Protesters plan to hit Kenya’s streets on Tuesday after calling for a nationwide strike as they seek to pressure the government over controversial tax reforms that are before the parliament.

The government has warned protesters against engaging in violence, and has insisted that they must wind up their agitation by 6:30pm local time (15:00 GMT) or sunset, whichever is earlier.

But the government is to blame for the violence that has so far afflicted the protests, say critics of President William Ruto.

One person died as police in Kenya opened fire on thousands of angry protesters on Thursday amid mass demonstrations against the proposed law. At least 200 people were injured and more than 100 arrested in the clashes, according to Amnesty International and other human rights groups.

The protests, which started last Tuesday, have been led by young Kenyans and have been largely peaceful. But on Thursday, as the crowds grew bigger in the capital Nairobi, antiriot police, some of them on horseback, launched tear gas canisters and aimed water cannon to try to hold back demonstrators from breaching government offices in the city’s business district.

Although initially confined to Nairobi, the protests have spread across the country, including Nakuru, Kisumu and Ruto’s hometown of Eldoret, which was brought to a standstill Thursday.

So why are Kenyans protesting, how has the government responded, and what’s next?

What are the controversial tax proposals?

The financial bill being debated in parliament was introduced earlier in May and was debated intensely through the week as opposition lawmakers backed protesters.

It encompasses a wide range of tax reforms and increases, including new levies on monetised digital content creation and a 5 percent tax increase on digital payments like bank transfers and digital money payments. That’s particularly hard-hitting in a country that’s reliant on mobile money.

However, some of the plans that have most irked Kenyans were the proposals to introduce a 16 percent value-added tax (VAT) on bread, and 25 percent excise duty on raw and refined vegetable cooking oil produced domestically.

In addition, a 2.75 percent additional income charge was imposed for salary earners enrolled in the country’s national medical insurance plan. A 2.5 percent annual tax on motor vehicles was also included.

Protesters say all those taxes, especially on bread and vegetable oil, will ultimately increase overall costs. They’re also angry that the bill gives Kenya’s revenue authorities powers to enforce tax collection by accessing bank and mobile money accounts.

Protesters running in Nairobi
Demonstrators run from police during a protest over proposed tax hikes in Nairobi, Kenya, on June 20, 2024 [Andrew Kasuku/AP]

Which taxes have been rolled back?

Last Tuesday, after the protests started, Parliament announced emergency amendments. In a news conference, chairperson of the finance committee, Kuria Kimani, announced that lawmakers would roll back the taxes on bread, oil, motor vehicles and financial transactions, including mobile money payments.

A proposed “Eco Levy” on plastic goods like diapers, sanitary towels and phones, would only apply to imported goods, and not local manufacturers, Kimani said. Medical and housing insurance levies for salary earners were also reduced.

However, protesters were not placated, and demonstrations continued despite the arrests of more than 200 people on June 18. Many said they wanted the entire bill dropped.

On Thursday, demonstrators attempted to occupy Parliament Buildings where legislators were gathering for a second reading of the bill. On social media, young people rallied with the hashtags #RejectFinanceBill2024 and #OccupyParliament. Lawyers and doctors also mobilised to free those detained and to treat the injured.

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

Police in Kenya
Police officers fire tear gas canisters during a protest over proposed tax hikes in a finance bill in Nairobi, Kenya, on June 20, 2024 [Andrew Kasuku/AP]

Why is this politically sensitive?

The new financial bill is particularly painful, protesters say, because it comes amid rising food and living costs in Kenya, and in the wake of previous tax hikes in 2023.

Demonstrators say since the government of President Ruto was sworn in 2022, they’ve been increasingly taxed while public services have not noticeably improved.

Last year, a finance law introduced a 1.5 percent housing tax on the gross income of salaried workers, and doubled VAT on petroleum products from 8 to 16 percent, despite smaller groups of protesters saying it would only further add to the burden of struggling Kenyans at the time.

Ruto, who campaigned on promises to make life easy for Kenya’s working class “hustlers” has justified the recent tax hike proposals, saying it is necessary to pay off a 11.1 trillion Kenyan shillings ($82bn) public debt the country is saddled with.

A lot of that is owed to China. The last government of Uhuru Kenyatta, to whom Ruto was vice president, went on a borrowing spree, signing huge infrastructural deals, including a Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) line connecting Nairobi to the port city of Mombasa.

Ruto is also trying to use the taxes to cobble up more funds to meet a 2024 revenue target of 3.3 trillion Kenyan shillings ($26m).

“We are a democratic country – those who want to demonstrate, it is their right, no problem, but decisions have to be made by institutions,” Ruto said last Wednesday.

“We will make decisions as an executive, take it to the legislature, people of Kenya will speak to it through public participation, others will subject it to court processes and that is how democracy works and I am a great believer in democracy.”

However, over the weekend, Ruto signalled willingness to speak directly to protesters — though no meeting has been organised as of yet.

What’s next?

Lawmakers have pressed ahead with the bill, despite the outrage and attempts to breach Parliament.

On Thursday, parliament members loyal to Ruto voted overwhelmingly in support of the amendments: Of 359 MPs, 204 voted in favour, while 115 voted against.

Ruto’s allies who voted yes say the bill will open up revenue to employ more teachers, allocate more funds to local governments, and improve overall infrastructure. But opposition parliament members insist that it would only burden Kenyans.

The bill will go on to the third and final reading stage this week and is expected to pass into law and take effect from July 1 after Ruto signs off on it.

Protesters meanwhile have pledged not to back down from protests until the bill is thrown out. Demonstrators are expected to be back on Tuesday, when Parliament sits again.

Young people, some of whom have not voted before, say they’re watching how MPs are voting, and are promising to mobilise massively, register and vote out Ruto’s cabinet in the next elections. Some are also calling for Ruto to step down.

Elections are not set to be held until 2027.

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