Low turnout at Nairobi protest over fears of violenceThu, 27 Jun 2024 16:23:17 GMT

Hundreds of people protested in the Kenyan capital on Thursday where isolated scuffles broke out with police firing rubber bullets and tear gas as turnout by demonstrators dropped sharply following deadly clashes earlier this week.Even after President William Ruto caved in to demands by young protesters to withdraw a deeply unpopular tax hike bill, small groups took to the streets, calling for the Kenyan leader’s removal.But a heavy military and security deployment appeared to dissuade many from showing up, with planned rallies boiling down to isolated scuffles between stone-throwing demonstrators and police, who responded with rubber bullets and tear gas, AFP journalists saw.Scattered crowds numbering a few hundred people made their way to Nairobi’s business district as police in anti-riot gear blocked access along roads leading to Ruto’s office at State House and parliament.After parliament was ransacked on Tuesday, with police opening fire on protesters, Ruto made a surprise U-turn on the tax hikes and called for dialogue with young Kenyans.Cephas, a 24-year-old student who only gave his first name, told AFP that Ruto’s decision had come too late, adding “it’s not about the bill, it’s him. We want him out of office.”He said many protesters had chosen not to show up on Thursday “because they are fearing for their lives.”Several women, who attended previous protests, told AFP they decided to stay away on Thursday.”It’s looking scary out there,” a 26-year-old woman protester told AFP on condition of anonymity, explaining her decision to stay home.Most of those attending Thursday’s rallies were men, AFP journalists saw.- ‘Just goons’ -Shops were largely closed in Nairobi’s business district, with traders fearing unrest.As scuffles broke out, one protester told AFP that the planned rallies had been hijacked by “goons”.”Today was not about Gen-Z, these are just goons,” said Daniel, a 23-year-old engineering student, who gave only one name.”Gen-Z, we are peaceful, we come with phones and flags,” he said, adding that many of his fellow protesters did not show up “because of fear”.Hundreds of protesters also rallied in the port city of Mombasa and the opposition bastion of Kisumu, local TV showed, with some blocking roads and lighting fires in the lakeside city.The largely youth-led protests kicked off last week and caught the authorities off-guard, as Ruto’s government ricocheted between taking a tough line on the unrest and calling for dialogue.But on Wednesday, the Kenyan leader declined to sign the tax increases into law and withdrew the bill.”The people have spoken,” he said, adding that he would seek “engagement with the young people of our nation”.Protesters said they would still rally in memory of those killed in the demonstrations, criticising Ruto’s dramatic reversal as too little, too late.The state-funded Kenya National Commission on Human Rights counted 22 dead nationwide — 19 in Nairobi alone — and 300 injured in the aftermath of Tuesday’s protests, vowing an investigation.- Debt fears -The unrest alarmed the international community, with Washington calling on Kenya to respect the right to peaceful protest and the UN urging “accountability” for the bloodshed.Rights watchdogs have accused the authorities of abducting protesters. The police have not responded to AFP requests for comment.Ruto rolled back some tax measures last week, prompting the treasury to warn of a budget shortfall of 200 billion shillings ($1.6 billion).He said Wednesday that withdrawing the bill would mean a significant hole in funding for development programmes to help farmers and teachers, among others.The cash-strapped government had said previously that the increases were necessary to service Kenya’s debt of some 10 trillion shillings ($78 billion), equal to roughly 70 percent of GDP.Ruto’s administration has been under pressure from the International Monetary Fund, which has called for fiscal reforms in order to access crucial funding.str-rbu-sva-amu