Kenya tensions: Will anti-tax protests erupt again amid nationwide strike? | Protest News

Protesters are set to take to Kenya’s streets on Tuesday, calling for a nationwide strike to pressure the government over controversial tax reforms currently being debated in parliament.

The government has warned demonstrators not to commit violence and urged protests to end by 6:30 pm local time (6 pm GMT) or by sunset, whichever comes first.

But critics of President William Ruto say the government bears responsibility for the violence that has plagued previous protests.

In Kenya on Thursday, police opened fire on thousands of angry protesters during massive demonstrations against the bill, killing one person. At least 200 people were injured in clashes and more than 100 were arrested, according to Amnesty International and other rights groups.

The protests that began last Tuesday have been led by Kenyan youth and largely peaceful, but as crowds swelled in the capital, Nairobi, on Thursday, riot control forces, some of them in riot gear on horseback, fired tear gas and aimed water cannons to try to stop demonstrators from entering a government building in the city’s business district.

Initially confined to Nairobi, the protests spread across the country, including Nakuru, Kisumu and Mr Ruto’s hometown of Eldoret, where they came to a halt on Thursday.

So why are Kenyans protesting, how has the government responded, and what will happen next?

What are the controversial tax proposals?

The Finance Bill being debated in Parliament was introduced in early May and saw a heated debate for a week as opposition lawmakers supported the protesters.

The bill includes a wide range of tax reforms and increases, including a new tax on monetized digital content production and a 5% tax increase on digital payments, including bank transfers and digital money payments, which will be a particular blow to countries that rely on mobile money.

But some of the plans that are most angering Kenyans include the introduction of a 16% value-added tax (VAT) on bread and a 25% excise tax on locally produced raw and refined vegetable oils.

In addition, an additional 2.75% income tax was imposed on salaried workers who were enrolled in the national health insurance scheme, and a 2.5% annual tax on cars was also included.

Protesters say such taxes, especially on bread and vegetable oil, will ultimately increase overall costs, and they are outraged that the bill gives Kenyan tax authorities the power to access bank and mobile money accounts to forcibly collect taxes.

Protesters run from police during a protest against proposed tax increases in Nairobi, Kenya, on June 20, 2024. [Andrew Kasuku/AP]

Which taxes have been reduced?

After the protests began last Tuesday, Parliament Emergency fixesChair of the Finance Committee, Kuria Kimani, announced at a press conference that lawmakers would repeal taxes on bread, oil, cars and financial transactions, including mobile money payments.

Kimani said a proposed “eco-tax” on plastic products such as diapers, sanitary napkins and mobile phones would only apply to imported goods and not to domestic manufacturers. Taxes on health and home insurance for salaried workers have also been reduced.

But the protests were not quelled, and demonstrations continued despite the arrest of over 200 people on June 18. Many called for the entire bill to be withdrawn.

On Thursday, protesters tried to occupy the parliament building where lawmakers were meeting for the second reading of the bill. Young people rallied on social media using the hashtags #RejectFinanceBill2024 and #OccupyParliament. Lawyers and doctors also mobilized to fight for the release of those detained and to treat the injured.

Security authorities justified the violence in Nairobi by saying they respected the constitutional right to protest but that they needed to protect government institutions and acted because they claimed protesters were threatening security around Parliament House. In other cities, protests were peaceful.

Kenya Police
Police officers fire tear gas canisters during a protest against proposed tax increases in the Finance Bill, in Nairobi, Kenya, on June 20, 2024. [Andrew Kasuku/AP]

Why is this politically sensitive?

Protesters say the new finance bill is particularly painful because it comes at a time when food and living costs are soaring in Kenya and on the heels of previous tax increases scheduled for 2023.

The protesters claim that since President Ruto’s administration took office in 2022, taxes have increased while public services have not seen any noticeable improvement.

Last year, a Finance Act introduced a 1.5 percent home tax on salaried workers’ gross income and doubled value-added tax on petroleum products from 8 percent to 16 percent, but a small group of protesters argued that this would only add to the burden on already struggling Kenyans.

Ruto, who campaigned on a promise to make life easier for Kenya’s working-class “hustlers”, justified recent proposed tax increases as necessary to pay down the country’s 11.1 trillion Kenyan shillings ($82 billion) public debt.

Much of this is thanks to China, whose government under Ruto served as deputy president under Uhuru Kenyatta was heavily in debt and awarded huge infrastructure deals, including the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) line linking Nairobi with the port city of Mombasa.

Ruto is also seeking to raise more money through taxes to meet his 2024 revenue target of 3.3 trillion Kenyan shillings ($26 million).

“We are a democracy. For those who want to demonstrate, it is their right and there is no problem. But the decision has to be taken by the institutions,” Ruto said last Wednesday.

“We take a decision as an executive, we take it to parliament, Kenyans have their say through public participation and others take it to court proceedings. That’s how democracy works and I am a big believer in democracy.”

However, while Prime Minister Ruto indicated his intention to speak directly to protesters over the weekend, no meeting has taken place so far.

What’s next?

Lawmakers pushed through the bill despite angry protests and attempts to break into the Capitol.

On Thursday, MPs loyal to Ruto overwhelmingly backed the amendment, with 204 of the 359 MPs voting in favour and 115 against.

Ruto’s allies, who voted in favor of the bill, say it will generate revenue to hire more teachers, allocate more funds to local governments and improve overall infrastructure, but opposition lawmakers say it will only burden Kenyans.

The bill is on third and final reading this week and is expected to become law and take effect on July 1st once signed by Governor Root.

Meanwhile, protesters have vowed not to stop protesting until the bill is scrapped. Demonstrators are expected to turn out again on Tuesday when parliament returns to session.

Young people, some of whom have never voted before, are watching closely to see who their MPs are voting and have pledged to mobilise and register in large numbers in the next elections, and to oust Mr Ruto’s government. Some are calling for him to resign.

Elections are not due to take place until 2027.

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