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Kenya youth protesters gear up for nationwide strike

By Rose TROUP BUCHANAN - AFP
Kenya Discontent over the already high cost of living in Kenya spiralled into nationwide rallies last week.  By Patrick Meinhardt (AFP)
TUE, 25 JUN 2024 LISTEN
Discontent over the already high cost of living in Kenya spiralled into nationwide rallies last week. By Patrick Meinhardt (AFP)

Kenya braced for a nationwide strike Tuesday in response to a call by youth protesters for a countrywide shutdown, as opposition to the government's proposed tax hikes gathers momentum.

The mainly Gen-Z-led demonstrations have taken President William Ruto's government by surprise, with the Kenyan leader saying over the weekend that he was ready to speak with the protesters.

Discontent over the already high cost of living spiralled into nationwide rallies last week, sparked by the Ruto administration's proposed tax hikes in the annual finance bill, which parliament must vote on by June 30.

The protests were mostly peaceful, as Ruto noted Sunday in his first public comments on the demonstrations. But the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA) watchdog and rights groups said that two people had died following Thursday's rallies.

Protest organisers called for the police to be held accountable and reiterated their demands for the finance bill to be scrapped in its entirety.

"We're past the talking stage and won't be silenced. We demand an end to police violence, respect for our constitutional rights, and the freedom to speak up without fear of arrest or harm," Hanifa Adan told AFP Sunday.

Several organisations, including Amnesty International Kenya, said at least 200 people were wounded in the protests in Nairobi.

"The country stands at a crossroads," Amnesty's Kenya chapter said in a statement Monday.

"Despite mass arrests and injuries, the protests have continued to grow, emphasising the public's widespread discontent."

Amnesty added that the movement leaves government and police at a "critical juncture, where the escalation of force could lead to more fatalities and legal repercussions."

Abductions

Rights watchdogs have accused the authorities of abducting protesters in violation of the law.

"These abductions are intended to intimidate protesters planning to attend future peaceful demonstrations aimed at pressuring MPs to reject the bill," the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) said Monday.

"These abductions, mostly occurring at night, are conducted by police officers in civilian clothes and unmarked cars," KHRC added, calling for the "unconditional release of all abductees."

The police have not responded to requests from AFP for comment on the allegations.

In addition to a strong social media campaign and street rallies, the protesters have deployed unconventional tactics, including asking bars to stop playing music at midnight on the weekend as partygoers burst into chants saying: "Ruto must go" and "Reject finance bill."

Small numbers of Kenyans also protested at the weekend at several embassies abroad, including in Washington and Paris, according to TV images, organisers and social media.

The protests have also drawn support from some Anglican and Catholic church leaders.

During Sunday mass, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops chairman Archbishop Maurice Muhatia urged the government to take the matter seriously, "and not be in denial".

Debt mountain

The cash-strapped government agreed last week to roll back several tax increases.

But Ruto's administration still intends to raise some taxes, saying they are necessary for filling the state coffers and cutting reliance on external borrowing.

Kenya has a huge debt mountain whose servicing costs have ballooned because of a fall in the value of the local currency over the last two years, making interest payments on foreign-currency loans more expensive.

The tax hikes will pile further pressure on Kenyans, with well-paid jobs remaining out of reach for many young people.

After the government agreed to scrap levies on bread purchases, car ownership and financial and mobile services, the treasury warned of a budget shortfall of 200 billion shillings ($1.56 billion).

The government now intends to target an increase in fuel prices and export taxes to fill the void left by the changes, a move critics say will make life more expensive in a country already saddled with high inflation.

Kenya has one of the most dynamic economies in East Africa but a third of its 52 million people live in poverty.

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Started: 02-07-2024 | Ends: 31-10-2024

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