Historic first: President takes on Kenya’s online army


This was a first.

Perhaps a turning point in Kenya’s social engagement.

Kenyan President William Ruto’s willingness to participate in a live audio discussion on X Spaces was eagerly awaited, just 10 days after deadly anti-government protests.

However, the beginning was painful.

Participants had trouble connecting, and there were three or four false starts.

Eventually, after an initial, difficult hour, the interaction between Ruto and someone who was thought to be chairing a parallel conversation about X as a rival to the president was led by someone who was in control of the interaction. This meant that he had the power to decide who would speak.

This was an X user who went by the name Osama Otero, one of the few social media users who became a major voice in the successful campaign to block a financial bill that would have raised a series of taxes.

“Traitor” his compatriots posted on X, causing the word to trend. There was no doubt that this was the result of an attempt to get those involved in the protests to participate.

The questions were direct and raw.

Speakers confronted the president with his own achievements and those of his administration.

Mr. Otero hosted and set the tone.

“Are we in a terrorist country?” he asked, referring to the brutal police response to the protests that left dozens dead.

He questioned the government’s official casualty figures, insisting that hundreds could have died in the protests. President Ruto challenged the speaker to produce the families of those allegedly killed and whose bodies were hidden.

“Do we really matter as the people who elected you?” said Miller, a cameraman who said he saw a protester shot dead outside parliament. With anger in his voice, he said, “I’m really pissed off. Guys, go back and think.”

An unashamed Marvin Mabonga, an unemployed university graduate, told the President: “In your cabinet we have so many incompetent cabinet secretaries.”

Returning to the theme of those who died last week, the host asked if the president had “tried to contact the families of those who were killed or injured.”

The president responded that he had contacted the mother of a 12-year-old child who was shot dead during the protests just outside Nairobi.

People walk past a graffiti of protesters opposing the government's tax hikes, in Nairobi, Kenya, July 4, 2024People walk past a graffiti of protesters opposing the government's tax hikes, in Nairobi, Kenya, July 4, 2024

The president hosted the discussion amid public anger and demands that he resign (Reuters)

Social media platforms have changed the conversation in Kenya.

And it is historic because it brings citizens closer to the authorities and provides them with a largely unfiltered forum to ask tough questions.

Never before has a president exposed himself to this and responded to the public in real time.

Former President Uhuru Kenyatta has deactivated his account on X following persistent comments from what has been dubbed “Kenya’s online army”.

Yes, online activism is not new. KOT – Kenyans on Twitter, now X – have forced companies to apologize in the past.

But this is a step forward.

X Space provided a platform for live, one-on-one contact with the country’s leader and gave the public the opportunity to speak truth to those in power.

The recent protests have seen hundreds of thousands of people question the country’s laws and taxes and demand accountability.

Sometimes these have become platforms to vent frustrations, but it has only enriched the public debate.

Mr Ruto’s X Space attracted a peak of 163,000 participants.

It may seem small compared to the country’s population of over 56 million, but once the conversations take place on social media, they become more intense.

However, it is no surprise that Mr Ruto is participating in a debate where difficult issues are always addressed with angry and candid positions.

In his political career he does not shy away from addressing difficult issues and situations.

The media sees him as a more approachable president than his predecessors.

Participating in an X Space sets a strong precedent for the office and its successors.

More BBC stories on Kenya’s tax crisis:

A woman looks at her mobile phone and the image BBC News AfricaA woman looks at her mobile phone and the image BBC News Africa

(Getty Images/BBC)

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