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Kenya anti-tax protests: Where do things go from here?

June 28, 2024

Protesters are increasingly calling for Kenyan President William Ruto to step down, even after he caved to demands to withdraw a deeply unpopular tax-hike bill.

A protester gestures while showing a bullet as others in the back join in.
Young Kenyan protesters blame the president for the deaths of demonstratorsImage: James Wakibia/ZUMA Press Wire/IMAGO

"It is heartbreaking that we had to get to a point where people had to occupy parliament for our leaders to listen to us," Jim India, a Gen Z activist and legal practitioner in Kenya, told DW.

On Tuesday young protesters breached security and stormed Kenya's parliament, where lawmakers had just passed a controversial tax bill. They set part of the building on fire and engaged anti-riot police in running battles that gripped the nation.

According to the Kenya National Human Rights Commission (KNHRC), at least 23 people were killed during the protests when police moved in to stop them.

Faced with mounting pressure from the protesters, President William Ruto told the nation that he would not sign the tax bill into law and called on the demonstrators to negotiate, but they are now demanding Ruto's resignation.

Kenyans grieve loved ones lost in Gen Z protests

President Ruto 'cornered'

"It feels like he was cornered and forced to [not sign the tax bill] this," India said, adding that the president conceded not out of goodwill or good conscience. "He's out of options."

President Ruto came to power on September 13, 2022, promising Kenyans that he would lift them out of poverty by lowering the cost of living and creating jobs for young people. The Federation of Kenya Employers estimates that the unemployment rate of 15 to 34-year-olds in the country is as high as 67%.

"Right now, we are at [Ruto's] midterm evaluation," Nerima Wako, executive director of Siasa Place, a political hub that provides a space for women and youth to engage in politics, told DW.

"What we are seeing now is the Kenyan people evaluating his team's performance," Wako told DW. She cited several surveys that show Ruto's approval ratings have dropped to below 50%.

"Resignation is a tough one, but I hear a lot of people calling for a recall on the members of parliament who voted yes."

Kenyan President William Ruto gives an address at the State House in Nairobi as members of his party listen in the background.
President Ruto has rejected all clauses in the finance bill and sent it back to parliamentImage: atrick Ngugi/AP Photo/picture alliance

What happens to the rejected finance bill?

The decision by President Ruto not to sign into law the 2024-25 finance bill is unprecedented in Kenya's history. Legal minds have been busy studying the constitution to understand what it means when the president rejects and sends back a bill to Parliament.

"He already wrote a memo to the speaker saying that he rejects all clauses and this leaves us with the 2023 financial bill because the financial year begins on July 1," Wako said, stressing that Ruto's government needs a bill and budget to function.

"The 2023 bill leaves them short by a few billion and so it means they need to reorganize and restrategize," Wako told DW.

Martin Oloo, a political analyst in Nairobi, said Ruto and his government are vulnerable after conceding to protesters' demands. "The youth have read and communicated that which they didn't like in that [finance] bill," Oloo told DW.

However, he hinted that there is an alternative way for President Ruto to use short-term solutions to keep his government running.

"There are temporary mechanisms that they can employ in terms of parliament being asked to approve a temporary budget estimate for, say, three months while the negotiations happen," said Oloo.

Ruto's government accused of extravagance

Political critics and observers have long criticized Ruto and senior government officials for spending on luxury items at the expense of ordinary citizens.

Photos and memes circulating on social media depicting top politicians flaunting expensive watches, shoes, caps, belts and carrying vast sums of cash while at the same time pushing for higher taxes on struggling Kenyans have angered many.

On Friday, June 28, The East African Standard reported that familiar scenes of lawmakers cruising in SUVs on the wrong side of the road were missing, a clear sign of victory for Gen Z.

"We see our politicians live large. They live lives that dollar billionaires can not live," said a furious India, who participated in the protests. "Dishing out money every weekend, showing that money off and wearing designer clothes."

India complained that most of those politicians had not helped to build industries and or run companies. "We are not fools! We know that is our [tax payers] money."

According to him, the government must reduce wastage and corruption to balance its budget. "We can get the additional 300 billion Kenyan shillings ($2.3 billion, €2.1 billion) that the government was seeking to raise through taxes."

Kenya's Ruto withdraws reviled tax bill after protests

Young Kenyan protesters plot next moves 

The Kenya protests show no sign of ending anytime soon. There are reports that a major demonstration is planned for next week.

India said that Kenyan youth have always been on the frontlines of demonstrations. What separates these protests from earlier movements led by opposition figures, is that these youth-led protests lack a specific leader.

"This is unprecedented because it was across party lines, across tribal lines, across age lines, everyone was united for one cause only," he said.

The political analyst Wako suggested that the protest movement in Kenya is likely to persist, but with a shift in its organizational structure.

"That is a good thing because our constitution gives so much direct power to the people that people are now realizing how powerful it is," Wako said, adding that Kenya's progressive constitution explicitly offers protection for the youth against exploitation.

"For me, the fact that we are having conversations about the direction of the country and it's mainly young people having this conversation, I would give it a tick, it's fantastic."

George Okachi contributed reporting

Edited by: Keith Walker

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