26 C
Kigali
Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Tax protests ‘hijacked’ after turning violent, President Ruto says

Must read

Kenyan President William Ruto said on Tuesday security was his “utmost priority” after protests against a bill to raise taxes descended into violence, with police firing on demonstrators trying to storm the legislature, killing at least five.

In chaotic scenes in the capital Nairobi, protesters overwhelmed police and chased them away in an attempt to enter the parliament compound, with Citizen TV later showing damage from inside the building, which had been partially set ablaze.

Protests and clashes also took place in several other cities and towns across Kenya, with many calling for Ruto to quit as well as voicing their opposition to the tax rises.

In a televised address to the nation, Ruto said the tax debate had been “hijacked by dangerous people”.

“It is not in order, or even conceivable, that criminals pretending to be peaceful protesters can reign terror against the people…,” he said, pledging a swift response to Tuesday’s “treasonous events”.

Police in Nairobi opened fire after tear gas and water cannon failed to disperse the crowds. They eventually managed to drive protesters from the parliament building and lawmakers were evacuated through an underground tunnel, local media said.

Later on Tuesday, Defence Minister Aden Duale said the army had been deployed to help the police deal with a “security emergency” which had resulted in the “destruction and breaching of critical infrastructure”.

A Reuters journalist counted the bodies of at least five protesters outside parliament.

The Kenya Medical Association said that at least five people had been shot dead while treating the injured, and that 31 people had been injured, with 13 shots with live bullets and four with rubber bullets.

The association called on authorities to establish safe medical corridors to protect medical staff and ambulances.

Caught between competing demands

Ruto won an election almost two years ago on a platform of championing Kenya’s working poor but has been caught between the competing demands of lenders such as the International Monetary Fund, which is urging the government to cut deficits to obtain more funding, and a hard-pressed population.

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 drought and depreciation of the currency.

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 percent of annual revenue.

In Washington, the White House said the United States was closely monitoring the situation in Nairobi and urging calm.

Ambassadors and high commissioners from countries including Britain, the U.S. and Germany said in a joint statement they were deeply concerned by violence they had witnessed during recent anti-tax protests and called for restraint on all sides.

Kenyan activist Auma Obama, the half-sister of former US President Barack Obama, was among protesters tear-gassed during the demonstrations, a CNN interview showed.

See also  How should cyber insurance evolve for the future?

Internet services across the 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 outages remained unclear.

Parliament approved the finance bill, moving it through to a third reading by lawmakers. The next step is for the legislation to be sent to the president for signing. He can send it back to parliament if he has any objections.

Opposition politicians called on Ruto to step down.

“Ruto must go, Ruto must resign, he must do the honourable thing,” senior opposition leader Eugene Wamalwa said in a statement on TV.

Another opposition leader, Raila Odinga, urged the immediate withdrawal of the finance bill to make way for dialogue.

“I am disturbed at the murders, arrests, detentions and surveillance being perpetrated by police on boys and girls who are only seeking to be heard over taxation policies that are stealing both their present and future,” he said in a statement.

The government has made some concessions, promising to scrap proposed new taxes on bread, cooking oil, car ownership and financial transactions. But that has not been enough for protesters.

The Finance Ministry says the concessions would blow a Ksh200 billion ($1.56 billion) hole in the 2024-25 budget and compel the government to make spending cuts or raise taxes elsewhere.

Tuesday’s protests began in a festival-like atmosphere but as crowds swelled, police fired tear gas in Nairobi’s Central Business District and the poor neighbourhood of Kibera. Protesters ducked for cover and threw stones at police lines.

See also  At least 60 people killed in Israeli airstrikes across Gaza Strip

Police also fired tear gas in Eldoret, Ruto’s hometown in Western Kenya, where crowds of protesters filled the streets, and many businesses were closed for fear of violence.

Further clashes broke out in the coastal city of Mombasa and demonstrations were held in Kisumu and Garissa in Eastern Kenya, where police blocked the main road to neighbouring Somalia’s port of Kismayu.

In Nairobi, people chanted “Ruto must go” and crowds sang in Swahili: “All can be possible without Ruto”. Music played from loudspeakers and protesters waved Kenyan flags and blew whistles in the few hours before the violence escalated.

Police did not respond to Reuters requests for comment.

Organic movement

Thousands had taken to the streets of Nairobi and several other cities during two days of protests last week as an online, youth-led movement gathered momentum.

Protests in Kenya have usually been called by political leaders who have been amenable to negotiated settlements, but the young Kenyans in the current demonstrations have no official leader and they have been growing increasingly bold in their demands.

While protesters initially focused on the finance bill, their demands have broadened to demand Ruto’s resignation.

Amid the unrest, Kenya’s sovereign dollar bonds slid on Tuesday afternoon, Tradeweb data showed. The 2034 maturity fell the most, trading 0.6 cents lower at 74.7 cents on the dollar.

“They are budgeting for corruption,” said protester Hussein Ali, 18.

“We won’t relent. It’s the government that is going to back off. Not us.”

More articles

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Latest article