One should die proudly when it is no longer possible to live proudly,”

-Fredrich Nietzsche

His epic act of protest was in the press. Only that it failed to ignite national anger and outrage. Kenyans failed to ask questions that mattered and that is how a nation failed a young man that frustration had made go berserk.

On that fateful day or day of defiance if you would wish to call it so, Robert Gituhu walked into Mombasa town’s Mwembe Tayari; an area accustomed with lots of vendors selling dates, coastal snacks and blends of coconut water or madafu.

Visibly distraught, he was seen pouring liquid suspected to be a flammable substance on his body before lighting himself. He climbed on top of a statue in the middle of the busy green-carpeted roundabout before setting himself alight.

He was bitterly complaining of the high cost of living. He had disappeared for three days when the viral video of him emerged. Reasons were quickly suggested for his actions. Some claimed he had mental issues while others said he lacked employment and had been reeling under an unimaginable yoke of frustrations.

He later died at the Coast General Teaching and Referral Hospital after sustaining 80 per cent burns, according to a doctor’s brief seen by the local press.

Gituhu’s mother revealed he was jobless. His parents are natives of Kiambu County.  Hours to his act of rage, he ignored her mother’s phone calls, and the family grew concerned. They launched a social media campaign to locate him, with the poster indicating that he was mentally disturbed.

He scored an impressive 400 marks in the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education examinations and joined Kijabe High School. He rose to the school captain and got an A- in the 2012 Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education exams.

He joined the University of Eldoret and graduated with a Mechanical and Production Engineering degree.

“My son believed he was a leader. He hoped to get a job after graduating and work for years before joining politics. He often asked how I would feel if he became an MP or governor. Sadly, this did not happen.” His mother said during an interview with a local press.

Gituhu represents broken dreams and hopes of millions of young Kenyans who are caught in the rut of poverty and unemployment. Not even their impressive academic qualifications can help them out of this endless dungeon of despair.

His sad death symbolises desperation of Kenya’s youth. It showcases the broken promises by the ruling elite and a restless population whose plight can no longer be pushed under the carpet. The rising cost of living amid a business slowdown and job cuts has pushed millions of Kenya’s young people into despair.

The rise in the cost of living has primarily been linked to the surging fuel prices, persistent drought conditions, and the depreciation of the Shilling.

The price rises, partly fuelled by the war in Ukraine, have deepened economic problems triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, including stagnant wages and growing youth unemployment.

Kenyan youthful masses got a blitz of hope when President William Ruto got elected in last year’s hotly contested election. The president had promised galore of life changing goodies to them.

In his euphoric campaigns across the country, Ruto lambasted former President Uhuru Kenyatta over his economic policies, including the country’s huge debt burden of almost $70 billion, vowing to undo them if he took power.

He championed the plight of the ‘hustlers’, young informal economy workers on low, piecemeal incomes.

Reconfiguring political identities around notions of economic hardship and struggle, his campaign appeared emblematic of what political observers identified as a turn towards ‘populism’ in Africa, transmuting ethno-nationalist identities into class-based ones.

Whilst Ruto’s campaign capitalised on rising prices to devastating political effect, he also channelled discontent with the Jubilee government and its unmet promises of shared prosperity.

He cleverly took advantage of Kenyatta’s personal unpopularity as voters increasingly questioned the nature of ‘dynastic’ authority and ‘state capture’, seeking to punish him personally for his failures to create prosperity in the populous Mt. Kenya region whilst “enriching himself” at their expense.

President Ruto during campaigns promised that the Kenya Kwanza regime will return to a stand-alone Youth ministry to cater for the needs of the youth if it is elected to the government.

In one of his campaigns in Kiritiri in Embu, the then deputy president promised to set aside Sh100 billion to create employment for the youth if elected President.

He said the issues of the youth must be solved first before politicians start talking about sharing positions.

These youths are our children, we have taken them to school, they have diplomas and degrees. If we don’t plan for their employment we will lose them to alcohol, robbery and depression,” Ruto said.

He responded to chanting crowds by turning up the anti-elite rhetoric.  Rhetoric that spoke of an elite more concerned with defending its own deep interests than representing those of ordinary citizens.

 ‘Vijana wapate kazi, ama viongozi wapate vyeo? [Should the youth get jobs, or leaders get seats?]’, Ruto asked on the campaign trail. He portrayed Uhuru and Raila as ‘dynasties’—a reference to their respective fathers Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya’s first prime minister after independence) and Oginga Odinga (Kenya’s first vice-president and thereafter a key opposition figure to Jomo Kenyatta).

But more importantly, the term also evoked the massive wealth of the two political families, especially in land and investments.

The euphoric wave that propelled Ruto to presidency is exhaustively captured in a research paper titled, Hustler Populism, Anti- Jubilee Backlash, and Economic Injustice in Kenya’s 2022 Elections, by Peter Lockwood. The paper published on 20 April 2023 by Oxford University Press on behalf of Royal African Society delves into the heart of a divisive campaign that blurred the thin line between populism and sheer agenda of truth.

Framing the 2022 elections as a struggle against the influence of wealth and not politics itself, Ruto alleged a plot on the part of Uhuru and Raila to fully dominate the country’s leadership at the expense of democracy.

Still in their galore of promises, Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza coalition in its charter with the youth also promised to support the creative, digital, sports and agriculture sectors with the aim of encouraging the youth to engage productively.  It also promised to increase health cover for the youth and access to education.

The winning coalition also promised to reserve 30% of all appointive positions for them and restructuring the national youth service and the revival of the national youth council.

With formal jobs difficult to come by, young Kenyans are forced towards the informal economy, gleaning a living by working in occupations as varied as construction workers, minivan drivers, tea pickers and barbers.

Today, it is evidently a tough economic period for Kenyans. Increased taxes and high cost of fuel has made life unbearable. Opposition instigated protests were met with iron fisted resistance that resulted in deaths of over 50 young people across the country.

Kenya’s inflation has since June breached the target range of 2.5-7.5 percent, prompting the Central Bank of Kenya’s Monetary Policy Committee to raise benchmark interest rates to curb consumer spending. It stood at 9.2 percent in March.

The sky-high inflation has seen the shopping basket of households’ shrink, with many people forced to cut non-essential expenditures amid negative growth in real wages. This has reduced demand for goods and services, denying businesses room to hire.

A report released by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics in 2018 revealed that nine out of every 10 unemployed Kenyans are 35 years and below.

Kenyans aged between 40 and 44 witnessed the highest growth in joblessness, with the number unemployed growing by half, or 58,702, in the quarter to 175,578 persons, according to the report.

The unemployed aged 35 and 39 increased by a fifth to 234,698 persons in the review period. They were followed by unemployed youth aged between 20 and 24 whose number grew 13.63 percent to 1,004,755 in the quarter.

Joblessness among those aged between 30 to 34 years increased 4.93 percent quarter-on-quarter to 417,493 persons. The 2019 Kenya Economic Survey reports a total of 78,400 jobs created in 2018 compared to 114,400 in 2017. This decline in job creation has continued to be felt in 2019, adding to the crisis of youth unemployment in the country.

Another research work on Kenya’s unemployment paints a dull picture of a phenomenon that has unfortunately turned to be politicians’ pet subject of campaign. Titled Youth Unemployment in Kenya: Its Nature and Covariates, by Fredrick Masinde Wamalwa, the report delves into the history of unemployment in the country. It avers that Kenya is among African countries with growing unemployment rates despite several initiatives and policies implemented to reduce poverty and unemployment.

The situation is no different on the global scene.  A briefing on the world’s economic situation and prospects in 2019 by the United Nations states that young people are twice as likely to be unemployed compared to adults.

Kenya has the largest youth unemployment rates in the region despite its gross domestic product sometimes reported to be growing. The continued emphasis on economic growth despite high unemployment numbers has left many youths wondering where all the wealth is going.

Their concerns reflect an unequal distribution of wealth in the country, resulting in poor social development.

Should Kenyans wait for the next Robert Gituhu for a collective national outrage on a crisis that’s sinking the country’s young population into depression? Gituhu’s death shouldn’t be a normal let’s- move- on story but a point of reflection for everyone.

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