‘Not afraid to die’: Kenya tax protests inspire broader demand for change

President William Ruto has withdrawn a controversial tax bill, but protesters and their families say it’s too late. With more than 20 people killed, they want him to go too.

Protesters scatter as Kenya police spray a water canon at them during a protest over proposed tax hikes in a finance bill in downtown Nairobi, Kenya Tuesday, June. 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)
Protesters scatter as Kenya police spray a water canon at them during a protest over proposed tax hikes in a finance bill in downtown Nairobi, Kenya, June 25, 2024 [Brian Inganga/ AP Photo]

Nairobi, Kenya – “You can’t kill us all,” a protester shouts as heavily armed riot police charge at him.

He stands his ground, water bottle in hand, occasionally splashing water on his face, his eyes visibly irritated by tear gas smoke floating in the air and choking police and protesters alike.

A group of protesters push forward towards him. They chant, “We are peaceful, we are peaceful.” Some raise their hands above their heads, others kneel down, intent to demonstrate the non-violent nature of the protests to the police.

Suddenly, sirens blare. Then, pink-coloured water scatters the crowd as a water canon blocks demonstrators from advancing towards Parliament Buildings.

These scenes have been played out over and over again this past week in Kenya as angry youth took to the streets to protest against a controversial tax bill, that many say would have made essential commodities costlier. President William Ruto, who advocated for the law, withdrew the bill on Wednesday evening, a day after protesters stormed Parliament.

But his decision hasn’t quelled the anger against his government — hundreds of protesters returned to streets in Nairobi and across the country on Thursday, many of them now demanding that Ruto quit.

The weeklong protests began in capital Nairobi but quickly spread across Kenya. Local media reports say protests have taken place in 35 of Kenya’s 47 counties, including in president William Ruto’s home county of Uasin Gishu, which voted overwhelmingly for him nearly two years ago when he came to power.

But the movement led by young Kenyans has come at a price for families around the country.

‘How do you explain this loss?’

When Paul Tata left his home for work last Tuesday, little did he know it was the last time he was seeing his 20-year-old son Emmanuel Tata.

“I just wished him a good day and I left the house for work at my motorcycle repair shop,” recalled Tata. Seven hours later, his son was dead. He had been killed while taking part in protests opposing the tax bill. He was declared dead on arrival at the hospital, the young man’s uncle Daniel Nzamba said. Emmanuel had suffocated after inhaling too much tear gas.

“How do you explain this loss? A bright future just snapped away like that in an instance, because we just couldn’t listen to our own children when they told us we were on the wrong path,” Nzamba said.

Human rights groups say at least 23 people have died in the violence and clashes surrounding the protests. Another 300 people have been treated and discharged from hospital.

In the coastal city of Mombasa, a mortician showed Al Jazeera the bodies of three men with multiple bullet wounds in their heads and torsos.

‘We have to stand up’

These protests originally began online, driven mostly by young tech-savvy Kenyans on social media platforms Instagram, TikTok, Instagram and X. The aim was to oppose the Finance bill 2024 fronted by Ruto’s government with an aim of raising an additional $2.9bn in revenue.

The government has said it needs the money to meet its obligations of repaying foreign debts while also executing its ambitious development plans driven by infrastructure development.

But protesters have argued that they are already overtaxed. The original draft of the bill increased levies on basics such as fuel, mobile money transfers, internet banking, sanitary pads and diapers.

On Wednesday, Ruto addressed the nation and agreed to withdraw the bill.

“Listening keenly to the people of Kenya that have said they want nothing to do with the finance bill 2024, I concede and therefore I will not sign the 2024 finance bill,” Ruto said.

But many Kenyans remain unconvinced — and are demanding Ruto’s resignation, his credibility in tatters in their eyes.

“I am not afraid to die, many have died before us,” said Andrew Ouko as he walked the 18km (11 miles) from Juja on the outskirts of Nairobi to join the protests on Thursday. “Many more will die but we have to stand up for our generation who are being taken for fools by the politicians.”

Political analyst Herman Manyora warned that the government had no option but to listen to the Gen Z protesters.

“The events of the past few days, especially the storming of Parliament and the subsequent withdrawal of the contentious bill by the president point to one thing — that the government faces serious legitimacy challenges,” Manyora told Al Jazeera. “This level of resentment cannot just wither away.”

“The country should harness this new spirit and organise to have a national conversation with the intention of ushering in a new Kenya. Hopefully, this will fix the politics of the land as a basis for the nation’s economic development” he added.

Ruto has promised many austerity measures including cuts on hospitality and travel budgets for his office. He has asked regional governments and other arms of the federal government structure to follow suit.

But economists warn that the Kenyan government is now walking a tight rope. Kenya has international debt obligations amounting to nearly $80bn. Fulfilling them without the extra tax revenue that the bill hoped to bring “will be an extremely daunting task for Kenya unless we see radical budget cuts in the next financial year”, said business analyst Julians Amboko.

In Nairobi on Thursday, Ouko unfurled a Kenyan flag and wrapped it around his face.

“We will not be bowed, we will not cower. Our children will not grow up with lies and bad governance,” he shouted.

Back in Mombasa, the family of Tata reflected on the president’s Wednesday speech — where he also committed to helping families of those who have died in the protests.

“No amount of money can bring our son back. If he had withdrawn the bill a week ago, a month ago, Emmanuel would still be here. Now we are just mourning the lives of innocent young souls,” Nzamba, the uncle, said.

“The Gen Z have come of age. They are doing what we have always been too lazy to do. I am grieving but I know our son’s death is not in vain. We bury him a hero.”

Source: Al Jazeera