From TikTok To Teargas: How Social Media Fuelled Kenya’s Massive Anti-Tax Protests

By  |  June 20, 2024

A movement spearheaded by digital-savvy young Kenyans is rocking the East African nation. Through platforms like TikTok, X (formerly Twitter), WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram, a wave of discontent has boiled over from social media onto the streets, forcing the government to backtrack on some proposals in the controversial 2024 Finance Bill.

The bill, deeply unpopular for its proposed tax hikes on essentials like bread and sanitary towels, has ignited a firestorm of protest. Kenyans, already burdened by rising living costs, saw the new taxes as a tipping point. The discontent began online, with hashtags like #RejectFinanceBill2024 trending across social media platforms.

“We are the Gen Zs, we were able to mobilise ourselves. We use TikTok as a space to be able to not only have young people come to protest but to educate them on the why,” protester Zaha Indimuli told journalists.

The online protests quickly morphed into real-world action. Hundreds of young Kenyans took to the streets in Nairobi, Kisumu, Mombasa, and Eldoret, chanting slogans and demanding the bill’s complete rejection. The movement, dubbed #OccupyParliament, mirrored the 2023 protests against rising living costs, but with a stronger digital undercurrent.

The contentious bill

The 2024 Finance Bill, which was first presented in Parliament last month, introduces new taxes and levies that would increase the price of goods such as bread, diapers, and cars.

The bill also proposes measures that directly hit the digital economy. Kenyans fear import duties on essential goods will be compounded by the bill’s increase in phone and internet data taxes. Money transfer fees charged by banks and other financial services are also set to rise, impacting mobile payment platforms widely used in Kenya.

The bill doesn’t stop there. It proposes raising taxes for companies and operators of digital businesses like ride-hailing services and food delivery services. This could have a chilling effect on the burgeoning Kenyan tech startup scene, a driver of economic growth, and stakeholders voiced pushbacks.

Kenya’s Treasury is pushing the tax hikes to raise revenue (up to USD 2.7 B) and manage ballooning external debt, but critics warn it could stifle investment, growth, and Kenya’s regional edge. Key industries like manufacturing and finance may also be hit hard.

The draft bill’s release sparked a social media backlash. Kenyan TikTokers led the charge, crafting explainer videos that went viral across platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram. These videos, amplified by Kenyan influencers, dominated social media for days.

From Online to On-ground

The bubbling discontent spilled onto the streets Tuesday when hundreds of protesters, frustrated by Kenya’s perceived excessive taxation, defied police batons and teargas as they marched the streets, live-streaming the at-times violent encounter with police.

Those unable to join the demonstrations that brought Nairobi’s central business district to a halt amplified the movement online, sharing messages, pictures, and videos on social media. Some 200 arrests were made, according to a rights group, though some were later released after lawyers intervened, reports the BBC.

The protests have endured through Thursday as Kenyans continue to hit the streets. Arrests have also continued while police keep the Parliament building cordoned off as debate on the proposal rages on.

Doing an about-face?

While some contentious proposals like bread, cooking oil, mobile money, motor vehicle and eco tax have been removed, the fight is far from over as Kenyans demand a total rejection of the bill.

“We are calling and texting our lawmakers to tell them that your loyalty lies with us voters and we say no to this bill,” Hanifa Adam,  a community worker who is among the organizers of the protests, told the NY Times, revealing in a post on social media that the police had arrested her just before the protests began on Tuesday.

But despite the impassioned demonstrations by the #OccupyParliament/#RejectFinanceBill2024 protesters, civil society groups, and opposition lawmakers, Kenya’s ruling-party-dominated parliament today voted for the controversial Finance Bill 2024 to enter the committee stage. Up next is Third Reading and if it passes this stage, it will go to President William Ruto for assent.

The outcome of this movement will be closely watched, with implications for Kenya’s economic future and the growing influence of online activism across Africa. In March, Kenya’s interior minister threatened a TikTok crackdown, citing malicious content. Recent events might yet encourage a renewal of government efforts to stifle social media.

Meanwhile, one week after unknown persons leaked the phone numbers of Kenyan government officials online inviting a barrage of messages and calls from the public pressuring representatives to reject the bill, notorious hacker group Anonymous has declared support for the masses by threatening to expose “corrupt deals involving members of parliament (MPs)” if they vote to pass the 2024 Finance Bill on Thursday.

“There is a chance that all these secrets will be exposed to show how corrupt and unjust members of parliament are, embezzling funds for personal gain,” Anonymous, which has previously launched cyber attacks on the Tunisian and Zimbabwean governments, warned Kenyan MPs in a brief video posted on X.

Featured Image Credits: EPA

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