Kenya’s government has closed schools in the capital and two other areas as East Africa’s economic powerhouse on Wednesday braced for three days of demonstrations against the cost of living and tax hikes.
Two rounds of protests earlier this month descended into violence when police fired tear gas canisters, and in some cases live rounds, at the crowds. At least 15 people were killed and hundreds were arrested.
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According to local media reports, three schoolchildren were rushed to the hospital in Kangemi on the outskirts of Nairobi after police used tear gas on their school premises while dispersing protesters.
Kenya’s opposition called for the protests in part because of tax hikes passed last month by the government of President William Ruto, who was elected last August pledging to champion the interests of the poor, but has seen the price of basic commodities balloon under his administration.
The government says the fuel and housing levies, which are expected to raise an extra 200 billion shillings ($1.4bn) a year, are needed to help deal with growing debt repayments and to fund job-creation initiatives.
Ruto, who has said he will not allow the protests to happen, inherited an enormous government debt. When his predecessor Uhuru 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).
Last September, Ruto 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.
Meanwhile, churches and civil rights groups have called for Ruto and veteran opposition leader Raila Odinga to resolve their differences through dialogue and call off the protests.
“It is not too late for Azmio to halt the planned protests and give talks another shot in the wider interest of the country,” National Council of NGOs Chairman Stephen Kipchumba Cheboi said in a statement on Tuesday.
The president has accused his rival of attempting to leverage discontent over the state of the economy to attain personal political goals.
“I want to tell Raila Odinga that elections ended on August 8 last year,” Ruto said. “You can’t seek the leadership of our country through bloodshed, deaths and destruction of property. There is no way you will change Kenya through the route you have taken.”
Odinga has failed to win the last five presidential votes but has secured senior positions in government in the past by making deals with those in power following spasms of unrest.
“We recognise the daily hardship faced by many Kenyans and urge all parties to table their concerns through a meaningful dialogue,” a group of 12 foreign embassies said in a joint statement on Tuesday.