Image Source : REUTERS Demonstrators gesture as police use tear gas to disperse protesters in Kenya.

Nairobi: Auma Obama, a Kenyan activist and the half-sister of former US President Barack Obama, was among the protesters who were tear-gassed on Tuesday during chaotic protests in Kenya’s capital Nairobi against a controversial finance bill outside the parliament building, according to a CNN interview. Things turned chaotic as police opened fire at demonstrators trying to storm Kenya’s legislature, resulting in the deaths of five protesters.

Auma Obama was taken aside in the melee by a CNN reporter and asked why she was there. “I’m here because – look at what’s happening. Young Kenyans are demonstrating for their rights. They’re demonstrating with flags and banners. I can’t even see anymore,” she said, beginning to cough and shield her eyes from the spreading smoke…We are being tear-gassed.” (Video credit: CNN)

The office of former President Obama did not immediately return a call seeking comment on the incident involving his sister or the violence in Kenya. A man behind Auma Obama carried a sign reading, “Colonialism never ended in Kenya,” while another yelled, “This is our country. This is our nation.” 

What is happening in Kenya?

Thousands of protesters barged into the Kenyan Parliament in the capital Nairobi on Tuesday and a part of the building was seen ablaze, amid massive protests in the African country with angry protesters demanding legislators to vote against new taxes proposed in a controversial finance bill.The third round of protests took place as lawmakers vote on the finance bill that would introduce new taxes, including an eco-levy that would raise the price of goods like sanitary towels and diapers. 

The protesters managed to overwhelm the police to entire the parliament shortly after a vote on the bill. Lawmakers fled through a tunnel, but protesters allowed opposition legislators who voted against the bill to walk out of the besieged building. The office of the Nairobi governor, a member of the ruling party, was reportedly set ablaze. Police water cannons were being used to extinguish the fire.

The violence prompted police to fire live ammunition at the angry demonstrators as the situation turned chaotic after tear gas and water cannons failed to disperse the crowds. Police eventually managed to drive the protesters from the building amid clouds of tear gas and the sound of gunfire. Troops from the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) have been deployed to support the police in responding to the ongoing protests, according to reports.

Internet services across the East African country experienced severe disruptions during the police crackdown, internet monitor Netblocks said. Kenya’s leading network operator Safaricom said outages had affected two of its undersea cables but the root cause of the disruptions remained unclear.

Why are Kenyans protesting against the bill?

The finance bill aims to raise an additional $2.7 billion in taxes as part of an effort to lighten Kenya’s heavy debt load, with interest payments alone consuming 37 per cent of annual revenue. The bill was met with widespread criticism as people in the impoverished African country are already struggling with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, two droughts and the depreciation of the currency.

The government has already made some concessions, promising to scrap proposed new taxes on bread, cooking oil, car ownership and financial transactions, but that has not been enough to satisfy protesters. Many called for Kenyan President William Ruto to quit office as well as voicing their opposition to the tax rises. In Nairobi, people chanted “Ruto must go” and crowds sang in Swahili: “All can be possible without Ruto”.

“Ruto must go, Ruto must resign, he must do the honourable thing,” senior opposition leader Eugene Wamalwa said in a statement. Another opposition leader, Raila Odinga, urged the immediate withdrawal of the finance bill to make way for dialogue.

Meanwhile, the United States is closely monitoring the situation in Nairobi, where police opened fire on demonstrators trying to storm the Kenyan parliament, and is urging calm, a White House National Security Council spokesperson said on Tuesday.

(with inputs from Reuters)

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