Kenyan President William Ruto has said he is ready to meet opposition leader Raila Odinga “anytime” after months of anti-government protests that have sparked international alarm and calls for dialogue.
“As you have always known, am available to meet one on one with you anytime at your convenience,” Ruto said in a post addressing Odinga on Twitter.
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Critics accuse Ruto of raising taxes as the country buckles under spiralling inflation and of rowing back on promises made during the August 2022 election campaign, when he declared himself the champion of impoverished Kenyans and pledged to improve their economic fortunes.
Ruto’s government argues higher taxes are necessary to help deal with growing debt repayments and to fund job creation initiatives.
Since March, Odinga’s Azimio coalition has staged nine days of street protests against the government, with the rallies sometimes degenerating into looting and deadly clashes between security forces and demonstrators.
Earlier on Tuesday, Odinga accused the police of using violence against demonstrators.
“We are witnessing unprecedented police brutality,” Odinga told a press conference in the capital Nairobi. “Police and hired gangs have shot and killed or wounded scores of people at close range,” he said.
The opposition leader called off demonstrations in April and May after Ruto agreed to dialogue, but the talks broke down, prompting the Azimio coalition to organise several rounds of protests this month.
In a statement late on Monday, the coalition asked “Kenyans to come out and light candles and lay flowers, preferably white, in remembrance of and respect for the victims.”
Odinga’s team had called for another round of demonstrations on Wednesday but said they were changing tack to hold “solidarity parades and vigil for victims of police brutality”.
At least 50 people have been killed in the skirmishes since March, according to Azimio. Official figures put the death toll at 20.
Ruto has defended the conduct of the police, saying last week: “We do not want a country of violence or fighting or destruction of property”.
The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, an independent watchdog created by parliament, on Tuesday said it was “disheartening to witness the escalating tensions and the blatant disregard for human rights principles” by both rogue demonstrators and police.
Rights groups including Amnesty International last week denounced “repression” by police and said they had evidence of 27 “extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions” in July alone.
Several Odinga allies were arrested last week. Lawmaker Babu Owino was arrested on Wednesday at the airport in the coastal city of Mombasa, where he had planned to lead the protests.
Member of parliament Ken Chonga was also arrested with some of his loyalists during a gathering ahead of a march in Kilimo county in coastal Kenya.
Police also arrested Calvin Okoth, a youth leader in the Jacaranda Grounds People’s Parliament.
Odinga claimed earlier this month that the government had hatched a plot to assassinate him during the demonstrations and said his car was shot at multiple times while he was driving around the capital, rallying protesters.