Kenya on boil as anti-tax protesters killed in police fire: All to know

Demonstrators are angry at a new finance bill that President William Ruto says is necessary to offset heavy public debt.

A protestor in Kenya
A protester throws a tear gas canister back at police officers during a protest over proposed tax hikes in Nairobi, Kenya on June 20, 2024 [Andrew Kasuku/AP]

Kenyan police fired live ammunition at hundreds of protesters attempting to breach Parliament House in Nairobi on Tuesday, leading to several deaths and injuries, as protests against controversial tax reforms turned violent.

On Wednesday, the Kenya Human Rights Commission said 23 people were killed across the country in the violence that escalated after lawmakers passed the contested bill after a third and final reading. The Commission said it recorded 50 arrests, 22 abductions and over 300 injuries.

Reporting from Nairobi, Al Jazeera’s Malcolm Webb described the city centre as beset by chaos.

“We can see tear gas; we can see police firing tear gas at protesters. We see plumes of smoke coming from other nearby parts … in the centre there’s a very heavy police presence, near the Parliament buildings,” he said.

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President William Ruto called the protests “treasonous” and suggested the popular campaign against tax increases had been “hijacked by dangerous people”. Tuesday’s demonstrations were widely expected and officials had initially warned against violence, telling agitators to wind up the demonstrations by 6:30pm local time (15:30 GMT).

Here’s the latest on the protests and why Kenyans are demonstrating in the first place:

What happened in the Parliament buildings?

Hundreds of protesters breached barricades around the Parliament of Kenya and stormed the complex where lawmakers were debating the proposals, as police fired live bullets.

Amnesty International said “many were wounded” in the violence. The Kenya Medical Association said 31 people had been wounded, including 13 who had been shot with live bullets and four with rubber bullets.

In scenes reminiscent of the January 6 attack on the United States Congress, protesters were seen trying to break down the doors to key Parliament chambers, stamping on flags and waving banners.

Lawmakers are understood to have fled to safety as the angry crowd surged in, with some reportedly scampering to underground tunnels beneath the buildings, while others fled in ambulances. It is unclear if any lawmakers were hurt.

Parts of Parliament House appeared to have been set on fire. Footage on social media showed protesters stamping on furniture, tearing down flags and breaking windows. The charred insides of the building are visible in another video.

Meanwhile, police also used water cannons to battle fires as the office of the Nairobi governor, in City Hall, went up in flames.

Demonstrators had last week brought the country to a standstill with protests, demanding that a soon-to-be finance law be thrown out. They called for huge protests and a nationwide strike this week as they sought to pressure the government over the bill.

One person died on Thursday and at least 200 people were injured. More than 100 were arrested in the clashes, according to Amnesty International and other human rights groups.

What are the controversial tax proposals?

The finance bill was introduced in Parliament earlier in May and was debated intensely through last week as opposition lawmakers backed angry protesters.

It encompasses a wide range of tax reforms and increases, including new levies on monetised digital content creation and a 5 percent tax increase on digital payments like bank transfers as well as digital money payments. That is particularly hard-hitting in a country reliant on mobile money.

However, some of the plans that have most irked Kenyans were the proposals to introduce a 16 percent value-added tax (VAT) on bread as well as a 25 percent excise duty on raw and refined vegetable cooking oil produced domestically.

A 2.75 percent additional income charge was also imposed for salary earners enrolled in the country’s national medical insurance plan. A 2.5 percent annual tax on motor vehicles was also included.

Protesters say all those taxes, especially on bread and vegetable oil, will ultimately increase overall costs. They are also angry that the bill gives Kenya’s revenue authorities powers to enforce tax collection by accessing bank and mobile money accounts.

Protesters running in Nairobi
Demonstrators run from police during a protest over proposed tax hikes in Nairobi, Kenya, on June 20, 2024 [Andrew Kasuku/AP]

Which taxes have been rolled back?

Last Tuesday, after the protests started, Parliament announced emergency amendments. In a news conference, the chairperson of the finance committee, Kuria Kimani, announced that lawmakers would roll back the taxes on bread, oil, motor vehicles and financial transactions, including mobile money payments.

A proposed “eco levy” on plastic goods like diapers, sanitary towels and phones would only apply to imported goods, and not local manufacturers, Kimani said. Medical and housing insurance levies for salary earners were also reduced.

However, protesters were not placated and demonstrations continued despite the arrests of more than 200 people on June 18. Many said they wanted the entire bill dropped.

On Thursday, demonstrators attempted to occupy parliament buildings where legislators were gathering for a second reading of the bill. On social media, young people rallied with the hashtags #RejectFinanceBill2024 and #OccupyParliament. Lawyers and doctors also mobilised to free those detained and to treat the injured.

Security officials justified the violence in Nairobi, saying they respected the constitutional right to protest, but that they needed to protect government institutions, and so acted when protesters – authorities argued – were threatening the security around Parliament House. In other cities, the protests remained peaceful.

Police in Kenya
Police officers fire tear gas canisters during a protest over proposed tax hikes in a finance bill in Nairobi, Kenya, on June 20, 2024 [Andrew Kasuku/AP]

Why is this politically sensitive?

The bill is particularly painful, protesters say, because it comes amid rising food and living costs in Kenya, and in the wake of previous tax hikes in 2023.

Demonstrators say that since the 2022 swearing-in of the government of President Ruto, they have been increasingly taxed while public services have not noticeably improved. They accuse Ruto’s government of taxing them not to increase social amenities, but for corrupt reasons.

Last year, a finance law introduced a 1.5 percent housing tax on the gross income of salaried workers, and doubled VAT on petroleum products from 8 to 16 percent, despite smaller groups of protesters saying it would only further add to the burden of struggling Kenyans at the time.

Ruto, who campaigned on promises to make life easy for Kenya’s working class “hustlers”, has justified the recent tax-hike proposals, saying they are necessary to pay off a public debt of 11.1 trillion Kenyan shillings ($82bn) that the country is saddled with.

A lot of that is owed to China. The government of former President Uhuru Kenyatta, to whom Ruto was vice president, went on a borrowing spree, signing huge infrastructural deals, including a Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) line connecting Nairobi to the port city of Mombasa.

Ruto is also trying to use the taxes to cobble up more funds to meet a 2024 revenue target of 3.3 trillion Kenyan shillings ($26m).

“We are a democratic country. Those who want to demonstrate, it is their right, no problem. But decisions have to be made by institutions,” Ruto said last Wednesday.

“We will make decisions as an executive, take it to the legislature. People of Kenya will speak to it through public participation, others will subject it to court processes. That is how democracy works, and I am a great believer in democracy.”

However, over the weekend, Ruto signalled a willingness to speak directly to protesters — though no meetings were organised.

How did Parliament vote on Tuesday?

Lawmakers, despite the massive demonstrations, passed the bill on Tuesday. Most of the parliament is allied with Ruto’s governing Kenya Kwanza alliance.

Of 359 MPs, 195 voted “yes”, while 106 voted “no”. Three votes were invalid.

Ruto’s allies have previously said the law will open up revenue to employ more teachers, allocate more funds to local governments, and improve overall infrastructure.

But the official One Kenya opposition coalition insists that it would only burden Kenyans. Its leaders chose to withdraw all 13 proposed amendments they had initially made to the bill on Tuesday, calling for it to be totally trashed instead. Minority leader Opiyo Wandayi said amending the “bad” bill was futile.

What’s next?

The bill is now headed to Ruto’s desk for him to sign on. If he signs it into law, as is expected, observers expect the violence to escalate further. If Ruto decides on a U-turn, he would have to return it to Parliament for a revote.

The violence could damage Ruto’s image as a democratic leader in East Africa, days after he visited Washington, DC, where the US bestowed Kenya with the title of “major non-NATO ally”.

The conduct of the Kenyan police force could also attract international scrutiny as it leads a major international force deployment in troubled Haiti. Kenyan troops landed in Haiti on Tuesday.

Young critics of the finance bill, some of whom have not voted before, have said they were closely watching how their representatives were voting in the bicameral house. Many have promised to mobilise, register and vote out Ruto’s cabinet in the 2027 elections, with some already calling for Ruto to step down.

Source: Al Jazeera