Kenya rocked by fresh protests despite president’s U-turn over tax bill

Damond Isiaka
5 Min Read


CNN
 — 

Police in Kenya fired tear gas on protesters as a fresh wave of demonstrations swept the country, despite President William Ruto’s U-turn on controversial tax plans.

Fresh protests dubbed “One Million People March” began Thursday, with demonstrators calling for roads leading to the capital Nairobi to be blocked. Others threatened to occupy the State House, the president’s office, and the official residence.

In a surprise move on Wednesday, Ruto said he would not sign the finance bill, saying he had been “listening keenly” to the Kenyan people. He had been facing escalating protests over the bill, with a civil society organization saying at least 23 people had died in clashes.

But so far his move has failed to quell the demonstrations. Security forces have set up roadblocks around routes leading to the State House while other parts of the capital city have been fortified with heavy police presence.

“It’s more than about the finance bill now,” Maria, a Kenyan protestor from Nairobi told CNN.

“(They’re) killing us as young people for what? We come in peace,” she added.

Demonstrators react as police fire teargas to disperse them during a renewed protest on 27 June 2024.

Despite being billed as a ‘million people march,’ turnout was noticeably lower in Nairobi’s central business district, a CNN team observed. The heavy security presence within the city deterred a crowd from forming with police shouting at protesters to “go home” in Swahili.

What the largely youthful protesters now want varies. Some have called on President Ruto to resign for failing to withdraw the unpopular bill much earlier to save the lives lost.

Others are seeking justice for the deceased protesters and demanding the recall of lawmakers who voted in support of the finance bill.

“I want them to listen to me,” another protester told CNN.

Civic groups such as the Law Society of Kenya are calling for the removal of Kenya’s inspector general of police and Nairobi’s regional police commander after officers were accused of reportedly shooting dead protesters.

Kenya, East Africa’s dominant economy, has grappled with escalating living costs that have spiked food prices and other commodities. The nation also owes billions of dollars in foreign and local debts, spending a sizeable chunk of its revenue repaying its creditors.

“I am not going to preside over a bankrupt country, I am not going to preside over a country that is in debt distress,” President Ruto said last month while defending his plans.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) expressed concern about a “significant shortfall” in Kenya’s “tax revenue collection” while urging its government to consider measures to shore up its earnings to reduce borrowing.

People take part in demonstrations on Thursday

The bill proposed levies on locally produced products, such as diapers and sanitary towels, including taxes on motor vehicles, and mobile money transfer fees, among others.

Last week, Ruto shelved some of those taxes, but Kenyans remain angry, and called for the bill to be scrapped completely.

International financial ratings agency Moody’s warned that scrapping the bill “will create a revenue shortfall” in Kenya’s budgeting. Ruto warned of spending cuts across government financing if the tax measures were withdrawn.

Ruto’s leadership is now being tested like never before. His ability to navigate this period of unrest will be critical not only for his political survival but also for the stability of Kenya.

The ongoing protests suggest that mere policy reversals may not be sufficient. Analyst Herman Manyora, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi, told CNN the president may need to engage in more substantial reforms to restore faith in his administration.

“The way forward is for the president to go a little more than he has done now in order to get the goodwill of the people,” Manyora said. “He needs to reshuffle his cabinet and economic advisers which will send a signal that will create the goodwill required. At that point, a government-led conversation can take place.”

Ruto, whose rise to the presidency was largely propelled by youth voters said in his address retracting the finance bill that he hoped to engage with young people in the country to listen to their ideas and proposals on how to solve the nation’s economic challenges. But that won’t come easy, Manyora said.

“They (young people) feel betrayed. That’s what is fueling this riot.”

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