Kenyan tax protest turns ugly: Police fire on protesters trying to storm its parliament, several dead

Demonstrators gesture as police use tear gas to disperse protesters during a demonstration against Kenya's proposed finance bill 2024/2025 in Nairobi, Kenya, June 25, 2024. Photo: Reuters

Demonstrators gesture as police use tear gas to disperse protesters during a demonstration against Kenya's proposed finance bill 2024/2025 in Nairobi, Kenya, June 25, 2024. Photo: Reuters

Published Jun 25, 2024


Police fired on demonstrators trying to storm Kenya's legislature on Tuesday and at least five protesters were shot dead, with sections of the parliament building set ablaze as lawmakers inside passed a bill to raise taxes.

In chaotic scenes, protesters overwhelmed police and chased them away in an attempt to storm the parliament compound, with Citizen TV reporting protesters had managed to enter the Senate chamber.

Police opened fire after tear gas and water cannon failed to disperse the crowds.

Protesters attend a demonstration against Kenya's proposed finance bill 2024/2025 in Nairobi, Kenya, June 25, 2024. Photo: Reuters

A Reuters journalist counted the bodies of at least five protesters outside parliament. A paramedic, Vivian Achista, said at least 10 had been shot dead.

Another paramedic, Richard Ngumo, said more than 50 people had been wounded by gunfire. He was lifting two injured protesters into an ambulance outside parliament.

"We want to shut down parliament and every MP should go down and resign," protester Davis Tafari, who was trying to enter parliament, told Reuters. "We will have a new government."

Kenyan activist Auma Obama, the half-sister of former US President Barack Obama, was among protesters tear-gassed during the demonstrations, a CNN interview showed.

Police eventually managed to drive the protesters from the building amid clouds of tear gas and the sound of gunfire. The lawmakers were evacuated through underground tunnels, local media reported. In Washington, the White House said the United States was closely monitoring the situation in Nairobi and urging calm.

Ambassadors and high commissioners from countries including Britain, the US and Germany said in a joint statement they were deeply concerned by violence they had witnessed during recent anti-tax protests and called for restraint on all sides.

Demonstrators try to obstruct a police vehicle as police use water cannons to disperse protesters during a demonstration against Kenya's proposed finance bill 2024/2025 in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo; Reuters

Internet services across the East African country experienced severe disruptions during the police crackdown, internet monitor Netblocks said. Kenya's leading network operator Safaricom said outages had affected two of its undersea cables but the root cause of the disruptions remained unclear.

Protests and clashes also took place in several other cities and towns across Kenya, with many calling for President William Ruto to quit office as well as voicing their opposition to the tax rises.

Parliament approved the finance bill, moving it through to a third reading by lawmakers. The next step is for the legislation to be sent to the president for signing. He can send it back to parliament if he has any objections.

Ruto won an election almost two years ago on a platform of championing Kenya's working poor, but has been caught between the competing demands of lenders such as the International Monetary Fund, which is urging the government to cut deficits to obtain more funding, and a hard-pressed population.

Kenyans have been struggling to cope with several economic shocks caused by the lingering impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, two consecutive years of droughts and depreciation of the currency.

Finance bill

The finance bill aims to raise an additional $2.7 billion (R49bn) in taxes as part of an effort to lighten Kenya's heavy debt load, with interest payments alone consuming 37% of annual revenue.

Kenya's public debt stands at 68% of gross domestic product (GDP), higher than the 55% of GDP recommended by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Grappling with acute liquidity challenges amid uncertainty over its ability to access capital from financial markets, Kenya has turned to the IMF - which has urged the government to meet revenue targets to access more funding.

Protesters want the government to abandon the planned tax hikes, which they argue will choke the economy and raise the cost of living for Kenyans who are already struggling to make ends meet.

"Ruto must go, Ruto must resign, he must do the honourable thing," senior opposition leader Eugene Wamalwa said in a statement on TV.

Another opposition leader, Raila Odinga,urged the immediate withdrawal of the finance bill to make way for dialogue.

"I am disturbed at the murders, arrests, detentions and surveillance being perpetrated by police on boys and girls who are only seeking to be heard over taxation policies that are stealing both their present and future," he said in a statement.

The government has already made some concessions, promising to scrap proposed new taxes on bread, cooking oil, car ownership and financial transactions. But that has not been enough to satisfy protesters.

Tuesday's protests began in a festival-like atmosphere but as crowds swelled, police fired tear gas in Nairobi's Central Business District and the poor neighbourhood of Kibera. Protesters ducked for cover and threw stones at police lines.

Police also fired tear gas in Eldoret, Ruto's hometown in western Kenya, where crowds of protesters filled the streets and many businesses were closed for fear of violence.

Further clashes broke out in the coastal city of Mombasa and demonstrations were held in Kisumu, on Lake Victoria, and Garissa in eastern Kenya, where police blocked the main road to neighbouring Somalia's port of Kismayu.

In Nairobi, people chanted "Ruto must go" and crowds sang in Swahili: "All can be possible without Ruto". Music played from loudspeakers and protesters waved Kenyan flags and blew whistles in the few hours before the violence escalated.

Police did not respond to Reuters requests for comment.

Organic movement

Thousands had taken to the streets of Nairobi and several other cities during two days of protests last week as an online, youth-led movement gathered momentum.

Protests in Kenya have usually been called by political leaders who have been amenable to negotiated settlements, but the young Kenyans in the current demonstrations have no official leader and have been growing increasingly bold in their demands.

While protesters initially focused on the finance bill, their demands have broadened to demand Ruto's resignation.

The opposition declined to participate in the vote in parliament, shouting "reject, reject" when the house went through the items one by one. The bill will then be subjected to a third and final vote by acclamation on the floor of the house.

The finance ministry says amendments would blow a 200 billion Kenyan shilling ($1.56 billion) hole in the 2024/25 budget, and compel the government to make spending cuts or raise taxes elsewhere.

Amid the rising civil unrest, Kenya's sovereign dollar bonds slid on Tuesday afternoon, Tradeweb data showed. The 2034 maturity fell the most, trading 0.6 cents lower at 74.7 cents on the dollar.

"They are budgeting for corruption," said protester Hussein Ali, 18. "We won't relent. It's the government that is going to back off. Not us."