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Kenyans continue to protest after president backtracks

Young demonstrators’ demands outgrow controversial tax hikes


Kenya police spray a water canon and shoot tear gas at protesters on Tuesday. Associated Press/Photo by Brian Inganga

Kenyans continue to protest after president backtracks

In a national address late on Wednesday, Kenyan President William Ruto reversed course on a recent tax law. “I concede,” he said.

His unexpected concession came only hours after youth-led protests against a slew of proposed government tax hikes reached a violent climax. Police officers backed by the military used tear gas and live gunfire on crowds. Angry mobs on Tuesday also set fire to part of the parliament building after lawmakers initially approved the controversial Finance Bill 2024. Gunmen fired live bullets again during Thursday protests.

At least 21 people have died and 300 others have sustained injuries since online criticisms spilled over into real-life protests last week, eventually spreading across the majority of Kenya’s 47 counties. The contentious bill came as many are already grappling under the weight of a rising cost of living. Protests grew into calls to root out government corruption as young demonstrators also challenged church leaders to stand with them. Activists have also pushed authorities to take responsibility for their use of force during the unrest.

Lawmakers introduced the range of taxes, initially set to affect vegetable oil, fuel, diapers, and other daily items, to generate an additional $2.7 billion in domestic revenue. But public outcry led lawmakers to lift some of the taxes, including on bread and cars, before passing the bill on Tuesday. The bill required Ruto’s signature to become law.

Ruto’s government had insisted the taxes would help the country defaulting on its national debt. A similar act last year also imposed a new income tax and housing levy.

But young protesters said Ruto has failed in his pledge to slash living costs. In February, the African Development Bank Group warned that the removal of fuel subsidies in Kenya, Angola, Ethiopia, and Nigeria, and the resulting social costs have fueled social unrest.

On Sunday, hundreds of young Kenyans in Nairobi sang hymns, prayed, and chanted, “Jesus is justice. No justice, no peace.” They called on church leaders to back their demands.

Kabeeria Kaume, a pastor who works in student ministry, saw young protesters turn out on the streets for a few hours in the town of Mai Mahiu in Kenya’s Nakuru county. Kaume said the protests have also highlighted young people’s anger with church leaders. Many people thought of Ruto, Kenya’s first evangelical president, as God’s own choice for the country. Kaume said church leaders have allowed politicians to campaign in churches in what he described as an “unholy marriage.”

“It’s like the scales have fallen off,” he told me. “The anger and discontent are palpable, so [Ruto’s] going to have a tough time leading.”

The Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops said it was “saddened” by the deaths and condemned the use of force. The Kenya National Congress of Pentecostal Churches also urged lawmakers to disregard the bill and dialogue with the protesters.

“They don’t have jobs, don’t know where to get money,” Bishop Erastus Njoroge said as he read the group’s statement. “What you are hearing is because they are desperate. Please listen to the people.”

Kaume also asked his youth leaders to reflect on whether Jesus would be out on the streets or speak against injustice. “We felt the gospel is a countercultural response to injustice, brokenness, to the failures we see around us.”

He pointed to the Beatitudes and the teachings of Christ as he encouraged nonviolent calls for change and more conversations that will lead to lasting change in Kenyan society. “We should not stop with just this bill … but everyday remind ourselves the enemy still remains,” Kaume said. “Poverty, corruption, and tribalism remain.”

During his national address, Ruto admitted the bill had caused widespread dissatisfaction. “It is necessary for us to have a conversation as a nation on how we manage the affairs of the country together,” he said.

Ruto pledged to introduce new austerity measures, including cutting government spending. He said he would reduce operational expenses for his office and also lift monetary allocations for travel, hospitality, and renovations, among other measures.

But many are still angry over the violence that played out during the protests. The Police Reforms Working Group said that police shot one protester more than 40 times. The group called on Ruto to take responsibility for the deaths.

The High Court of Kenya on Wednesday suspended the military’s deployment to quell the protests after a challenge from the Law Society of Kenya. “Parliament has no role to approve or reject such deployment,” the advocacy group said in a statement.

The deadly protests come shortly after Kenya began taking a more prominent place on the global stage. On Monday, one day before tear gas clouded the streets of Nairobi and other cities, the United States designated Kenya as a “major non-NATO ally.” President Joe Biden first announced the move in May, when Ruto made a state visit to Washington.

On Tuesday, 400 Kenyan troops arrived in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. The contingent is the first of some 2,500 officers in a joint international force sent by the United Nations to stabilize the crisis-hit Haiti.

Hundreds of protesters still turned out on the streets in a lower turnout on Thursday, many of them chanting “Ruto must go.” Despite an earlier suspension, the High Court of Kenya on Thursday allowed the military to join security forces in responding to the protesters.

Kathleen Klaus, an associate professor at the Sweden-based Uppsala University, said Ruto’s concession is unlikely to solve the country’s internal problems, even as it extends its reach abroad. The mass protests point to a growing public intolerance for corruption and injustice, Klaus explained.

“In their view, [the bill] also showed an inability or refusal by political elites to recognize the economic precarity, grinding poverty, and everyday struggle that many experience,” Klaus said.


Onize Ohikere

Onize is WORLD’s Africa reporter and deputy global desk chief. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a journalism degree from Minnesota State University–Moorhead. Onize resides in Abuja, Nigeria.

@onize_ohiks


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