Kenya’s 2024 Finance Bill Protests Stifled as Government Curtails Online Freedom

Kenya has long been hailed as one of Africa’s most robust democracies globally. This reputation was further solidified in May this year when President William Ruto made an official state visit to the ‘leader of the Free World,’ President Joe Biden.

However, back home, his government is facing mounting criticism over the controversial 2024 Finance Bill. Initially aimed at fostering economic reform, the bill (now withdrawn) has sparked public outcry, leading to widespread protests, particularly among young people.

Unfortunately, the response to these peaceful demonstrations has highlighted a worrying trend: the curtailing of online freedom by the Kenyan government.

The Genesis

In May 2024, President William Ruto’s administration, through the national treasury, introduced the Finance Bill 2024 as part of its broader economic agenda. The bill, aimed to address the nation’s ballooning debt and fund development projects, proposed significant tax changes and introduced new levies.

Some of the key but contentious provisions included:

  • A yearly car tax of 2.5% based on a vehicle’s value
  • A tax on bread set at a rate of 16%
  • A 25% duty on cooking oil
  • A 16% Value Added Tax (VAT) on financial services and foreign exchange transactions

As required by Kenyan law, public participation sessions were held countrywide to gather feedback. However, the proposed taxes were met with immediate backlash. 

From associations like the Kenya Bankers Association (KBA) and the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM),) to ordinary citizens, the message was clear: the taxes were unfair and placed undue burden on already struggling Kenyans.

Despite the public outcry, members of parliament surprisingly voted in favor of the bill.

Government Internet Censorship

Frustrated with what they perceived as a tone-deaf government, Kenyans led by the youth (Gen Z) took to social media platforms to voice their dissent. Hashtags like #RejectFinanceBill2024 and #OccupyParliament trended nationwide in the fourth week of June, gaining massive traction and support.

However, reports of shadow-banning, especially of #RejectFinanceBill2024, began to surface predominantly on X (formerly Twitter). Users quickly tagged the platform’s owner, Elon Musk, urging him to reinstate the hashtag and end any censorship. Within a few hours, the hashtag returned to the top of the trending list globally.

Meanwhile, the Communications Authority of Kenya (CA) Director General, David Mugonyi, had earlier dispelled fears of possible disruption. Responding to concerns from civil society groups, Mugonyi stated that the authority had no intention of shutting down internet traffic or interfering with connectivity quality.

Despite these assurances, on the evening of June 25th, 2024, right after protesters stormed parliament, Kenya experienced a nationwide internet outage. Social media platforms like X and TikTok were inaccessible on the Safaricom network for several hours. Similarly, Airtel users complained about slow internet speeds during this period.

Safaricom, partially owned by the government (35%), attributed the disruption to an undersea cable outage. However, an analysis by internet watchdog Netblocks cast doubt on this explanation. The timing of the outage, its sudden nature, and swift restoration all suggested a deliberate government action rather than a technical malfunction.

Worrying Trend

In the wake of recent protests, Kenyans are increasingly using virtual private networks (VPNs) to circumvent potential internet restrictions by the government. Data from Proton, a popular VPN provider, shows a staggering 1200% increase in signups compared to normal levels. Similarly, Google searches for “VPN” have skyrocketed tenfold.

This trend is alarming for a country once seen as a leader in internet freedom. While this might be Kenya’s first documented instance according to Internet Shutdown Tracker, the country risks joining other African nations that have restricted internet access during periods of public unrest.



About the Author

Sharon Adisa
Sharon is a writer and editor who strives to continually further both the depth and breadth of her skills as a writer so as to contribute superior work and deliver client and customer satisfaction.

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