Kenya’s Ruto says finance bill to be withdrawn after deadly protests

President William Ruto says he rejects a finance bill that would have imposed a series of tax hikes after protesters stormed the Parliament of Kenya.

Protesters carry the body of a man who was shot during a protest over proposed tax hikes in a finance bill in downtown Nairobi
Protesters carry the body of a man who was shot during a protest over proposed tax increases in downtown Nairobi, Kenya, on Tuesday, June 25, 2024 [Andrew Kasuku/AP Photo]

Kenya’s President William Ruto has said he will not sign a finance bill that led protesters to storm Parliament in anger over rising costs, adding that the bill containing tax hikes would “be withdrawn”.

“I concede and therefore I will not sign the 2024 finance bill and it shall subsequently be withdrawn,” Ruto said in a televised address on Wednesday. “The people have spoken.”

Ruto said he would now start a dialogue with Kenyan young people, without going into details, and work on austerity measures – starting with cuts to the budget of the presidency – to make up the difference in the country’s finances.

His comments came after dozens of people were reported killed and scores more wounded as police broke up rallies against the contentious bill.

The move will be seen as a major victory for the week-old protest movement that grew from online condemnations of the proposed tax increases into mass rallies demanding a political overhaul, in the most serious crisis of Ruto’s two-year-old presidency.

Shortly before Ruto’s address, activists called for new protests in Kenya. They called on demonstrators to return “peacefully” to the streets to honour those killed.

“You cannot kill all of us. Tomorrow we march peacefully again as we wear white, for all our fallen people,” Hanifa Adan, a prominent organiser of the youth-led demonstrations, posted on X. “You will not be forgotten!!!”

Al Jazeera’s Malcolm Webb, reporting from Nairobi, said some of the protest organisers as well as others have met Ruto’s speech “with a great deal of skepticism”.

“Many say that they’ll still go to the streets on Thursday as planned. There’s clearly still a great deal of mistrust,” Webb said.

“We just spoke to one of Kenya’s leading lawyers, he represents a political opposition, he’s explained that Ruto’s speech … communicates his position on the bill, but constitutionally, it doesn’t amount to anything,” he said.

For the president to turn around this process, he would have to “communicate with a memorandum to parliament to officially reject the bill”, Webb said, adding that people are waiting to assess Ruto’s next steps.

‘Launch an inquiry’

Mainly youth-led, the rallies began last week in a largely peaceful fashion as thousands protested against the proposed tax increases, which, in the original version, included price rises on basics such as bread and nappies.

However, tensions spiked on Tuesday as the Parliament of Kenya passed the bill. As police used tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets on crowds in Nairobi, reports of live rounds being fired saw protesters storm Parliament and set it alight. Ruto then deployed the military.

There is some confusion over the actual death toll. Unconfirmed reports quote the Kenya Medical Association as stating on Wednesday that at least 23 people were killed and another 30 were being treated for bullet wounds.

“We have recorded 22 deaths … we are going to launch an inquiry,” said Roseline Odede, chairperson of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights.

The Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi said on Wednesday that it was treating 160 people for injuries, including bullet wounds.

There were also claims on social media of multiple deaths in Githurai, a suburb east of Nairobi. Police later claimed that they fired more than 700 blank rounds in the area overnight in order to disperse protesters.

Looting was also reported in Nairobi and other counties. Buildings were set on fire in the Rift Valley town of Eldoret, a stronghold of Ruto.

Stella Agara, an analyst and tax reform campaigner, said Ruto’s decision is “an extreme relief”.

“It’s a relief that he has gone back on some of the things he said in the speech yesterday, because that had left the citizens more enraged,” Agara told Al Jazeera.

“I’m glad he refused to sign the bill … which of course leaves a bit of room for negotiations,” she said.

Negotiations could possibly for lead to the canceling the planned protests on Thursday, Agara said, or even for the president to develop an entirely new bill.

“The majority of the reaction that I have seen has got do with the language he has used, he still referring to amendments when Gen Z are talking about completely dropping this finance bill,” she noted.

One of the things Ruto can do moving forward, Agara said, is to “completely depart from that bill, and have a conversation with politicians about how finance bills are going to be developed in the future”.

Ruto, who came into power in 2022 pledging to reduce living costs, had previously said that the tax increases were necessary to cut reliance on foreign debt, which is currently equal to about 70 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

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It is unclear what Ruto’s next move might be or whether the protesters will call off demonstrations planned for Thursday [@AJLabs/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies