Collective Resistance: Lessons From Kenya.

In June, the Kenyan government announced a new tax law proposed in the Finance Bill 2024. The bill includes several controversial tax hikes, such as increased excise duties on financial transactions, internet services, and certain goods like alcohol and tobacco. Additionally, it introduced new taxes on vegetable oils and environmental levies on imported goods, sparking significant public outcry due to the anticipated rise in the cost of living.

The government had explained that the increases were crucial to service the country’s massive debt of some 10 trillion shillings ($78 billion), equal to roughly 70 per cent of Kenya’s GDP. The finance bill aims to raise an additional $US2.7 billion ($4.67b) in taxes as part of an effort to lighten the heavy debt load, with interest payments alone consuming 37 per cent of annual revenue.

The protests, which began peacefully, escalated into violent clashes between demonstrators and police. By late June 2024, these protests had resulted in multiple deaths and hundreds of injuries. In response to the unrest, President William Ruto announced he would not sign the bill into law, acknowledging the widespread dissatisfaction and the tragic consequences of the protests.

Despite this concession, demonstrations continued as many activists and citizens called for broader economic reforms and accountability from the government. The protests highlighted the severe economic pressures facing many Kenyans and the growing frustration with the government’s handling of economic policies.

The Kenyan example has shown once again according to Loius D. Brandeis that “the most important political office is that of the private citizen.” Kenya youth used their numbers to mobilize participants, spread awareness, and garner support using traditional methods like flyers and meetings, as well as modern technology and social media to resist the new tax regime poised to further impoverish the people and push government debt on citizens who are already crumbling under the weight of poor economic decisions.

 

A History of Citizen Action

All over the world, there are many examples of collective resistance. In the United States, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s saw African Americans and allies engage in marches, sit-ins, and boycotts to fight against racial segregation and discrimination. In South Africa, a global movement of resistance, including protests, boycotts, and political pressure, helped bring an end to the system of racial segregation known as apartheid.

Various waves of feminism have seen collective action aimed at securing voting rights, reproductive rights, equal pay, and protection from gender-based violence including the #MeToo movement which birthed similar movements across the world. In Nigeria, women’s rights organizations led similar actions like the #ArewaMeToo, #NorthNormal, #MarketMarch, #SecureOurLives and the #ChurchMeToo.

The #OccupyWallStreet movement began in 2011 as a protest against economic inequality, corporate influence, and the power of the financial sector, using tactics like occupying public spaces and organizing general assemblies. Similarly, #OccupyNigeria and #EndSARS demonstrated the power of collective resistance by the people against injustice and oppression.

In all these citizen actions, technology continues to play a significant role in facilitating collective resistance. Social media platforms, messaging apps, and other digital tools help organizers coordinate actions, spread information quickly, and connect with a broader audience. This has been evident in movements such as the Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter, and the global climate strikes.

 

Lessons From Kenya

Kenya has experienced various instances of civil unrest throughout its history, driven by political, social, and economic factors. The post-election violence following the 2007 presidential election was highly contested, with the incumbent Mwai Kibaki declared the winner against Raila Odinga amidst allegations of vote rigging.

Widespread violence erupted, resulting in over 1,100 deaths and the displacement of around 600,000 people. Ethnic tensions, particularly between the Kikuyu (supporters of Kibaki) and the Luo (supporters of Odinga), were exacerbated. A power-sharing agreement was brokered in February 2008 by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, leading to the formation of a coalition government with Kibaki as president and Odinga as prime minister.

The 2017 presidential election saw incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta declared the winner over Raila Odinga. Odinga’s supporters claimed the election was rigged. Protests and violence erupted, particularly in opposition strongholds. The Supreme Court annulled the election results, citing irregularities, and ordered a re-run. Kenyatta won the re-run in October 2017, which Odinga boycotted, leading to further tensions. However, in March 2018, the two leaders publicly reconciled in an event known as the “Handshake.”

There are lessons to be learnt from Kenya over the Finance Bill 2024 which can be applied broadly in understanding the dynamics between government policy and public response.

Firstly, engaging citizens and stakeholders in meaningful dialogue before implementing significant economic policies can help build consensus and reduce resistance. One of the primary reasons for the backlash against the Finance Bill 2024 was the perceived lack of public consultation.

Secondly, policymakers need to consider the economic context and timing of new tax laws to avoid adding undue financial pressure on citizens. The introduction of new taxes and levies at a time when many Kenyans were already struggling with the high cost of living exacerbated the public’s dissatisfaction.

Thirdly, clear communication about the necessity and benefits of tax changes can help mitigate public opposition. In the case of the Finance Bill 2024, many Kenyans felt that the government did not adequately explain why the new taxes were essential, leading to widespread confusion and anger.

President Ruto’s decision to withdraw the bill in response to the protests underscores the importance of responsive governance. Governments that listen to and act on public concerns can help maintain social stability and trust. The significant role of civil society, human rights groups, and media in amplifying the voices of protesters, holding governments accountable and ensuring that public grievances are addressed cannot be overemphasised.

The violent response by security forces during the protests, resulting in multiple casualties, highlighted the need for law enforcement to handle demonstrations with restraint and respect for human rights. Excessive force can escalate tensions and lead to further unrest. One would think that the #EndSARS protests is a hard lesson on security and human rights in Africa.

Finally, the international reaction, including statements from global leaders and human rights organizations, showed how external pressure can influence national policies. Global solidarity with protesters can add pressure on governments to reconsider controversial decisions.

 

Office of the Citizen

When citizens come together to oppose perceived injustice, oppression, or harmful conditions in various contexts including political, social, economic, and environmental issues, they bring about much-needed change. A people united for a specific cause often do so from a place of shared experiences, goals, or identities.

Over 20 deaths and 300 injured civilians later according to the Kenyan Human Rights Commission, President Ruto announced: “I concede and therefore I will not sign the 2024 finance bill and it shall subsequently be withdrawn.” “The people have spoken.” Ultimately, the office of the citizen is the most powerful and a vibrant civil society is the watchdog for a sustainable democracy. Collective resistance remains a powerful tool for marginalized and oppressed groups to advocate for their rights and push for societal change.

The Kenyan tax protests demonstrate the importance of inclusive policymaking, effective communication, responsive governance, and respect for human rights. These lessons are crucial for any government looking to implement significant economic reforms without provoking widespread unrest.

Hopefully, the Nigerian government is learning that under the right circumstances, collective resistance by citizens can shift policy. May the will of the people continue to prevail!

 

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