July 5, 2024


This wave of youth activism and societal change is reminiscent of Aristotle’s philosophical musing, “Nature abhors a vacuum.”

More by Waweru Njoroge

Gen Z’s Uprising in Kenya: Aristotle’s Insight in Modern Times

Gen Z’s Uprising in Kenya: Aristotle’s Insight in Modern Times

Photo courtesy of the BBC

In recent weeks, Kenya has witnessed a significant uprising led by Gen Z, culminating in an unprecedented and historic moment: H.E. President William Ruto’s decision not to assent to the controversial finance bill.

This wave of youth activism and societal change is reminiscent of Aristotle’s philosophical musing, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” Aristotle’s observation suggests that in the natural world, empty spaces are unnatural as forces will always move to fill them. This principle, applied to social dynamics, provides a compelling lens through which to view the current socio-political movements in Kenya and the unique characteristics of Gen Z’s activism.

The Vacuum in Kenya’s Socio-Political Landscape

Kenya, like many nations, grapples with issues of governance, economic disparity, and social justice. These issues create a figurative vacuum in the lives of many, especially the youth. High unemployment rates, lack of representation, and systemic corruption leave young people feeling disenfranchised and unheard.

This absence of opportunity and justice cannot persist indefinitely without a response. The Gen Z uprising is a direct response to this vacuum, demonstrating Aristotle’s idea that such voids will inevitably be filled by new forces or movements.

Historical and Global Instances of Filling Socio-Political Vacuums

Globally, numerous instances of socio-political vacuums have led to significant change. The Arab Spring, for example, was a series of anti-government protests and uprisings that spread across the Arab world in the early 2010s. Long-standing political oppression, economic hardships, and a lack of democratic representation created a vacuum that was eventually filled by widespread, youth-led protests. In Egypt, the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak marked a pivotal moment when a political void was filled by demands for democracy and social justice.

Similarly, the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States arose from growing economic inequality and the perceived failure of traditional political structures to address the needs of the 99%. This movement, largely driven by young activists, sought to fill the void left by ineffective economic policies and political inaction.

In Africa, the fall of long-time leaders such as Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya created vacuums swiftly filled by new political forces and movements. In Zimbabwe, Mugabe’s resignation led to Emmerson Mnangagwa’s rise and a reconfiguration of the political landscape. In Libya, Gaddafi’s fall resulted in a complex power struggle among various factions vying to fill the leadership void. Additionally, South Africa’s transition from apartheid in the early 1990s saw the end of institutionalized racial segregation and the rise of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress, filling the socio-political vacuum with a new democratic framework.

Just who is Gen Z?

Gen Z, includes those born between the late 1990s and early 2010s. Following Millennials and preceding Generation Alpha, these ‘digital natives,’ grew up with smartphones, social media, and instant information access, shaping their behaviors, values and world interactions

They prefer digital communication and are highly tech-savvy, influencing their communication, learning, and work habits. Social consciousness is key for Gen Z. They are more socially aware and active, focusing on climate change, social justice, and equality. Social media is their tool for advocacy and mobilizing collective action, reflecting their desire to impact the world positively.

Independence and entrepreneurship are significant to Gen Z. Economic instability has led them to prioritize financial stability and entrepreneurial ventures over traditional 9-to-5 jobs, seeking flexibility and control over their careers. Diversity and inclusion are core values for this racially and ethnically diverse generation. They support policies promoting these values and prefer inclusive environments, benefiting from diverse perspectives and experiences.

Education and continuous learning are vital to Gen Z. They favor online resources for skill acquisition and knowledge over traditional educational paths, valuing flexibility and self-directed learning. Pragmatism and realism mark Gen Z’s outlook. Growing up with economic uncertainty, they are cautious and practical, valuing planning and preparedness. Mental health awareness is prominent in Gen Z. They openly discuss mental health issues and seek support, advocating for mental well-being.

Gen Z has a global perspective, constantly connected and aware of global events and cultures. This fosters a sense of global responsibility and influences their values and actions. Despite shorter attention spans, Gen Z prefers quick, concise content like videos and memes over lengthy articles, reflecting their need to process information quickly. Brand consciousness mixed with skepticism defines Gen Z’s consumer behavior. They value authenticity and transparency, supporting brands that align with their values and demonstrate social responsibility.

Understanding these traits helps in engaging with Gen Z in activism, marketing, education, or political campaigns, requiring a thoughtful and responsive approach.

The Rise of Leaderless Movements

Having come of age in a digital era, with unprecedented access to information and connectivity, Gen Z is not only aware of global standards of governance and human rights but is also highly motivated to hold their leaders accountable.

In Kenya, this has manifested in organized protests, social media campaigns, and grassroots mobilizations. Notably, this movement lacks a single, unifying leader or face, raising questions about the effectiveness and sustainability of such leaderless activism.

The leaderless nature of Gen Z movements represents a shift from traditional models of activism, which often revolve around charismatic leaders who can galvanize public support and direct collective action. In contrast, Gen Z’s activism is characterized by a decentralized approach where various individuals and groups contribute to the movement in diverse ways. This decentralized model allows for a more democratic and inclusive form of activism where the voices of many, rather than a few, shape the direction and priorities of the movement.

The leaderless approach also presents certain strategic advantages. Without a single leader, the movement is less vulnerable to co-optation or suppression by authorities. Leaders can be targeted, discredited, or even imprisoned, which can demoralize and disperse a movement. However, a decentralized movement can continue to operate even if some of its members face repression. This resilience makes it harder for the authorities to dismantle the movement entirely.

Furthermore, the absence of a single leader allows for greater flexibility and adaptability. Different groups within the movement can experiment with various tactics and strategies, learn from each other, and quickly adapt to changing circumstances. This agility is crucial in the fast-paced digital age, where information and events can unfold rapidly.

Challenges of a Leaderless Movement

The sustainability of leaderless movements has been a topic of debate among activists and scholars. While such movements can be highly effective in the short term, their long-term viability often hinges on their ability to maintain cohesion, momentum, and strategic direction. The absence of a single leader can foster a more democratic and inclusive movement but may also result in fragmentation and unclear strategic goals.

Without centralized leadership, coordination and sustaining momentum can be challenging. Decision-making processes can become fragmented, and the lack of a clear spokesperson can hinder negotiations with authorities or presenting a unified front. This decentralization may also lead to varying priorities and methods, potentially diluting the movement’s impact.

Globally, examples like Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring illustrate both the potential and the limitations of leaderless movements. Occupy Wall Street drew significant attention to economic inequality but struggled to achieve lasting policy changes due to internal divisions and a lack of clear leadership. In contrast, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, despite being leaderless, has achieved substantial impact by maintaining a clear focus on racial justice and leveraging digital platforms effectively.

In Kenya, the Gen Z movement’s success in influencing President Ruto’s decision on the finance bill demonstrates its potential for impact. However, for this momentum to be sustained, the movement must find ways to address the challenges inherent in a leaderless structure. This could involve developing decentralized but coordinated leadership frameworks, establishing clear strategic goals, and continuing to leverage digital platforms for organization and communication.

Digital Platforms as Catalysts

The role of digital platforms cannot be understated in this uprising. Social media has provided a powerful tool for organization, communication, and dissemination of information. Platforms like ‘X’, (I still and will always call it Twitter), Facebook, and Instagram have enabled young activists to mobilize quickly, share their experiences, and draw international attention to their causes. This digital activism is a key element of how Gen Z is filling the vacuum in Kenyan society, despite the absence of a central figure.

For example, the hashtag ‘RejectFinanceBill2024’ trended on Kenyan social media, mobilizing widespread opposition to the proposed finance bill. This campaign, driven primarily by young Kenyans, highlighted the economic burdens the bill would impose and successfully pressured the government to reconsider. Similarly, the hashtags ‘StopKillingUs’ and ‘EndTeenPregnancy’ have been used to draw attention to issues of police brutality and teenage pregnancy, respectively. These movements show how digital tools can amplify voices and mobilize large groups without centralized leadership.

The Ballot vs. The Bullet: Abraham Lincoln’s Insight

The Gen Z uprising in Kenya has not been without its moments of violence and confrontation. Protests have sometimes turned violent, with clashes between demonstrators and security forces. This brings to mind Abraham Lincoln’s famous assertion that “the ballot is stronger than the bullet.” Lincoln’s words underscore the power of democratic processes over violence in achieving lasting change.

However, the impatience of Gen Z complicates this dynamic. Many young activists might feel that waiting until the next election cycle in 2027 to elect new leadership is an inadequate response to urgent issues. The impatience stems from a history of unfulfilled promises and slow progress in addressing systemic problems.

While the power of the ballot remains a fundamental principle of democratic change, the urgency felt by young Kenyans highlights a tension between immediate action and the slower processes of democratic governance.

Engaging Gen Z on Their Platforms

Current political leaders and institutions need to recognize the unique characteristics and needs of Gen Z. This generation’s engagement with digital platforms and its preference for decentralized, grassroots activism require a new approach from traditional leadership. Leaders must learn to engage Gen Z on their platforms, understanding the dynamics of social media and the importance of transparency, authenticity, and responsiveness.

Incorporating digital strategies into governance and political communication can bridge the gap between leaders and the youth. For instance, using social media to solicit feedback, provide updates on policy decisions, and engage in open dialogues can foster a sense of inclusion and participation among young people. Additionally, supporting digital literacy and access can empower more youth to participate in the political process.

The rise of digital activism led by Gen Z is not only transforming social movements but also reshaping the dynamics of political campaigns in Africa. Traditional campaign strategies, which often rely on rallies, posters, and mainstream media, are being supplemented—and in some cases, supplanted—by digital campaigns. Social media platforms are becoming crucial battlegrounds for political influence, where the effectiveness of a campaign can be measured in likes, shares, and retweets as much as in voter turnout.

Political leaders in Africa must adapt to this new reality by developing a robust social media presence and engaging with the electorate in real-time. This involves not only broadcasting their messages but also listening to and interacting with citizens.

The success of the #RejectFinanceBill2024 campaign underscores the power of social media to galvanize public opinion and influence political outcomes. Leaders who fail to engage with Gen Z on these platforms risk being out of touch and losing support from this critical demographic.

Moreover, the promises made during political campaigns are under increased scrutiny in the digital age. Gen Z has little tolerance for empty promises and demands accountability. The transparency afforded by social media means that political leaders can be held accountable for their campaign promises more effectively than ever before. Broken promises are quickly highlighted, shared, and criticized, making it imperative for leaders to follow through on their commitments.

A New Era of Political Engagement

The uprising of Gen Z in Kenya, despite its leaderless nature, is a testament to the enduring relevance of Aristotle’s philosophy. In the face of socio-political vacuums, young Kenyans are stepping up to demand change and fill the gaps left by previous generations. Their efforts underscore a broader, global movement of youth empowerment and social justice, proving that nature—and society—truly abhors a vacuum. The absence of a singular leader presents challenges but also offers a unique opportunity for a more inclusive and resilient movement, capable of adapting to the complexities of modern activism.

Nevertheless, the challenges of sustaining momentum and achieving long-term goals remain. As Kenya progresses, the interplay between immediate action and democratic processes, as embodied in Lincoln’s assertion of the power of the ballot, will continue to shape the nation’s future. Political leaders must adapt to the changing dynamics of engagement, recognizing the power and impatience of Gen Z while fostering inclusive and responsive governance.

To fully realize the potential of this movement, both Gen Z activists and current leaders must find ways to engage constructively, leveraging the power of digital platforms to create lasting change. Political campaigns in Africa must evolve to incorporate digital strategies, ensuring that promises made are promises kept, and that leaders remain connected with the vibrant and demanding voices of Gen Z. This adaptation is crucial for the future of political engagement and the sustainability of leaderless movements in the digital age.


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