Kenyan police use tear gas, water cannon as hundreds protest tax increases | Protests News

The controversial but watered down finance bill which many fear will increase the cost of living will be debated in parliament.

Kenyan police have fired tear gas and used water cannon to disperse protesters gathering near parliament in the capital to demonstrate against planned tax increases that many fear will worsen the cost of living crisis.

Tense scenes unfolded in Nairobi on Thursday as hundreds of people took to the streets in opposition to a finance bill, which proposes introducing new taxes and levies that would increase the price of basic commodities.

The tax increases were projected to raise 346.7 billion shillings ($2.7 billion), equivalent to 1.9 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), and reduce the budget deficit from 5.7 percent to 3.3 percent. percent of GDP.

President William Ruto’s cash-strapped government agreed to make concessions on Tuesday, watering down the bill after hundreds of mostly young protesters clashed with police.

But the government will press ahead with some tax increases and has defended the proposed increases as necessary to fill its coffers and reduce reliance on foreign borrowing.

Protesters have decided to organize demonstrations across the country, including in the Indian Ocean city of Mombasa and the lakeside city of Kisumu, both opposition strongholds.

In Nairobi, lawmakers were debating the bill in second reading before parliament on Thursday. The final version must be approved by June 30. Meanwhile, authorities blocked several roads near parliament and carried out a heavy police deployment.

Al Jazeera’s Malcolm Webb reported from Nairobi city center that protesters outnumbered police on the streets.

“The police are firing a lot of tear gas here this morning… and there is a thick smell of tear gas in the air where we are,” he said. Around him, some people chanted: “Ruto must go!”

“Many of the protesters here are young people, users of social networks. It seems very different from the type of protests we saw in Kenya just over a year ago, called by the political opposition also over the rising cost of living,” Webb said. “The cost of living has been increasing, on and off, since the global (COVID-19) pandemic.”

Tensions were high in Kenya’s capital as hundreds of people took to the streets in opposition to a finance bill, in Nairobi, Kenya, on June 20, 2024 (Monicah Mwangi/Reuters)

‘Targeting the poor’

Kenyans are “fed up with increasing taxes,” Stella Agara, a Kenyan tax justice activist, told Al Jazeera, adding that “especially the increase in austerity measures that continue to target the poorest citizens and are becoming very uncomfortable for most of them.

“But now there is a very interesting group that has come to the fore, which is Generation Z… They have been extremely disinterested in the elections, in voting, etc. But for some reason, this time they are very interested and they are the ones who are in the streets protesting the tax increase, especially because of some of the taxes that are going to be imposed on the creation of digital content, which is a space they dominate.”

Agara said younger Kenyans have also seen their parents’ financial difficulties under “a government that is completely insensitive to their needs”, which is also causing them to react this way.

The presidency on Tuesday announced the removal of proposed taxes on the purchase of bread, car ownership and financial and mobile services, prompting a Treasury warning of a 200 billion shillings ($1.5 billion) deficit as result of budget cuts.

The government has now decided to increase fuel prices and export taxes to fill the gap left by the changes, a move that critics say will make life more expensive in a country already struggling with high inflation.

East Africa’s economic powerhouse relies heavily on diesel for transportation, power generation and agriculture, while many households use kerosene for cooking and lighting.

Tuesday’s protest was largely peaceful, although police also fired volleys of tear gas. At least 335 people were arrested, according to a consortium of pressure groups, including the KNCHR human rights commission and Amnesty Kenya.

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