Protests in Kenya Over Tax Bill: What to Know

The sting of tear gas, the crack of live bullets and images of wounded people sprawled across the ground accompanied mass protests Tuesday in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, after Parliament passed a controversial bill raising taxes, despite criticism that it would intensify economic desperation.

Crowds breached the Parliament amid plumes of smoke as days of protests against the tax bill ended with police and protesters clashing. At least 22 people died in the violence, according to the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, a state agency.

In recent days, the government has been accused of abducting critics, making mass arrests around the country to quell unrest and using force that caused brutal injuries and at least one death.

Typically a regional bastion of economic security, Kenya has a population of over 54 million. Many of its young people have used technology and social media to organize opposition to the government that they say transcends ethnicities, tribes, races and socioeconomic class.

Here is what we know about the contentious legislation that set off Tuesday’s clashes.

The Ruto government presented Finance Bill 2024 to Parliament in May in what it framed as an effort to increase revenue to help the country deal with immense debt in its borrowing-based economy.

Initially, the bill called for taxes on essentials like bread, cooking oil and cars, but public backlash caused lawmakers to roll some levies back. However, the rollbacks failed to derail public protests.

On Tuesday, Parliament passed the bill. It is expected to increase taxes on imported goods — including some basics, like eggs, from nearby East African nations — as well as on phone and internet usage, bank transfer fees and digitally operated businesses.

Critics of the bill say it will drive up the cost of goods for consumers in a nation already grappling with a high cost of living.

The overall opposition speaks to a trend across Africa, where young people are increasingly bearing the brunt of rising unemployment, and all Kenyans are suffering under high prices driven in part by the coronavirus pandemic and trade disturbances from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In Kenya, an additional factor is the burden of a huge national debt.

Anger and resentment toward President William Ruto, who campaigned on the promise of raising living standards for those in poverty, have inflamed an increasingly dissatisfied public. Mr. Ruto’s government previously raised health insurance and electricity costs, which, coupled with natural disasters, led to demonstrations last year that human rights groups say killed 57.

Kenyans “feel increasingly squeezed by disappearing subsidies and increasing taxes, and misled by a government that campaigned on a message about economic empowerment but has governed with a message about austerity,” said Michelle Gavin, a senior fellow for Africa policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“All of this is happening in the midst of inadequate employment opportunities and the spectacle of ongoing corruption among political elites,” she added. “The Finance Bill has a ‘last straw’ quality about it.”

Mr. Ruto’s luxury lifestyle has been a particular focus of dissent, with critics drawing contrasts to the impoverished members of the public who would be most affected by the pending tax hikes.

Less than a month ago, the White House hosted Mr. Ruto for a state dinner, hoping to bolster the shaky balance of U.S. alliances in Africa. On Monday, Mr. Ruto sent a first contingent of Kenyan police officers to Haiti as part of a Biden administration-led plan to stifle gang violence in Haiti, a deployment that drew domestic criticism. Some questioned whether the Kenyan police, who have a history of brutality, were fit for such a mission.

The Kenyan police have long been accused by rights groups of cracking down on protesters with harsh methods and extrajudicial killings at police stations.

President Ruto has two weeks to either sign the bill into law or send it back to Parliament for amendments.

In a public address on Tuesday evening, Mr. Ruto called the protests “treasonous” and an “existential threat” to the nation and said that the government had “mobilized all resources at the nation’s disposal to ensure that a situation of this nature will not recur again, at whatever cost.”

Aden Duale, Kenya’s defense minister, said the military was assisting the police.

A joint statement made by the embassies of 13 Western nations, including the United States, said they were “shocked” at the violence and “deeply concerned” about allegations that protesters had been abducted. They called for “restraint on all sides.”

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