BackpageWhat Nigeria Can Learn From Kenya's Tax Protests

What Nigeria Can Learn From Kenya’s Tax Protests

July 02, (THEWILL) – In the sweltering heat of Nairobi’s streets, amidst the acrid smell of tear gas and the defiant chants of protesters, a profound lesson in democracy unfolded. Kenya, East Africa’s economic powerhouse, has schooled the continent on the power of the people in a democracy. The events that transpired in Nairobi offer a masterclass in citizen engagement and democratic accountability, one that Nigeria would do well to study closely.

The story began with President William Ruto’s government proposing a Finance Bill 2024 with a 16 per cent VAT on bread –the staple of the common man – increased mobile money transfer fees and a 2.5 per cent motor vehicle tax in a nation where public transport is already a daily struggle.

To understand the government’s perspective, one must acknowledge the dire financial straits Kenya finds itself in. The country is grappling with a massive debt of 10 trillion shillings ($78 billion), equivalent to roughly 70 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product.

The Ruto Administration, cash-strapped and under pressure, saw these tax increases as a necessary evil to service this crushing debt burden. The bill aimed to raise an additional 346 billion Kenyan shillings ($2.68 billion) or 3 per cent of GDP, in revenue – a substantial sum that would go a long way in meeting fiscal targets set by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as part of Kenya’s $3.6 billion loan agreement.

However, the manner in which these measures were introduced betrayed a fundamental disconnect between the government and its people. The lack of robust stakeholder engagement before introducing such far-reaching financial policies was a critical misstep. It is a reminder that even when facing severe economic challenges, governments must not lose sight of the human impact of their policies.

As news of the proposed bill spread, so did the people’s anger. From the bustling streets of Nairobi to the shores of Mombasa, Kenyans took to the streets in their thousands. They were not just protesting; they were reminding their government of a fundamental truth often forgotten in the marbled halls of power: in a democracy, the people are the ultimate sovereigns.

The scenes that followed were both inspiring and sobering. Protesters, armed with nothing more than their voices and their conviction, faced off against riot police. The air was thick with tear gas and tension. In a moment that will forever be etched in Kenya’s political memory, demonstrators stormed the parliament complex, a physical manifestation of their determination to be heard. In the end, they were heard.

In a dramatic turnaround, President Ruto announced the withdrawal of the contentious bill. “I concede,” he said, “and therefore I will not sign the 2024 finance bill and it shall subsequently be withdrawn.”

Yet, Ruto’s concession was not just a political retreat; it was a masterclass in democratic leadership. He did not just withdraw the bill; he promised to go back to the people, to engage in genuine dialogue about Kenya’s fiscal challenges. It was a reminder that governance is not a monologue from on high, but a continuous conversation between the leaders and the led.

This decision, while politically astute, comes with its own set of challenges. The withdrawal of the bill will likely result in Kenya missing its fiscal deficit targets as per the IMF programme – 4.7 per cent this year and 3.5 per cent next year. This puts Kenya in a precarious position, potentially jeopardising future tranches of IMF funding.

The government now faces the unenviable task of finding alternative ways to increase revenue and manage its debt while keeping the citizenry onside. These events draw stark parallels to Nigeria’s current situation. How many times have policies been rammed through without genuine consultation? How often have leaders treated the electorate as an afterthought, to be placated with platitudes rather than engaged in genuine dialogue?

The recent fuel subsidy removal in Nigeria serves as a prime example. While the economic arguments for it are sound, the manner of its implementation – swift, sudden and with minimal cushioning measures in place – smacked of the same disconnect that nearly brought Kenya to its knees. Nigeria’s streets did not erupt in the same way, but the grumbling discontent is palpable. From the ‘mama-put seller’ whose profit margins have been decimated by rising costs to the office worker now spending a chunk of their salary on transport, Nigerians are hurting. Many wonder: does anyone in authority hear their cries?

This brings us to a crucial point: the power of the people in a democracy is not just about protests and placards. It is about continuous engagement, about creating channels for citizen input that go beyond the ballot box. In Kenya, the Catholic Church stood shoulder to shoulder with protesters, lending moral weight to their cause. Civil society organisations articulated the people’s grievances with clarity and force. Opposition politicians, for once, truly voiced the concerns of the people rather than their own ambitions.

Nigeria needs to strengthen these democratic muscles. Civil society, once vibrant and vocal, has in recent years seemed cowed and fragmented. Religious leaders, with some notable exceptions, often seem more concerned with cozying up to power than speaking truth to it. The opposition parties have been opposing for opposition’s sake, which is not the same as genuinely representing alternative visions for the country.

The responsibility does not just lie with leaders or institutions. The people must also step up. The Kenyan protesters did not just complain in beer parlours or rant on Twitter; they took to the streets, they made their voices heard, they persisted in the face of tear gas and truncheons. They understood, viscerally, that in a democracy, power ultimately resides with the people.

This brings me to another crucial player in Nigeria’s democratic drama: INEC. The electoral umpire has, to put it mildly, not covered itself in glory in recent years. The last election was marred by logistical failures and allegations of manipulation that have left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Nigerians. This matters profoundly. If people lose faith in the electoral process, if they believe their votes do not count, then the entire edifice of democratic accountability crumbles.

INEC must reform radically. Nigeria needs an electoral system that is transparent, efficient and beyond reproach. A system where every Nigerian can cast their vote with the confidence that it will be counted fairly. Only when people believe in the power of their vote can they truly hold their leaders accountable.

The ongoing debate over minimum wage adjustments in Nigeria offers a glimmer of hope. The fact that negotiations are happening between the Federal Government, state governments and labour unions is a step in the right direction. It is messy and contentious, but it is democracy in action. This is the kind of stakeholder engagement Nigeria needs more of, not just on wage issues but on all major policies that affect the lives of ordinary citizens.

As Nigeria looks to the future, these lessons from Kenya should be taken to heart. More must be demanded from leaders, not just in terms of policies, but in terms of engagement and accountability. Civil society, media, and opposition parties – all the pillars that holdpower to account – must be strengthened. Citizens must also step up to their responsibilities. Democracy is not a spectator sport; it requires active, engaged citizens who understand their power and aren’t afraid to use it.

Kenya has shown that even in the face of teargas and truncheons, the voice of the people can prevail. It has shown that democracy, when it works, is not just about casting votes every election cycle, but about continuous engagement between the government and the governed. It has shown that in the court of public opinion, even the most powerful leaders must eventually bow to the will of the people.

As Nigeria grapples with its own challenges – from security concerns to economic woes – the lessons from Nairobi’s streets must be remembered. In a true democracy, the people are not just voters to be courted during elections, but the very source of the government’s legitimacy. Policies, no matter how well-intended, must be rooted in the realities and aspirations of the people they aim to serve.

The Kenyan people have spoken, and their government has listened. It is time for Nigeria to find its voice too. The true measure of a democracy is not in the grand speeches of its leaders, but in the power of its people to shape their own destiny. As Kenya now grapples with the challenge of meeting its fiscal obligations while respecting the will of its people, Nigeria must watch closely and learn. For in this delicate balance between economic necessity and social justice lies the true test of democratic governance.



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