Kenya’s President Reverses Course on Tax Bill After Deadly Protests

Kenyan President William Ruto announced on Wednesday that he would not sign into law a finance bill proposing new taxes, a day after protesters stormed parliament and several people were shot dead. The incident, the largest assault on the government in decades, occurred after the government sought to raise funds to pay off debt. However, Kenyans argued that the bill would exacerbate economic hardship for millions struggling to make ends meet. The chaos on Tuesday led the government to deploy the military, with Ruto labeling the protesters’ actions as “treasonous.”

The president now claims the bill caused “widespread dissatisfaction” and has conceded to public pressure. This represents a significant setback for Ruto, who came to power promising economic relief for Kenyans but has faced widespread opposition to his latest reform attempt. “It is necessary for us to have a conversation as a nation on how to do we manage the affairs of the country together,” he said.

Kenyans were met with the lingering smell of tear gas and a heavy military presence in the streets a day after thousands stormed parliament, an act of defiance Ruto deemed an “existential” threat. At least 22 people were killed, according to a human rights group, with accusations of police involvement in some shooting deaths. Ruto acknowledged the deaths, calling it an “unfortunate situation,” and offered condolences. He also stated that approximately 200 people were wounded.

While Nairobi has seen protests in the past, activists and others warned that the stakes were higher this time. Ruto vowed on Tuesday to suppress unrest “at whatever cost,” despite calls for further protests at State House on Thursday. “We are dealing with a new phenomenon and a group of people that is not predictable. If it would have been the normal demonstrations, I’d say it will fizzle out with time, but we don’t know whether these people will fear the army,” said Herman Manyora, an analyst and professor at the University of Nairobi. He added that the president missed an opportunity to adopt a more conciliatory approach in his national address on Tuesday night.

Kenya’s High Court on Wednesday ordered the suspension of the military deployment following a challenge by the Kenya Law Society. Kenyans united across tribal and other divisions in their efforts to prevent the finance bill from becoming law. The bill would have raised taxes and fees on a range of daily items and services, including egg imports and bank transfers.

While there were no reports of violence on Wednesday, fear remained prevalent. Civil society groups reported abductions of individuals involved in recent protests and expect more to occur. The High Court ordered police to release all those arrested during the protests. Ruto stated that those allegedly abducted had either been released or processed in court.

Many young people who played a significant role in electing Ruto to power in 2022, driven by his promises of economic relief, now oppose the pain of his reforms. A portion of the parliament building was burned on Tuesday, and clashes occurred in various communities beyond the capital. The Kenya National Human Rights Commission reported at least 22 deaths and 300 injuries, along with 50 arrests.

Edith Wanjiku, the mother of a teenager killed in the protests, told journalists at a morgue that the police who shot her son should be charged with murder, as her 19-year-old son had been unarmed. “He had just completed school and was peacefully protesting,” she said.

Parliament, city hall, and the supreme court were cordoned off with “Crime Scene Do Not Enter” tape. Authorities reported that police fired over 700 blanks to disperse protesters in the Nairobi suburb of Githurai overnight.

“My plea to the president is to listen to us and understand that this financial bill they want to pass is not as important as people’s lives,” said Gideon Hamisi, a Nairobi businessman. “Many young people lost their lives yesterday. I am a young man, and I feel deeply pained by what transpired.”

Opposition leader Raila Odinga called for dialogue, asserting that Kenya’s constitution had been suspended. “Kenya cannot afford to kill its children just because the children are asking for food, jobs and a listening ear,” he said in a statement.

Nairobi, a regional hub for expatriates and home to a complex system of inequality among Kenyans, has witnessed a sharpening of long-held frustrations over state corruption. The booming young population is also frustrated by the lavish lifestyles of politicians, including the president. Some who had passionately supported Ruto, who won power by portraying himself as a “hustler” of humble background, feel betrayed.

The youth, often referred to as Gen Zs, mobilized the protests and sought to prevent lawmakers from approving the finance bill on Tuesday. Ruto had two weeks to sign the bill into law.

The president’s concession was “self preservation” by a leader concerned about his reputation, wrote opposition Sen. Edwin Sifuna on X.

These events mark a sharp turn for Ruto, who has been embraced by the United States as a welcome partner in Africa while frustration with the U.S. and other Western powers grows elsewhere on the continent. In May, Ruto traveled to Washington for the first state visit by an African leader in 16 years. On Tuesday, as the protests erupted, the U.S. designated Kenya as its first major non-NATO ally in sub-Saharan Africa, a largely symbolic gesture highlighting their security partnership. Also on Tuesday, hundreds of Kenyan police were deployed to lead a multinational force against gangs in Haiti, an initiative that received thanks from U.S. President Joe Biden.

Now, Kenya’s government, along with protesters, face calls for calm from partners including the U.S., which joined a dozen other nations in a statement on Tuesday expressing “deep concern” over the violence and abductions.

“How did we get here?” Kenya’s vice president, Rigathi Gachagua, asked on Wednesday in nationally broadcast comments after the president’s turnabout, openly questioning how the government had become so unpopular in just two years. “We were the darling of the Kenyan people.”