‘The people have spoken’: Kenya’s Ruto pulls finance bill after protest deathsWed, 26 Jun 2024 18:37:24 GMT

Kenyan President William Ruto said Wednesday that a bill containing contentious tax hikes would “be withdrawn”, dramatically reversing course after more than 20 people were killed in clashes with police and parliament was ransacked by protesters opposed to the legislation.The initially peaceful demonstrations were sparked last week by the 2024 finance bill — which politicians passed Tuesday afternoon — and took Ruto’s administration by surprise as rallies gathered momentum across the country.But the Gen-Z-led protests spiralled into violence Tuesday when police fired live bullets at the crowds outside parliament, leaving the complex ransacked and partly ablaze.Nineteen people were killed in the capital Nairobi, a state-funded rights watchdog said.”I concede and therefore I will not sign the 2024 finance bill and it shall subsequently be withdrawn,” Ruto told a press briefing.”The people have spoken,” he said.”I will be proposing an engagement with the young people of our nation, our sons and daughters, for us to listen to them,” he said, in a marked shift from his late-night address Tuesday when he likened some of the demonstrators to “criminals”.Speaking after Ruto, Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua laid the blame elsewhere, stating it had been “a failure in intelligence”.- ‘Cannot kill all of us’ -Immediately after his speech, prominent protester Hanifa Adan dismissed Ruto’s announcement as “PR”. Referring to his comments the previous night, she said on X: “He made that speech trying to intimidate us and he saw it won’t work hence the PR.” “The bill is withdrawn but are you going to bring everyone that died back alive ??”Ahead of Ruto’s about-turn, protesters had called for fresh rallies on Thursday.”Tomorrow we march peacefully again as we wear white, for all our fallen people,” Adan had said.”You cannot kill all of us.”Demonstrators shared “Tupatane Thursday” (“we meet Thursday” in Swahili), alongside the hashtag #Rejectfinancebill2024 on social media.Nelly, 26, told AFP Wednesday she would be back on the streets.”We are marching tomorrow for a better future Kenya,” she said.- Cost-of-living crisis -Ruto came to power in 2022 promising to champion the needs of impoverished Kenyans, but tax increases under his government have only made life tougher for those already struggling with high inflation.The Kenyan leader had already rolled back some tax measures last week, prompting the treasury to warn of a gaping budget shortfall of 200 billion shillings.Ruto said Wednesday that withdrawing the bill would mean a significant hole in funding for development programmes to help farmers and schoolteachers, among others.The cash-strapped government had said previously that the increases were needed to service Kenya’s massive debt of some 10 trillion shillings ($78 billion), equal to roughly 70 percent of GDP.- Deadly day -Earlier on Wednesday, Roseline Odede, chairwoman of the state-funded Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, said “we have recorded 22 deaths”, 19 of them in Nairobi, adding that they would launch an investigation.”This is the largest number of deaths (in) a single day protest,” she said, saying 300 people were injured across the country.Simon Kigondu, president of the Kenya Medical Association, said he had never before seen “such levels of violence against unarmed people.”An official at Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi said Wednesday that medics were treating “160 people… some of them with soft tissue injuries, some of them with bullet wounds”.Rights watchdogs have also accused the authorities of abducting protesters. The police have not responded to AFP requests for comment.- ‘Madness’ -A heavy police presence was deployed around parliament early Wednesday, according to an AFP reporter, the smell of tear gas still in the air and dried blood on the ground.A policeman standing in front of the broken barricades to the complex told AFP he had watched the scenes unfold on TV.”It was madness, we hope it will be calm today,” he said.In the central business district, where the protests have been concentrated, traders surveyed the damage.”They didn’t leave anything, just the boxes. I don’t know how long it will take me to recover,” James Ng’ang’a, whose electronics shop was looted, told AFP.The unrest has alarmed the international community, with Washington and the EU calling on Kenya to respect the right to peaceful protest on Wednesday, and the UN urging “accountability” for the bloodshed.Ruto’s administration is under pressure from the IMF, which has urged the country to implement fiscal reforms in order to access funding.