July 20, 2024

Kenya’s President Ruto Warns of ‘Attack on Democracy’ After Protesters Storm Parliament

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Protesters on the streets of Nairobu

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By Andres Schipani, FT

Kenya’s President William Ruto said his country had “experienced an unprecedented attack on its democracy” after demonstrators stormed parliament on Tuesday in mass protests against planned tax rises.

Police fired tear gas at protesters outside the building and used live ammunition, leaving at least five people dead and more than 30 injured, according to human rights groups.

The army was deployed later in the day after parts of the parliament building in Nairobi were set on fire and lawmakers fled.

“An otherwise legitimate expression of the fundamental rights and freedoms of assembly, demonstration picketing, and petitioning of public authorities by a section of law-abiding citizens of the Republic of Kenya was infiltrated and hijacked by a group of organised criminals,” Ruto said in a televised address.

“I assure the nation that the government has mobilised all resources at the nation’s disposal to ensure that a situation of this nature will not recur again,” he added.

Earlier on Tuesday, parliament had passed a bill to increase taxes, including fuel levies and import taxes, despite days of protests opposing the move. The law is now awaiting Ruto’s assent.

Demonstrators have called for a shutdown of the economy over Ruto’s $2bn tax rise that aims to plug holes in the deeply indebted country’s budget.

The president wants to reduce the budget deficit from 5.7 per cent of GDP in the current financial year to 3.3 per cent of GDP in the next as he tries to improve Kenya’s fiscal position partly to comply with an IMF programme.

The protesters argue the measures will make it even harder for many of Kenya’s 54mn people to make ends meet.

Young Kenyans — many of them jobless and calling themselves Generation Z — have spearheaded the protests against the law over the past week.

Ruto is using the finance bill to impose heavy taxation on Kenyans,” said Davis Tafari, 25, one of the protest leaders in Nairobi. Calling the legislation “punitive and draconian”, he added: “We will make sure to continue with demonstrations until Ruto is gone.”

In his address, the president thanked “the young people of Kenya . . . for helping our country organise our democratic discourse”.

But he added: “Our national conversation on any subject matter must be conducted in a manner that respects and honours the foundational values upon which our nation is established, namely constitutionalism, the rule of law, and respect for institutions.”

Earlier in the day, the police had tried to disperse the mostly young protesters who were chanting “Ruto must go!”

A group of legal, medical and human rights organisations, including Amnesty International’s Kenya branch, confirmed that at least five were killed and more than 30 were injured — 13 of whom were shot with live bullets.

Ambassadors from a number of countries, including the US, a staunch ally of Ruto, said they were “deeply concerned by the violence witnessed in many parts of the country during the recent protests” and “regret the tragic loss of life and injuries sustained, including by the use of live fire”.

Non-governmental groups on Tuesday said more than 50 people had been arrested in the past 24 hours and that there had been 21 “abductions and disappearances by uniformed and non-uniformed officers”.

Chief Justice Martha Koome said she was “deeply concerned” about the allegations of abductions, a concern also raised by the US and other countries.

As the protests began last week, lawmakers from the ruling coalition dropped some of the most controversial proposals from the bill, including tax rises on bread, cooking oils, nappies, mobile money transfers and motor vehicles. Opposition lawmakers refused to vote on the legislation.

“You cannot amend a bad bill,” opposition lawmaker Otiende Amollo said on Tuesday. “This thing is simple: withdraw the entirety of the finance bill.”

The tax rises aim to bring in an additional $2.3bn of revenue in the fiscal year that starts next week. Kenya’s Treasury secretary Njuguna Ndung’u has warned that failing to approve the tax rises risked creating a $1.5bn hole in the budget and could result in spending cuts, including on services such as school meals.

James Shikwati, a Nairobi-based economist, said: “President Ruto and his team are not keen on austerity but on taxation to align with bullet points from the IMF . . . But if he insists on the bill, I think protests will continue.”

Ruto took office in 2022 vowing to ease the financial burden on Kenyans. But he has faced mass protests after removing fuel subsidies and levying new taxes.

Interest payments on Kenya’s debt have been eating up almost 38 per cent of revenues, according to the World Bank. The nation’s debt — equal to more than 68 per cent of GDP — is at high risk of distress, according to the IMF.

“I am protesting against the finance bill because it is going to hurt the common mwananchi (citizen in Swahili),” said Malaika Agunda, a 21-year-old nursing student who “hustles” to survive on campus. “This bill has to be rejected! Enough is enough!”

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