Image Source : REUTERS People take part in a demonstration over police killings of people protesting against Kenya’s proposed finance bill.

Nairobi: Kenyan police fired teargas at dozens of protesters on Thursday and blocked off several streets leading to the presidential palace as rallies resumed despite President William Ruto deciding to withdraw a controversial tax hike bill seeking to introduce new taxes. The bill sparked an outpouring of anger, particularly among the Kenyan youth, that resulted in violent protests on Tuesday which killed 23 people.

The scale of the protests on Thursday was well down from the height of the mass rallies sparked by the bill over the past week. Police and military troops patrolled the streets and blocked access to State House, the president’s formal offices and residence. Police used teargas to disperse several dozen people who had gathered in the centre of the city.

Doctors volunteer group Medics for Kenya said its staff at the Jamia Mosque/Crescent hospital had been hit by teargas, and that it condemned in “the strongest terms possible violence meted out at on our volunteer medical teams”. Elsewhere, hundreds of protesters gathered in the port city of Mombasa and in the western city of Kisumu, local television footage showed, although those gatherings appeared peaceful.

President William Ruto withdraws tax bill

Kenya’s Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua on Wednesday urged the young protesters to call off planned protests and give dialogue a chance. While some protest supporters said they would not demonstrate on Thursday as the finance bill had been scrapped, others pledged to press on, saying only Ruto’s resignation would satisfy them.

Bowing to the pressure from protesters who stormed the parliament on Tuesday, Ruto on Wednesday said, “Listening keenly to the people of Kenya who have said loudly that they want nothing to do with this finance bill 2024, I concede. And therefore, I will not sign the 2024 finance bill, and it shall subsequently be withdrawn.” Ruto said he would now start a dialogue with Kenyan youth, without going into details, and work on austerity measures.

The International Monetary Fund, which has been urging the government to cut its deficit to obtain more funding, said it was closely monitoring the situation in Kenya. “We are deeply concerned about the tragic events in Kenya in recent days,” the IMF said in a statement. “Our main goal in supporting Kenya is to help it overcome the difficult economic challenges it faces and improve its economic prospects and the well-being of its people.”

The move was seen as a major victory for a week-old protest movement that grew from online condemnations of tax increases into mass rallies demanding a political overhaul, in the most serious crisis of Ruto’s two-year-old presidency. Protesters had earlier vowed to keep up their demonstrations in messages on social media using the hashtag #tupatanethursday, or “see you on Thursday” in a mix of Swahili and English.

23 killed in violent protests, police open fire

Massive protests took place in 35 out of Kenya’s 47 counties, including Ruto’s homeland of Eldoret. Police opened fire on crowds who massed around parliament on Tuesday and later broke into the assembly’s compound, setting fire to sections of the building minutes after lawmakers had voted through the contentious tax measures.

At least 23 people were killed across the East African country and another 30 were being treated for bullet wounds, the Kenya Medical Association said on Wednesday. Medical officials in Nairobi said hundreds had been injured in the unrest. Lawmakers fled through a tunnel, but protesters allowed opposition legislators who voted against the bill to walk out of the besieged building. 

“Let’s not be foolish as we fight for a better Kenya,” Boniface Mwangi, a prominent social justice activist, said in an Instagram post. He voiced support for demonstrations on Thursday but opposed calls to invade State House, which he said could spur more violence and can be used to justify a full-fledged crackdown on the police.

Why are Kenyans protesting?

In the 2024/25 bill, the Kenyan government aims to raise $2.7 billion in additional taxes to reduce the budget deficit and state borrowing. Kenya’s public debt stands at 68 per cent of GDP, higher than the 55 per cent of GDP recommended by the World Bank and the IMF. The government has said the tax measures are necessary to fund development programmes and cut public debt.

The proposed measures that have triggered protests include new levies on basic commodities like bread, vegetable oil and sugar and a new motor vehicle circulation tax – pegged at 2.5 per cent of the value of a car to be paid annually. An “eco levy” on most manufactured goods including sanitary towels and diapers is also on the cards. 

The protesters oppose tax rises in a country already reeling from a cost-of-living crisis, and many are also calling for President William Ruto to step down. Kenyans have been struggling to cope with several economic shocks caused by the lingering impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, two consecutive years of droughts and depreciation of the currency.

(with inputs from agencies)

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