Protests Erupt in Kenya Over Tax Hike Proposals

Hundreds of people flocked to the center of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, on Tuesday to protest a proposed finance bill that many fear would significantly raise their already-elevated cost of living by adding new taxes and increasing others on a wide range of goods and services.

Protesters wearing black T-shirts and blowing whistles and vuvuzelas gathered near the Parliament, adding to an outpouring of online anger trumpeted through hashtags and videos on TikTok. Lawmakers have also been flooded with phone calls and text messages pressuring them to reject the bill.

Police officers used tear gas and water cannons against the protesters and quickly started making arrests. More than 200 people, including journalists, were arrested, a coalition of human rights groups said in a statement. The police have not yet issued a statement on the number of arrests.

Businesses in the central business district closed their doors as police officers chased demonstrators and sirens rang through the streets.

As protests rocked the city, the government announced it would drop some of the new taxes, including on bread. Opposition lawmakers dismissed the concession as a “PR exercise.”

“The frustration has been building and now it’s blowing up,” said Hanifa Adan, a community worker who is among the organizers of the protests.

“We are calling and texting our lawmakers to tell them that your loyalty lies with us voters and we say no to this bill,” she said. Ms. Adan said in a post on social media that the police had arrested her just before the protests began on Tuesday.

The bill, which was first presented in Parliament last month, introduces new taxes and levies that would increase the price of goods such as bread, diapers and cars. It increases import duties for goods, and raises taxes on telephone and internet data as well as money transfer fees charged by banks and other financial services. It also raises taxes for companies and operators of digital businesses such as ride-hailing and food-delivery services.

On Tuesday, Mr. Ruto’s parliamentary alliance, which has a majority in the national assembly, announced some measures would be dropped, including the tax on bread and the excise duty on vegetable oil.

“We have listened to you,” Kimani Ichung’wah, the majority leader in Parliament, said in a news conference. “We have heard you.”

However, the reversal of some of the measures did not assuage protesters in the streets of Nairobi. “Down, down finance bill,” they chanted, and “The people united can never be defeated.”

Opposition members of Parliament said they would not support the bill. The debate on the proposal starts Wednesday.

“I urge all members of Parliament to still vote no against the draconian, oppressive finance bill,” said Babu Owino, an opposition lawmaker. Mr. Owino called the government’s reversal on some of the proposals a “PR exercise” and accused it of being “disconnected” from the day-to-day life of ordinary Kenyans.

Officials with the National Treasury have said the tax measures are critical for raising revenue and keeping borrowing limited in an economy encumbered by high debt.

But activists, economists and religious leaders all say higher taxes could deter investment, stifle growth and make Kenya a less competitive destination in East Africa. They also say the plan would batter crucial industries like manufacturing, transportation and financial services.

“The conversation around settling debt and balancing that with economic growth is important in a country facing fiscal challenges like Kenya is today,” said John Kinuthia, a senior program officer with the International Budget Partnership Kenya, a nonprofit.

“But even as it looks for new resources, the government needs to be alive to the hue and cry that has come with these new measures and its impact, especially at the household level.”

Mr. Ruto, a wealthy businessman who grew up poor, was elected on a platform of improving the economy for millions of Kenyans struggling to make a living. That has not happened, his critics say.

His administration raised the cost of health insurance and pension contributions for salaried employees. It scrapped fuel subsidies, introduced a housing levy and raised electricity prices. The measures — exacerbated by a biting drought followed by destructive floods — led to job losses and factory closures, according to experts.

The spike in the cost of living also sparked demonstrations last year in which the police killed at least 57 people, according to rights groups.

“It’s just been one pain after pain,” said Catherine Mueni Mutuku, who owns a grocery store in the capital, Nairobi. Ms. Mutuku said she’s been struggling to pay rent for her store and home while paying school fees for her child in high school.

“The politicians have really pushed us,” said Ms. Mutuku, who attended the protest Tuesday. “It’s like they aren’t feeling our pain.”

As Mr. Ruto has raised taxes and cut back on spending, his government has been dogged by major corruption scandals. His global trips and his penchant for expensive shoes and watches have also drawn ire on social media. Many Kenyans call him “Zakayo,” in reference to Zacchaeus, the biblical tax collector.

Yet through it all, Mr. Ruto, 57, has not only doubled down on his moves but also promised to increase taxes over the next few years. “I am not going to preside over a bankrupt country,” he said last month. “We have to begin to live within our means.”

Over the past few days, Kenyans have been sharing the contacts of their lawmakers online and asking constituents to push them to reject the bill. Lawmakers say they have been inundated with messages and calls.

Ms. Adan, the protest organizer, said people of all political and economic stripes were united against the bill, showing how dire the situation was across the country.

“Ruto and his policies have turned everyone into an activist,” she said. “This is not just a poor people’s protest. This is everyone’s protest.”

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