After protests, Kenya’s president backs down on controversial tax bill


Kenyan President William Ruto announced Wednesday that he would not sign a controversial finance bill that would have introduced new taxes, a surprise move a day after Kenyans stormed Parliament and escalated massive street protests, which were met by a deadly police crackdown. Though the exact toll is still unclear, rights groups say more than 20 people were killed and hundreds injured in the clashes.

“Listening keenly to the people of Kenya, who have said loudly that they want nothing to do with this Finance Bill 2024, I concede,” Ruto said in a Wednesday address to the nation. “Therefore, I will not sign the 2024 Finance Bill, and it shall subsequently be withdrawn.” Ruto added that the government would instead make further austerity measures, beginning with his own office.

While the announcement marks a major concession to protesters, it is unclear if the unrest will fully ease, as activists called to continue protest. The discontent and unrest mark the most significant challenge so far to Ruto’s presidency, now in its second year.

Kenyan President William Ruto backed down from a controversial tax plan on June 26, a day after protests and a subsequent police crackdown turned deadly. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Simon Maina/AFP/Reuters)

Finance Bill 2024 was introduced for debate in Kenya’s Parliament last month. It called for increases in taxable incomes, excise duties and value-added taxes. It also would have introduced new income tax categories to the nation’s finance laws, in a bid to raise revenue in part to combat the nation’s high debt.

Among the measures proposed initially were new taxes on basic commodities and a 2.5 percent tax on motor vehicles.

Even before the protests, Ruto had softened some proposals due to public criticism, including the vehicle tax, a proposed 16 percent VAT on bread and an excise duty on vegetable oil. He also said some locally manufactured products would be exempted from a proposed “eco-levy,” including sanitary pads, diapers, phones and tires.

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Critics of the bill said it would have made life harder for ordinary Kenyans already facing high living costs. Some also called out what they see as the extravagant and lavish lifestyles of some Kenyan politicians, including Ruto.

On Tuesday, as lawmakers pushed the finance bill forward, the week-old protests — led and promoted largely by young people — flared.

Demonstrators breached Parliament buildings in Nairobi’s city center. Part of the building was set on fire.

At least five people were killed in Nairobi as police used violence against demonstrators protesting Kenyan President William Ruto and a new set of tax hikes. (Video: Jon Gerberg, Rael Ombuor/The Washington Post)

Kenyan Defense Secretary Aden Duale on Tuesday deployed the military to support the national police in responding to the protests. As part of the response, police beat protesters and fired tear gas and bullets at them, rights groups reported. Gunshots were also heard around Parliament.

The United Nations, opposition leaders and civil society groups urged restraint and condemned the violence.

The Police Reforms Working Group Kenya, a civil society organization focused on policing, said it recorded 23 deaths caused by police shootings nationwide. It also recorded more than 50 arrests, 22 abductions and 300 injuries, the group said.

In a statement Wednesday, the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights condemned “unprecedented and shocking human rights violations” committed “in the context of exercising the guaranteed right to demonstrate, assemble and picket.” The watchdog commission recorded 21 fatalities during the demonstrations. Most of those who died were “shot with live bullets,” it added.

In his speech Wednesday, Ruto appeared to give a smaller death toll, stating that only six “young people” had died, but expressed regret. “They shouldn’t have lost their lives,” he said. “I wish that would not have happened.”

Ruto said “there would be no extrajudicial killings going forward.” He added that those considered by civil groups to be abducted have since been found in police custody. He said the majority of those injured were “treated and released.”

Announcing that he would not sign the tax bill, Ruto proposed “an engagement with the young people of our nation,” adding that the government would “listen to their views, listen to their proposals, their ideas.” Ruto called for “a conversation as a nation, as to how we manage the affairs of the nation together, the debt, the budget, together.”

He added that he would direct further austerity measures to reduce expenditures, starting with the executive office of the president, including a reduced budget for travel, hospitality and new motor vehicles.

Amid uncertainty about the fate of the bill, Ruto clarified in a presidential memorandum that he had referred the finance bill back to Parliament for reconsideration “with the recommendation for the deletion of all the clauses.”

“The president cited widespread public dissatisfaction with the contents of the bill as the basis for his rejection of the entire bill,” Hussein Mohamed, a spokesman for Kenya’s executive office, said in a news release.

Opposition leader and former prime minister Raila Odinga, who helped lead the protests, said Tuesday that he was “deeply troubled by the violent and deadly crackdown on young, peaceful protesters.” He called for the government to “immediately stop the violence its agencies are meting out on citizens.”

Ruto’s address Wednesday was more conciliatory compared to the previous day, when he called the demonstrations “treasonous.”

As he announced a rejection of the finance bill, he also said he sent “condolences to the families of those who lost their loved ones in this unfortunate manner.”

Even after Ruto withdrew the bill, activists announced that they would still take to the streets Thursday as planned, this time in part to oppose the nation’s violent crackdown.

“Tomorrow we are back to the streets to mourn our fallen heroes, and to demand a better Kenya,” political activist and photographer Boniface Mwangi posted Wednesday on X. “We shall not be hoodwinked by press conferences!”



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