Kenya's Gen Z Revolution: Social Media, Economic Struggles, and the Changing Face of Protest

In the heart of Nairobi's Central Business District, a new revolution is brewing. Armed with smartphones and creativity, Kenya's Gen Z is turning to social media to voice their frustrations with the country's economic woes. As unemployment soars and opportunities dwindle, these young adults are leveraging platforms like Twitter and TikTok to organize protests, crowdsource support, and challenge the government in ways never seen before. Their digital savvy and determination are reshaping Kenya's political landscape, leaving authorities scrambling to respond to a movement that exists as much online as it does on the streets.

If you find yourself in the Nairobi Central Business District on a Sunday afternoon, the most ubiquitous phenomena would be the many young men and women dressed in trendy fashion, armed with phone cameras (and normal cameras), tripods, and other content-making thingamajigs.

They will be rapping. Dancing. Shooting music videos. Staging stunts and everything else they do to fill their social media (notably TikTok) pages. For some, it is recreation. For some, content creation is their bread and butter. They are the beneficiaries of the Nairobi County government's uplifting of their archaic laws around film and photography in the city centre.

Most of them are Gen Z (born in 1997-2012) more so those aged 18-26 just out of high school, in college, or just out of college. They are young, bold, sassy, and trying their best to make sense of life as young adults. The Gen Z kids can be hazardous or a nuisance to older people on the streets. Many older people have dismissed Gen Zs as an indulgent lot, more interested in fame and notoriety than in public affairs.

Turning Point

I teach at a local university. In the past eight or so years, I have taught only Gen Zs. It is easy to give up on their lot. However, as someone who understands the country's entire socio-economic and political landscape, I know where they are coming from.

In December of 2023, a younger cousin graduated from a top university. We literally pushed him to attend his graduation. He was not overly enthusiastic about the whole charade. I had to persuade him to do it for his father, who was very proud of that milestone.

I understood his indifference. Because in the past, graduation signaled many good things to come: a well-paying job, marriage, family, and happy retirement.

However, this linear continuity of life is currently stalled in Kenya. Only during the first 15 years of our independence and a brief ten years of Kibaki's regime did university graduates have guaranteed jobs waiting for them. However, in the 1980s and 1990s (years beleaguered by Bretton Woods's bad prescriptive policies in the name of Structural Adjustment Programs, made worse by the HIV pandemic), our parents had fallback plans in farming and social support systems in extended families.

Starting in 2015, when the Kenyan economy started collapsing, agriculture as a sector was dead, beset by challenges from shrinking arable land, overworked soil, climate change, and corruption in government, where people import locally available food at the expense of local farmers. The social support systems of the past have weakened as Kenya has become more urbanized, westernized, and thus individualized. With the new IMF-imposed SAPs, that have seen a disproportionate increase in taxes without a corresponding economic growth, those graduating are yet to find a fallback plan.

Since 2015, over half of the 150,000 students who graduate annually have not secured jobs. Most of those employed are either underemployed or underpaid and typically have minimal job security.

According to the Federation of Kenyan Employers, overall unemployment in Kenya is 12.7 percent. The youth (15-34 year-olds), who form 35 percent of the Kenyan population, have the highest unemployment rate at 67 percent. Over a million young people enter the labour market annually without any skills, some having dropped out of school or completed school and not enrolled in college. Add the over 1 million graduates who are unemployed, underemployed, underpaid, and staring at stalled mobility.

When Gen Zs look around, they see their older siblings stalled in their careers or unemployed, their parents stranded, having never achieved their dreams. Unfinished homes, no health insurance in old age, their retired parents chasing pension for many years on end, and some even die without eating their retirement.

Such is the cul-de-sac that Gen Z finds themselves in. And they have to turn back, and they can only turn back to the government.  Their older siblings are not doing well enough to inspire them to hope for better. Their parents are stranded. Many of them have moved out of the country. Indeed, at least 5 million Kenyans live and work out of the country. And many more have become aggressive in their search for opportunities outside the country. President William Ruto is at the forefront of helping young Kenyans get jobs out there, even though many Gen Z have seen this as a strategic blunder from the President. Such should never come from him. He should make it easy for people to migrate, but that is not something the government should be proud of.

“We want opportunities here. We don't want to be enslaved out there”, read a placard of one of the demonstrators in the ongoing protests against tax hikes.

Technology

About 13 years ago, the Middle East and The Arab World erupted in a series of revolutions in what came to be known as the Arab Spring. Notably, Egypt’s long-serving President Husni Mubaraka and Tunisia’s Zine Albidine Ben Ali were toppled. Muhamad Gaddafi of Libya was also toppled, while Omar-al-Bashir of Sudan would be toppled later, and Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika would resign in 2019.

The Arab revolution was largely attributed to the mobilizing power of social media, moreso Twitter (now X). Like the current protests in Kenya, most of Arab protests were leaderless and triggered by different incidents, but what was evident was the infectious nature of the protests, spreading to over 15 countries. The Kenyan protests may inspire other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa whose economies have failed to work for the millions of their young men. Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana, and Zimbabwe are in dire straits.

The Kenyan government is now in a dilemma and needs to know its next move. In the past, when it was possible for a president to be authoritarian, they would have switched off social media as Yoweri Museveni did in Uganda in 2021. To date, you can only access Facebook in Uganda through a VPN. This approach would be too risky in Kenya, which has enjoyed multiparty politics since 1992, freedom of expression since 2002, and a new constitution that gives people more freedoms than most African countries.

According to the Kenya Communications Authority, at least 64 percent of Kenyans own a smartphone. And 22 million Kenyans (41 percent) have access to the internet.

This has significantly shifted how Kenyans do their politics. In the 1990s, there were only two television stations, one owned by the state and one private. Radio stations were mostly state-owned and broadcasted in various vernacular. Just two or three privately owned radio stations existed. The number of university graduates was less than 150,000.

Now, there are tens of TV stations, hundreds of radio stations, and the internet; Facebook, X, Instagram, TikTok, and Threads, among others.

Twitter and TikTok are at the center of the ongoing protests. Twitter is favored by younger millennials (aged 25-35) and TikTok by Gen Z. And each platform has unique algorithms that add a special appeal to their power.

In the past two weeks, Twitter (X) spaces have become so popular the President has submitted himself to be grilled later this week. Not the most advisable moves given the number of expletives that fly there towards the political class. The spaces have hosted up to 150,000 people at a time, and millions end up listening to the space in the end.

Through Twitter, hashtags have been communicated, programs for the demonstrations released, and messages to be put across disseminated.

Gen Z and Millennials are now crowdsourcing for various causes attendant to protests. Medics are pulling together to help those injured during the protests. Lawyers led by the Law Society of Kenya President Faith Odhiambo are helping with legal presentations. Accountants and auditors have broken down the Finance Bill. The Bill has been translated into Kenyan vernacular languages. And now, a whole ChatGPT enlists the corruption scandals of politicians and the President's cabinet. In between, creatives such as musicians, filmmakers, photographers, and artists curate the protests like never before. Money is even being raised through various fintech platforms for these very causes. Volunteers have broken down the cost of wastage in the government and what the monies wasted can do for the people of Kenya.

It is a level of mobilization that the government cannot beat under any circumstances. On Tuesday evening, there was an internet glitch for a few hours, and many people were not impressed by both the government and Safaricom. Safaricom's CEO released a statement, but few people bought it, and a few influencers who have worked with Safaricom openly called them out. This points out the dilemma of the government and big corporations after the demonstrations.

The Game Has Changed For Good

The game has now changed for good. If better or worse, we will find out in the coming weeks.

Millennials and Gen Z's demands for the government are fairly reasonable. If followed to the letter, they can drastically change our governance structure and, in the future, ensure that we follow Chapter 6 of the Constitution, which demands integrity from our leaders.

For now, the way out for the government remains to be seen as young people go on the offensive, and the government is caught up in defense, with no clue on the way out.

Author: Silas Nyanchwani-MPRSK

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