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Thousands in Kenya demonstrate against proposed new taxes

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Thousands of mostly young people demonstrated Thursday in Kenya’s capital and across the country against new tax proposals by the administration of President William Ruto in its annual budget legislation.

The protests brought Nairobi’s central business district to a standstill as horse-riding riot police threw tear-gas cannisters and opened water cannons on demonstrators who advanced towards parliament buildings, where lawmakers debated the finance bill.

The protesters, who began their demonstrations in a first round on Tuesday, are demanding that lawmakers vote against the legislation, which is expected to be burdensome for salaried Kenyans, entrepreneurs and consumers. They say Ruto has gone back on his pledge to reduce taxes and lower the cost of living.

The new taxes would include a 2.75% levy on income for the national medical insurance plan, as well as increased taxes on vegetable oil and fuel, which would increase the cost of production and trickle down to the consumer.

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Proposals to introduce a 16% value-added tax on bread and a new annual tax on motor vehicles were removed from the legislation Tuesday after a meeting between Ruto and ruling party members.

But those who demonstrated Thursday said the amendments did not go far enough and that they want legislators to totally reject the budget legislation.

“Our parents have been taxed dry, yet there’s no development to show for it. We reject any additional taxes and will stay on the streets for as long as it takes,” Ashley Mwai said.

The 19-year-old who has never voted said the new taxes have made her get involved in politics for the first time for the sake of her parents who do not have the energy to join protests.

“As much as I’m not earning an income yet, additional taxes will increase the prices of food and transport, making life unbearable for us young people,” Mwai said.

Businessman Walter Mwangi, 34, said he’s struggling to earn a living because taxes are already crippling his consultancy business. "We are sick and tired,” Mwangi said.

Lawmakers were debating and voting Thursday on the legislation in its second reading. It is due for its third and final reading next week. Meanwhile, demonstrators tried to breach a security cordon to access parliament buildings, carrying anti-government placards and chanting against Ruto.

The president was attending a university event in the southeastern town of Garissa where anti-government protesters lined the street leading to the event venue.

Young people also demonstrated in the president's home turf of Eldoret town, where they told journalists they had been duped into voting for Ruto.

Ruto said earlier in the week that the protests were a constitutional right, but that government institutions must carry out their mandate.

“We are a democratic country. Those who want to demonstrate it is their right, no problem. But decisions have to be made by institutions," Ruto said Wednesday.

"We will make decisions as an executive, take it to the legislature, people of Kenya will speak to it through public participation, others will subject it to court processes and that is how democracy works and I am a great believer in democracy,” he said.

Tuesday's protests saw more than 200 people arrested and later released.

The right to protest is enshrined in the Kenyan constitution and organizers have to notify police who often give a go-ahead unless there are security concerns. Previous anti-government protests in Nairobi have often been met by police force with protesters in the past shot at by the police.

Evelyne Musambi, The Associated Press