July 17th, 2024

Kenya’s president says he won’t sign finance bill that led protesters to storm parliament

By Evelyne Musambi, The Associated Press on June 26, 2024.

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) – Kenyan President William Ruto says he won’t sign into law a finance bill proposing new taxes a day after protesters stormed parliament and several people were shot dead.

The government wanted to raise funds to pay off debt. Kenyans said the bill caused economic pain as millions struggle to get by. The chaos on Tuesday led Kenya’s government to deploy the military, and Ruto called protesters’ actions “treasonous.” It was the biggest assault on Kenya’s government in decades.

The president says the bill caused “widespread dissatisfaction” and he has listened to the people.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) – Kenyans faced the lingering smell of tear gas and military in the streets Wednesday, a day after protesters stormed parliament over a tax plan that would increase the cost of living – an act of defiance that President William Ruto called an “existential” threat. At least 22 people were killed, a human rights group said.

The capital, Nairobi, has seen protests in the past, but activists and others warned the stakes are more dangerous after the biggest assault on Kenya’s government in decades. Ruto called the events “treasonous” and vowed to quash unrest “at whatever cost.” Soldiers patrolled alongside police, who have been accused of shooting several people dead on Tuesday.

More protests are expected as Kenyans unite beyond tribal and other divisions in a youth-led effort to keep the finance bill from becoming law. It would raise taxes and fees on a range of daily items and services, from egg imports to bank transfers, increasing the pain of a majority of the country’s people who struggle to get by. The government is intent on raising revenue to pay off debt in East Africa’s economic hub.

There were no reports of violence Wednesday, but there was fear. Civil society groups have reported abductions of people involved in recent protests and expect more to come.

“We are dealing with a new phenomenon and a group of people that is not predictable. If it would have been the normal demonstrations, I’d say it will fizzle out with time, but we don’t know whether these people will fear the army,” said Herman Manyora, an analyst and professor at the University of Nairobi.

He said Kenya’s president missed an opportunity in his national address Tuesday night speech to calm tensions and adopt a more conciliatory approach.

“We expected him to appreciate the gravity of the issue and empathize with the young people,” Manyora said. “Instead, people saw an angry president who is reading a riot act to the nation.”

Many young people who helped vote Ruto into power with cheers for his promises of economic relief now object to the pain of reforms. Thousands stormed parliament on Tuesday, and part of the building burned. Clashes occurred in several communities beyond the capital.

At least 22 people were killed, the Kenya National Human Rights Commission said. Commission chairperson Roseline Odede told journalists that 300 others were injured and 50 people were arrested.

The mother of a teenager who was killed, Edith Wanjiku, told journalists at a morgue that the police who shot her son should be arrested and charged with murder because her 19-year-old son had been unarmed.

“He had just completed school and was peacefully protesting,” she said.

Parliament, city hall and the supreme court were cordoned off Wednesday with tape reading “Crime Scene Do Not Enter.” Authorities said police fired over 700 blanks to disperse protesters in the Nairobi suburb of Githurai overnight. Videos of the gunfire were shared online.

Opposition leader Raila Odinga condemned the killing of protesters and “brute force” of authorities and called for dialogue, asserting that Kenya’s constitution had been suspended.

“Kenya cannot afford to kill its children just because the children are asking for food, jobs and a listening ear,” Odinga said in a statement.

In Nairobi, a regional hub for expatriates and home to a United Nations complex, inequality among Kenyans has sharpened along with long-held frustrations over state corruption. A booming young population is also frustrated by the lavish lifestyles of politicians including the president. Some who had passionately supported Ruto, who won the presidency by portraying himself as a “hustler” of humble background, feel betrayed.

The youth, commonly referred to as Gen Zs, mobilized the protests and sought to keep lawmakers from approving the finance bill on Tuesday. Ruto now has two weeks to sign the bill into law.

The events are a sharp turn for Ruto, who has been embraced by the United States as a welcome partner in Africa while frustration grows elsewhere on the continent with the U.S. and some other Western powers.

In May, Ruto went to Washington in the first state visit by an African leader in 16 years. On Tuesday, as the protests exploded, the U.S designated Kenya as its first major non-NATO ally in sub-Saharan Africa, a largely symbolic act but one highlighting their strong security partnership. Also Tuesday, hundreds of Kenyan police deployed to lead a multinational force against gangs in Haiti, an initiative that brought thanks from U.S. President Joe Biden.

Now Kenya’s president and his government – along with protesters – face pleas for calm and pressure from partners including the U.S., which joined a dozen other nations in a statement Tuesday expressing “deep concern” over the violence and abductions.

“Let’s reason together,” the Daily Nation’s front page said.

___

Associated Press journalist Brian Inganga in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed.

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