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Kenya: What's behind the deadly protests?

June 26, 2024

Proposed tax hikes are just one factor that has prompted Kenya's nationwide protests. Citizens are unhappy about the rising cost of living, and have accused the president of making false promises.

Protesters gather during a nationwide strike to protest against tax hikes and the Finance Bill 2024 in downtown Nairobi, on June 25, 2024.
Image: Amaury Falt-Brown/AFP

Kenya finds itself plunged into uncertainty a day after protesters stormed parliament amid violent demonstrations over a controversial tax plan. How did we get here?

Kenya's controversial finance bill

A finance bill outlines how the government wants to spend money. It's often presented to parliament before the beginning of the fiscal year, which, in Kenya, runs from July to June.

Young protesters in Kenya identifying as Generation Z have for days rallied against the country's finance bill, which they argue will raise taxes on already overtaxed Kenyan workers. Following a public outcry, the government abandoned its plan to put a 16% tax on bread and a 25% duty on cooking oil, but the protesters want the entire bill to be dropped.

Despite being East Africa's economic powerhouse Kenya still grapples with youth unemployment, and many Kenyans struggle to make ends meet.

Why does Ruto want to raise taxes?

The Kenyan government wants to raise more revenue to pay back billions of dollars in external debts. Kenya's public debt is around 68% of its gross domestic product (GDP) — significantly higher than the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank's suggested level of 55% of GDP, which is the value of all goods and services produced in a given period.

Critics of President Ruto have likened him to the biblical Zacchaeus, a tax collector who used to defraud people by inflating figures of what they owed the Roman government.

Through the contentious 2024-25 bill, Ruto's administration hopes to collect an extra $2.7 billion (€2.5 billion). Many Kenyans have accused the current government of corruption and mismanagement, alleging that tax funds are allocated to places with no priority. For example, in the bill, Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua requested 2.6 billion shillings (€19 million/$20 million) to renovate his offices, arguing that they have not been refurbished in the past 15 years.

In 2022, Kenya's external debt was more than $76 billion.

Did Ruto lie to Kenyan voters?

While campaigning for Kenya's top job in 2022, Ruto convinced his supporters he would implement a bottom-up economic model. The idea was that such an approach would bring down the cost of living, eradicate hunger, create jobs and thereby expand the tax bracket.

But his administration has been rocked by strikes from civil servants over unpaid salaries and demands for higher wages. His critics have accused him of lying to voters and focusing more on increasing taxes, while doing little to improve the economic welfare of Kenyans, particularly those working in the informal sector.

Ruto has defended his budgetary plans, saying Kenyans cannot continue to live beyond their means. His government has laid most of the budget deficit and debts on former President Uhuru Kenyatta's government, in which Ruto was deputy president.

What is the political situation in Kenya?

Protests against the tax hikes involved at least 35 of Kenya’s 47 counties. In some instances, looting and destruction of property were reported.

The country remains tense following Tuesday's protests and a defiant speech by Ruto, who described the protests as "treason." In his address to the nation, Ruto warned he would spare no state resources to bring to justice "criminals" whom he accused of hijacking the protests.

There were reports that he had ordered the military to support the police during Tuesday's protests. Opposition leader Raila Odinga and former President Kenyatta have called on the government to end the violence on protesters and "listen to the people."

Kenya's political landscape is a complex interplay of ethnic alliances, economic interests and historical grievances that date back to the country's independence from its British colonizers in 1963. The East African nation is typically a stable democracy, but has a history of disputed elections.

Is it safe to travel to Kenya?

The safety of visiting Kenya relies on several things, such as the particular areas one plans to tour and the level of unrest that exists at the moment. Here are some crucial things to remember:

Urban areas: Major cities like Nairobi and Mombasa have experienced protests. Travelers should stay informed about current events and avoid large gatherings or demonstrations.

Tourist spots: Popular tourist destinations, such as national parks and coastal areas, are generally safer but can still be affected by nationwide unrest. It's advisable to check for any travel advisories or restrictions.

Local advice: Once in Kenya, it's crucial to follow local news and heed advice from local authorities regarding safe areas and practices.

Ruto: Those behind violence 'hereby put on notice'

Edited by: Keith Walker

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