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Kenya’s Ruto backs down on tax rises after deadly protests

William Ruto
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NAIROBI,– Bowing to intense pressure from nationwide protests, Kenya’s President William Ruto announced on Wednesday that he would withdraw the planned tax hikes. The decision comes after violent clashes outside parliament and across the country left at least 23 people dead and numerous others injured.

In a televised address, President Ruto acknowledged the widespread public opposition to the finance bill. “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 And therefore, I will not sign the 2024 finance bill, and it shall subsequently be withdrawn,” he stated.

Ruto also indicated a shift towards dialogue with Kenyan youth and announced plans for austerity measures, including budget cuts to the presidency, to address the country’s financial challenges without the proposed tax increases.

This concession marks a significant victory for the protest movement, which began as online dissent against tax hikes and quickly escalated into mass rallies demanding comprehensive political reform. The protests represent the most severe crisis of Ruto’s two-year presidency and highlight the delicate balance he must maintain between the needs of his citizens and the demands of international lenders such as the IMF, which has urged Kenya to reduce its budget deficits.

On Tuesday, police opened fire on protesters who had gathered around parliament. Demonstrators breached the parliamentary compound shortly after lawmakers approved the controversial tax measures. The unrest, which spread to at least 35 of Kenya’s 47 counties, including Ruto’s hometown of Eldoret, resulted in 23 fatalities and left many others wounded, according to the Kenya Medical Association.

The protest movement, largely organized through social media, vowed to continue its demonstrations. The hashtag #tupatanethursday, meaning “see you on Thursday” in a mix of Swahili and English, has been widely used to mobilize support. Posts on social media have called for occupations of the State House and the local offices of the World Bank and the IMF, though it remains unclear if these calls come from individuals or a broader movement.

In Nairobi, heavily armed police patrolled quieter-than-usual streets on Wednesday. The protests initially erupted online, driven by young, tech-savvy Kenyans outraged by proposed taxes on essential items like bread and diapers. The movement quickly grew, culminating in thousands taking to the streets of Nairobi and other cities.

Unlike previous protests in Kenya, which were often led by political figures amenable to negotiations, the current demonstrations have no official leadership. This lack of formal structure has emboldened participants, who continue to demand the complete withdrawal of the finance bill.

Although lawmakers had removed some tax hikes from the final version of the bill, such as those on bread and cooking oil, they had included others to avoid a budget shortfall. The government’s attempt to balance fiscal responsibility with public discontent ultimately failed, leading to Ruto’s decision to retract the bill.

As the country awaits further developments, the focus shifts to how the government will address the fiscal gap while maintaining public trust and stability.

Source: Reuters