Young protesters plan nationwide demonstrations over tax in Kenya

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Protesters in Kenya were set to stage nationwide demonstrations on Tuesday against new tax hikes, seeking to build on momentum that has, in the span of a week, turned an online, youth-led movement into a major headache for the government.

Organizers have also called for a general strike against the finance bill, which aims to raise an additional $2.7 billion in taxes as part of an effort to tame public debt that ballooned over the past decade.

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President William Ruto won an election almost two years ago on a platform of championing Kenya’s working poor.

He now says a heavy debt load, where interest payments alone consume 37 percent of annual revenue, has curbed his ability to fulfil some of his promises.

He has been caught between the competing demands of lenders like the International Monetary Fund, which is urging the government to cut deficits, and a population reeling from cost-of-living increases brought on by inflation and steep tax rises enacted in last year’s finance bill.

Thousands took to the streets of the capital Nairobi and more than a half-dozen other cities during two days of protests last week.

Although the protesters in Nairobi were almost entirely peaceful, according to Reuters reporters and human rights organizations, police repeatedly fired tear gas and water cannon. One person was killed, in what the police oversight board said was “allegedly as a result of police shooting”.

A police spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment. In remarks on Sunday, Ruto praised the protesters, saying they had been peaceful and that the government would engage with them on the way forward.

While protesters initially focused on the finance bill, their demands have broadened, with many chanting on Thursday: “Ruto must go!”

Organic movement

Political analysts say the protests represent a particular challenge for Ruto because, unlike previous demonstrations led by political parties, they lack an official leader who can be mollified through private negotiation and inducements.

Last week’s demonstrations appeared to be an organic movement organized online by a young cohort of Kenyans.

The government has already made some concessions, promising in amendments to the bill to scrap proposed new taxes on bread, cooking oil, car ownership and financial transactions. But that has not been enough to satisfy protesters, who want the entire bill scrapped.

On Tuesday afternoon, lawmakers will debate the amendments, which the finance ministry says would blow a 200 billion Kenyan shilling ($1.56 billion) hole in the 2024/25 budget, and compel the government to make spending cuts or raise taxes elsewhere.

“Ruto’s alternative is to place greater emphasis on reducing government profligacy - but holding together a political coalition makes this option less appealing,” said Fergus Kell, a political analyst at the London-based think tank Chatham House.

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Over 200 injured, 100 arrested in Kenya tax protests, rights groups say

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