Kenya's Ruto says finance bill to be withdrawn after anti-tax protest deaths

Author: Editors Desk Source: France 24
June 26, 2024 at 12:35

Video by: Olivia BIZOT

"I concede and therefore I will not sign the 2024 finance bill and it shall subsequently be withdrawn," Ruto told a press briefing, adding: "The people have spoken."

The government plan to raise taxes to pay off Kenya's spiralling national debt sparked protests that turned violent on Tuesday. The state-funded Kenya National Commission on Human Rights said it had recorded 22 deaths and 300 injured victims.

"Listening keenly to the people of Kenya who have said loudly that they want nothing to do with this finance bill 2024, I concede. And therefore, I will not sign the 2024 finance bill, and it shall subsequently be withdrawn," he said in a televised address.

Ruto said he would now start a dialogue with Kenyan youth, without going into details, and work on austerity measures – starting with cuts to the budget of the presidency – to make up the difference in the country's finances.

The move will be seen as a major victory for a week-old protest movement that grew from online condemnations of tax increases into mass rallies demanding a political overhaul, in the most serious crisis of Ruto's two-year-old presidency.

Ruto's cash-strapped government said the increases were needed to service the country's massive debt of some 10 trillion shillings ($78 billion), equal to roughly 70 percent of Kenya's GDP. 

Competing demands

Ruto's announcement may see off the immediate threat of more unrest, but the Kenyan president is still caught between the competing demands of his hard-pressed citizens and of lenders such as the IMF, which is urging the government to cut deficits to obtain more financing.

On Tuesday, police opened fire on crowds who massed around parliament and later broke into the assembly's compound, minutes after lawmakers had voted through the tax measures and sent them on to the president.

Read moreKenyan anti-tax rise protests turn deadly

Protesters had earlier vowed to keep up their demonstrations in messages on social media using the hashtag #tupatanethursday, or "see you on Thursday" in a mix of Swahili and English.

Posts on social media had urged people to occupy State House, the president's office and residence, on Thursday, and the local offices of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on Friday, though it was not immediately clear if the calls came from individuals or a broader movement.

Security tightened

The capital, Nairobi, has seen protests in the past, but activists and others warned the stakes are more dangerous. Ruto on Tuesday vowed to quash unrest “at whatever cost," even as more protests were called at State House on Thursday. Soldiers patrolled alongside police, who were accused of shooting several people dead on Tuesday.

Kenyans united beyond tribal and other divisions in a youth-led effort to keep the finance bill from becoming law. It would have raised taxes and fees on a range of daily items and services, from egg imports to bank transfers. The government wanted the revenue to pay off debt in East Africa's economic hub.

Heavily armed police patrolled the streets of the capital Nairobi, which were quieter than usual on Wednesday.

The protests began as an online outpouring of anger by young, tech-savvy Kenyans at proposed taxes on bread and diapers and evolved into a nationwide movement calling for the scrapping of the entire finance bill including the taxes.

Thousands took to the streets of Nairobi and several other cities during two days of protests last week as an online movement gathered momentum.

Protests in Kenya have usually been called by political leaders who can be 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.

Lawmakers had already removed some tax hikes from the final version of the finance bill on Tuesday, including ones on bread and cooking oil, but inserted others in an effort to avoid a budget gap.

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