Nairobi, Kenya – Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga has called for three days of anti-government protests starting on Wednesday.
The latest demonstrations are against tax hikes and follow two previous sets of protests this year against the soaring cost of living in East Africa’s economic hub and alleged malpractice in last year’s presidential election, which Odinga lost.
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The new taxes were to take effect on July 1, but a Nairobi court halted their implementation pending further legal proceedings. Still, a tax increase on petroleum products was imposed, increasing fuel costs.
Odinga said more protests could be held after this week.
Here’s all you need to know about the situation:
What are the latest protests about?
Odinga announced the protests on June 14 against a new finance bill, which introduced a 1.5 percent housing levy, a 16 percent tax on petroleum products and a 16 percent value-added tax (VAT) on money that policyholders receive as compensation from insurance companies.
“That finance bill will be the last nail in the coffin,” Odinga told his supporters. “If it is passed, it will make Kenyans slaves of paying taxes. …When they pass that bill, that will be the trumpet call. Will you be ready?”
The bill was signed into law on June 26.
On July 10, Kenya’s High Court extended an order barring Treasury Cabinet Secretary Njuguna Ndung’u from implementing it.
The government mostly obeyed the ruling except for the Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority, which increased fuel prices, triggering an increase in public transport costs.
The price increases are from 182.04 shillings ($1.29) to 195.53 shillings ($1.38) per litre of petrol, 164.28 shillings ($1.16) to 176.67 shillings ($1.25) for a litre of diesel and from 161.48 shillings ($1.14) to 173.44 shillings ($1.22) per litre of kerosene.
What is the finance act about?
During the presidential campaign, the eventual winner, William Ruto, promised to reduce the cost of living and positioned himself as a poor “hustler” eager to wrest power away from the ruling dynasties that President Uhuru Kenyatta and Odinga, sons of independent Kenya’s first president and vice president, represented.
The younger Kenyatta endorsed the younger Odinga rather than his deputy, but Ruto was declared the winner and was sworn into office in September.
President Ruto inherited an enormous government debt. At the time Kenyatta took office in 2013, it stood at 1.79 trillion shillings ($13bn). By the time Kenyatta left office, it had ballooned to 8.7 trillion shillings ($61bn).
Ruto then removed fuel subsidies, leading to a spike in the prices of basic commodities like bread and maize flour, which are directly affected by the cost of energy and transport.
“In addition to being very costly, consumption subsidy interventions are prone to abuse, they distort markets and create uncertainty, including artificial shortages of the very products being subsidised,” he said in his inauguration speech.
New taxes followed.
In addition to the housing levy, petroleum products tax and insurance compensation tax, digital assets taxes were also introduced. The government also imposed a 3 percent levy on transfer charges applied during the exchange of assets that cover non-fungible tokens (NFTs), cryptocurrencies, and digital currencies.
The finance act also introduced a 15 percent withholding tax for digital content creators, a 35 percent tax for people earning above 500,000 shillings ($3,536) annually and the VAT on petroleum products was increased from 8 percent to 16 percent.
According to economists, the law will increase tax revenues collected from high-income earners while shrinking individual net income for low-income earners because of increased tax burdens.
What have the effects of the protests been?
According to a statement by a spokesman for the United Nations Human Rights Office, up to 23 people were killed by the police and dozens were injured in demonstrations in the past week. A couple of opposition members were also arrested.
“The UN is very concerned by the widespread violence and allegations of disproportionate use of force, including the use of firearms by the police during protests in Kenya,” Jeremy Laurence said. “We call for prompt, thorough, independent and transparent investigations into the deaths and injuries.”
Some protesters damaged infrastructure during the protests, including railway stations and the Nairobi Expressway. Transport Cabinet Secretary Kipchumba Murkomen estimated damage on the highway alone would cost 707 million shillings ($5m) to repair.
Ruto’s hard stance against the upcoming anti-government protests has set the stage for a potential showdown between the opposition and the government despite calls from clergymen for both Ruto and Odinga to hold talks to avoid any more loss of life and destruction of property.
What happens next?
Thousands of opposition supporters have protested in Nairobi and a number of other cities on back-to-back Mondays and Thursdays despite a strong pushback from law enforcement, so massive numbers are expected for the protests this week.
Ruto has insinuated that the rallies are a smokescreen for Odinga to launch a takeover of the government and hinted at using law enforcement to prevent the protests.
“These demos will not happen. Listen to me carefully. You cannot use extrajudicial, extraconstitutional means to look for power in Kenya. Wait for 2027. I will beat you again,” Ruto said on Friday.
“The same constitution mandates the government to protect the lives, property and interests of all other Kenyans,” he said.
Interior minister Kithure Kindiki has warned that he would not allow any attempts to disrupt public order and endanger lives.
Philip Anyolo, Catholic archbishop of the Nairobi Diocese, said on Monday that a group of religious leaders was ready to mediate between Ruto and Odinga to find a way to end the protests.
But the opposition is unwilling to budge.
At a Monday press conference, the Azimo La Umoja opposition coalition reiterated its determination to proceed with the three-day protests as planned. Opiyo Wandayi, minority leader of parliament, also told Al Jazeera that the tax hikes are a “scheme to overburden Kenyans who are already burdened” and said the chances of dialogue with the government are very slim.
“The issue is now clearly between Ruto and the people of Kenya, who are feeling abandoned and who feel that they have been cheated,” he said.
In April, the opposition called off planned protests when bipartisan talks were organised, but the negotiations collapsed over accusations of sabotage and a lack of goodwill on both sides.
“The last time we gave them a chance for dialogue, they showed us contempt by explicitly displaying arrogance and utmost bad faith,” Wandayi said. “Although we are ready and willing for dialogue, the situation as it is right now makes it very difficult for us to accept dialogue for the sake of dialogue.”