Kenyan president deploys military to end ‘treacherous’ protests

Kenyan President William Ruto has deployed the army to put down nationwide “treacherous” anti-government protests that have left at least five people dead and scores injured.

The protests were sparked by taxes introduced by Ruto’s administration to generate an additional Sh302 billion ($2.3 billion) in the financial year that begins July 1. Protesters are demanding that lawmakers – who approved the bill Tuesday after dropping some of the most controversial levies such as a 16% tax on bread – to abandon the entire project.

The government has proposed new taxes to improve the state’s finances, address its high debt ratio and access more funding from the International Monetary Fund. While the planned measures helped the shilling become the world’s best-performing currency this year, they also sparked protests from residents facing rising food prices and a youth unemployment rate that the Kenya Employers Federation estimates 67%.

The government “must treat any threat to national security and the integrity of our state as an existential danger to our republic,” Ruto said in a televised address to the nation on Tuesday evening. “Accordingly, I assure Kenyans that we will provide a comprehensive, effective and prompt response to today’s treasonous events.”

Some of the proposed levies that were dropped in the vote included those on mobile money transfers, banking services and imports of various goods including diapers and rubber tires. Lawmakers retained duties on products such as batteries and cellphones, as well as increased import declaration fees and taxes on betting.

Funding gap
Kenyan Treasury Secretary Njuguna Ndung’u said last week that the government’s decision to cut some levies would create a Sh200 billion deficit in public finances.

The Washington-based IMF, which helps countries with balance of payments deficits, often recommends austerity measures to repair the fundamentals of economies – recipes that amount to severe short-term pain as the price to pay for long-term stability.

For decades, the IMF’s measures have made it a lightning rod for criticism from restive citizens of countries who turn to the crisis lender for cash. Governments that impose austerity measures such as spending cuts and the removal of subsidies have often clashed with protesters, resulting in violence and the toppling of administrations.

In Indonesia, the withdrawal of fuel and food subsidies, at the request of the IMF in 1998, led to a revolt that forced dictator Suharto from power. Discontent with the IMF in Argentina in 2001 led to deaths and the resignation of the president. Protests against an IMF loan to Morocco in the early 1980s led to bank burnings and clashes with police that left hundreds dead.

In Kenya, protesters invaded parliament buildings in the capital, Nairobi, on Tuesday, moments after lawmakers passed a series of deeply unpopular tax measures that Kenyans complain are onerous.

“We are defending our future against this finance bill. The tax is too high,” said Derick Nandwa, 20, a computer science student. “We don’t want amendments. We totally reject it.

Death toll

The death toll could rise to eight, according to the KTN television channel. At least 31 people were injured, including 13 shot dead with live ammunition, rights group Amnesty International said in a statement.

Ruto has 14 days to approve the revised measures or ask Parliament for further changes.

To fill the void created by the concessions, lawmakers approved an amendment to increase an import tax, the proceeds of which help finance the operations of a China-built railroad. A new proposal will be introduced to increase the fuel tax by 39%.

The Treasury may also resort to increased borrowing or the introduction of other tax measures. The country’s debt – equivalent to around 67% of GDP – is at high risk of distress, according to the IMF.

Under an IMF program agreed in 2021, Kenya pledged to borrow less, reduce public spending and increase revenue collection. That has made the Washington-based bank an unlikely villain in the protests, where its name is plastered on posters and denounced by angry crowds.

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