Tax hike protests in Kenya killed at least 39 people, says rights watchdog

Toll is almost double the figure previously disclosed by the government as activists gear up for new round of protests this week.

Kenya Anti-government protests
Protesters carry the body of a man who was shot during a protest over proposed tax hikes in a finance bill in downtown Nairobi, Kenya [File: Brian Inganga/AP]

At least 39 people have been killed in recent anti-government protests in Kenya, says the national rights watchdog, as activists gear up for a new round of protests this week.

The toll, announced on Monday by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR), is almost double the figure previously disclosed by the government for those killed while demonstrating against a raft of unpopular tax increases that have now been withdrawn.

KNCHR records indicate 39 people have died and 361 have been injured “in relation to the protests countrywide”, the state-funded body said in a statement, adding that the figures covered the period from June 18 to July 1.

It added that there had been 32 cases of “enforced or involuntary disappearances” and 627 arrests of protesters.

Largely peaceful anti-tax rallies – led by mostly young Gen-Z protesters – descended into shocking scenes of deadly violence last Tuesday when lawmakers passed the contentious legislation.

After the vote was announced, crowds ransacked the parliament complex in central Nairobi and it was partly set ablaze as police fired live bullets at protesters.

Protesters scatter as Kenya police spray a water canon at them during a protest over proposed tax hikes in a finance bill in downtown Nairobi, Kenya Tuesday, June. 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)
Protesters scatter as police spray water canon during a protest in downtown Nairobi [File: Brian Inganga/AP]

It is the most serious crisis to confront the government of President William Ruto since he took office in September 2022 following a deeply divisive election in a nation often considered a beacon of stability in a turbulent region.

In a televised interview on Sunday, Ruto said that 19 people had died in the protests, but insisted that he did not have “blood on my hands” and pledged an investigation into the deaths.

The KNCHR “continues to condemn in the strongest terms possible the unwarranted violence and force that was inflicted on protesters, medical personnel, lawyers, journalists and on safe spaces such as churches, medical emergency centres and ambulances,” the rights body said.

“We maintain that the force used against the protesters was excessive and disproportionate.”

The watchdog also said it “strongly condemns the violent and shocking acts of lawlessness that was exhibited by some of the protesters” including the parliament and other government buildings.

Fresh protests have been called by activists starting from Tuesday despite Ruto announcing last week that he would not sign into law the bill containing the tax hikes.

Leaflets have been posted on social media with the hashtags “Occupy Everywhere”, “Ruto must go” and “Reject Budgeted Corruption”.

Kenya’s cash-strapped government had said previously that the tax increases were necessary to service the massive public debt of some 10 trillion shillings ($78bn), equal to roughly 70 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

The International Monetary Fund has urged the country to implement fiscal reforms in order to access crucial funding from the Washington, DC-based lender.

Ruto had already rolled back some tax measures after the protests began, prompting the treasury to warn of a gaping budget shortfall of 200 billion shillings ($1.6bn).

In Sunday’s interview, Ruto had warned that the government would have to borrow heavily following the decision to scrap the finance bill.

Analysts say the president’s U-turn on the tax laws has left him severely weakened domestically with his administration divided in its response and his opponents rejuvenated.

“Enslaved and supported by foreign interests, and never pro-people in its outlook and interests, [Ruto’s administration] was bound to face the consequences of its priorities,” Willy Mutunga, Kenya’s former chief justice, told Reuters news agency.

“As long as the material interests of the youth are not addressed, the chasm grows bigger and bigger,” Mutunga said.

Source: News Agencies