/ 8 July 2024

Kenyans protest detested finance bill amid calls for economic justice

Demonstrators protest in Nairobi’s central business district. Photo by LUIS TATO/AFP via Getty Images

On Sunday 23 June, Kenyans worldwide stood in unity against their country’s finance bill, marking a significant moment in their struggle against crippling tax hikes. 

From the bustling streets of Nairobi to the diaspora strongholds of Los Angeles and Washington DC, a burgeoning movement demanded change and accountability from President William Ruto’s administration. 

The wave of protests intensified calls for the bill’s withdrawal and citizens’ voices were amplified through the hashtag #rejectfinancebill2024, signalling a determined fight against economic injustice.

The protests have pushed some of Kenya’s leaders to reconsider their previous stances. 

On Wednesday, 26 June, Ruto announced the withdrawal of the finance bill. 

The government had said the new taxes were necessary to cut public debt and finance development programmes. 

Kenya’s fast-growing economy has been overshadowed by the issue of its debt. The country owes about $80 billion in domestic and foreign public debt, which stands at 68% of Kenya’s GDP.

The proposed bill would increase taxes on already expensive goods and services, affecting basic commodities such as bread, vegetable oil, sugar and fuel. 

This would also extend to items that qualify under the eco-levy. The environmental tax was proposed to cut back on micro-pollution and waste management. It targets items such as sanitary pads, nappies, smartphones and cameras. The bill will also increase existing taxes on financial transactions. 

Ruto inherited a nation dealing with rising inflation, high unemployment and the burden of debt. To combat the debt issue, Ruto turned to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to bring this bill to fruition. Over the past week, Ruto supported recommendations to remove some of the new levies but other government officials argued against these concessions.

After MPs passed the bill on Tuesday 25 June thousands of people took to the streets, primarily in Nairobi. Protesters broke through police lines, stormed the parliament building and set fire to a section of it. 

Al Jazeera reported that Kenyan police fired live ammunition at protesters, which resulted in the deaths of at least five in the crowd. As organisations such as Human Rights Watch have been monitoring the protests, the number of recorded deaths has risen to at least 30, with 300 injured, 35 abducted and more than 50 arrested. 

As protesters marched through Nairobi’s city centre on Tuesday, riot police used tear gas, water cannons, and eventually live ammunition on those on the streets. A CNN team witnessed Kenyan police beating and arresting paramedics who were trying to help the injured. Kenya’s Red Cross said that some of its staff and volunteers were injured. 

The deaths on Tuesday were not the first casualties of the protests. A 29-year-old man, Rex Kanyike Masai, was killed on 20 June while protesting in Nairobi. Masai’s mother, Gillian Munyao, said her son was running from tear gas when he was shot in the thigh by a police officer. Rex was pronounced dead upon arrival at Bliss Hospital.

Amnesty International accused Kenyan police of using excessive force against protesters. A joint statement was issued on 25 June with the Kenya Medical Association, the Law Society of Kenya and the Police Reforms Working Group Kenya (PRWG-K) to call on the state to de-escalate the use of lethal force to protect the lives of demonstrators. The statement also called out the abductions and disappearances taking place by uniformed and non-uniformed police officers. The PRWG-K recognises enforced disappearances as unlawful practices that classify as a gross violation of human rights. 

Despite the government promising Kenyans that there would not be an internet outage, people across the country experienced disrupted and slow internet on Tuesday. Global cybersecurity tracking organisation NetBlocks confirmed that it was tracking a “major network disruption” following the storming of parliament. 

Amnesty International pointed out that the government shutting down and shadow-banning certain hashtags, or banning live coverage, were all violations of human rights. 

On 23 May, Ruto was welcomed to the White House by US President Joe Biden. While hosting Ruto to celebrate 60 years of diplomatic relations between the two nations, Biden announced his decision to designate Kenya as a “major non-Nato ally”. One month after the visit and days after gaining the mentioned status, the country had spiralled into unrest, and protesters in Kenya and abroad have made their rage known.

White House national security spokesperson John Kirby condemned the violence. “The United States has been in touch with the Kenyan government to urge appropriate use of force by the police, to respect human rights … and we will continue to push for calm to prevail,” he said.  

Stephane Dujarric, spokesperson for António Guterres, said the UN secretary general was “deeply concerned” about the violence. 

What does the protest in Washington DC signify?

Kenyans abroad have been organising themselves to stand in solidarity with their counterparts in Kenya. A peaceful demonstration took place in front of the Kenyan embassy on 23 June. The protest came together as people connected through WhatsApp and email groups to share their ideas and feelings about the finance bill.  

One organiser, Ali Badawy, said the goal of the protest was not reaching high numbers, but to have their voices reach Kenya. 

Protesters stood in front of the embassy holding signs decorated with hashtags such as #rejectfinancebill2024 and #RutoMustGo. The street soon became a sea of black, red and green as protesters waved their Kenyan flags and sang protest songs.The crowd also issued “red cards” to MPs who had voted in favour of the finance bill. 

When asked if the Washington protest could qualify as successful, Badawy said success could only be measured by its effectiveness. 

At the protest, Badawy ran into people he said he had not seen in years, including a former college professor who taught him over 20 years ago when he was enrolled at the University of Nairobi. Some people came out after seeing the protest covered by Voice Of America (VOA) reporter Hubba Abdi on Citizen TV, a prominent news outlet in Kenya. 

Badawy said that responses to the media coverage reached a new audience.

“[We were monitored and watched], not only by policymakers and decision-makers in Kenya but across the world. We received comments from MPs behind the bill. We were able to engage them. That’s how we knew there was an impact. We had MPs such as Kimani Ichung’wah, who we’d previously given a red card, responding to us, reposting our videos, and seeing the side of the people.”  

American University student Val Githae spoke about the finance bill having a tax increase from 15% to 20% on diaspora remittances. Ichung’wah initially denounced Githae’s claims but Article 46 B2 of the finance bill notes the increase. After review, Ichung’wah conceded that her claim was true and had the section dropped from the finance bill. 

A few older protesters said they were surprised to see so many young Kenyans because  they thought Kenyans born and raised in the US weren’t fully engaged with issues in Kenya. Others, such as long-time campaigner for human rights, Maina Kiai, showed up to see the young people in DC take over. 

Kiai, an internationally renowned Kenyan human rights activist and founder of the Alliances and Partnerships Programme at Human Rights Watch had a six-year career serving as the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom and peaceful assembly. 

Kiai told the crowd that he was in their position more than 30 years ago as Kenyans protested against former president Daniel arap Moi and pressured him to allow a multi-party democracy. Kiai said he was happy to see a new generation taking on Kenya’s issues. 

In light of the demonstrations, parliament has announced a recess. After the recess, MPs will review the clauses outlined in the bill and decide what should be retained and what should go. Ruto’s decision not to sign the bill has given Kenyans time to continue to voice their opinions, and the MPs time to change their votes and reflect the will of the people.

Akofa Bruce is a fourth-year political science student at Howard University.