports confirmed that earlier this month, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) reached a preliminary agreement on the disbursement of loans that urged the Kenyan government to raise its revenue; Kenya set a goal of netting an additional $2.7 billion. The government has decided to transfer the pain onto its people through regressive tax policies that would disproportionately affect the poorest.

Kenya is not alone: More than 3 billion people across the world live in countries that are spending more on servicing their debt than public spending on education or health. Nigeria isn’t outside this debacle.

Ruto has promised many austerity measures including cuts on hospitality and travel budgets for his office. He has asked regional governments and other arms of the federal government structure to follow suit. This is what is expected of Nigeria’s government where even the head of the legislature is arrogantly boasting that they would approve any requests from the president for new planes. The overpaid Nigerian federal legislators had better swallow their pride and vanity and look at the burning bush in Kenya, lest it will spread and consume them too if they don’t work strategically to meet the security and welfare needs of the people of Nigeria. They should note that when Nigerian youth most of whom are now jobless rise to the occasion in a revolt, the fences of the National Assembly will no longer be too high to scale through.

Like other young Africans, Kenyan youth have no faith that their taxes will be used for their benefit. They know the money will be drained by corrupt politicians—fears that have been reinforced by the lifestyles of ministers who have given themselves lucrative salaries. A senator is paid $85,800 a year, vastly higher than the country’s $2,000 GDP per capita.

This too is a relevant take-away: proudly branding themselves members of Generation Z, these young Kenyans reflect a broad trend that is emerging in different parts of Africa. According to an Open Society Foundation fact file, Kenya is an overwhelmingly young country; nearly 70 per cent of its 54 million people are under the age of 34. But, as the International Labour Organization noted in a 2019 report, nearly 4 out of every 10 people of working age are unemployed.

Faced with bleak prospects—and disillusioned by what they see as a greedy political class that is indifferent to their needs, young Kenyans are forming new, bold and innovative movements. They seem to have no leaders: they shun traditional political parties and they transcend ethnic divides. They spontaneously organise themselves online, holding vast virtual rallies, and have fearlessly taken to the streets, some of them livestreaming their “#StopTheFinanceBill” defiance on TikTok while being engulfed by tear gas.

Let’s also note this: while young Kenyans have been at the heart of the protests, they are supported by a broad cross-section of Kenyan society, including churches that were a core part of Ruto’s political base. Doctors’ associations have been treating wounded protesters while lawyers and civil society groups have been working to release them from prisons and locate them in the detention centres into which they have disappeared.
This too in inspiring from young Kenyans:

“I am not afraid to die, many have died before us,” said Andrew Ouko as he walked the 18km (11 miles) from Juja on the outskirts of Nairobi to join the protests on Thursday. “Many more will die but we have to stand up for our generation who are being taken for fools by the politicians.”

Our leaders who have underdeveloped Africa need to reflect too on this at this time: When tribulation stares us in the face, when adversity comes knocking on our doors, when food insecurity nurtured by corruption and strategic laziness of our heartless leaders threatens us, who will be afraid of sacrifice and death?

The writing on the wall’ Kenyan angry youths are dispatching to African leaders is this: leaders who gamble with public interest, breach social contract with the people will always attract revolt that will always lead to their tragic end.

Oloja is editor of The Guardian newspaper and his column, Inside Stuff, runs on the back page of the newspaper on Sundays. The column appears on News Point Nigeria newspaper on Mondays.

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