Kenya’s Ruto Vows ‘Full’ Response After Deadly Anti-Tax Protests

Kenyan President William Ruto vowed to take a firm stance against “violence and anarchy” on Tuesday, after protests against his government’s proposed tax hikes turned deadly and rioters destroyed parliament.

Demonstrations spearheaded by youths had been mostly peaceful for the preceding week, but chaos broke out in Nairobi on Tuesday, with crowds throwing stones at police, getting past barricades, and infiltrating parliament grounds.

The military has been dispatched to assist police, who have used tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets, and, according to a rights group, live ammunition against demonstrators.

Five people were killed and 31 injured, according to a joint statement from numerous NGOs, including Amnesty Kenya.

“We shall provide a full, effective, and expeditious response to today’s treasonous events,” Ruto told a press briefing in Nairobi, saying the demonstrations were “hijacked by dangerous people”.

It was inconceivable that “criminals pretending to be peaceful protesters can reign terror against the people, their elected representatives, and the institutions established under our constitution and expect to go scot-free,” Ruto added.

“I hereby put on notice the planners, financiers, orchestrators, abetters of violence and anarchy.”

The United States appealed for calm and 13 Western nations — including Canada, Germany, and Britain — said they were “especially shocked” by the scenes outside parliament.

UN chief Antonio Guterres was “deeply concerned” by the violence and “saddened” by the reported deaths and injuries, his spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

African Union Commission chief Moussa Faki Mahamat also expressed his “deep concern” and called on the country to refrain from further violence.

‘Unleashed brute force’ 

Outrage over proposed tax hikes and simmering anger over a cost-of-living crisis fuelled rapidly growing demonstrations that have caught the government off guard.

“This is the voice of the young people of Kenya,” said Elizabeth Nyaberi, 26, a lawyer at a protest. “They are tear gassing us, but we don’t care.”

“We are here to speak for our generations and the generations to come,” she added.

Amid the clashes, global web monitor NetBlocks reported that a “major disruption” had hit the country’s internet service.

In the aftermath of the parliament compound breach, local TV showed images of ransacked rooms with smashed windows, while cars parked outside were vandalised and flags destroyed, according to an AFP reporter.

The governor’s office in Nairobi City Hall — just a few hundred metres from parliament — was set alight, footage on privately owned Citizen TV showed, with a water cannon attempting to douse the fire.

After reports that live ammunition was fired at protesters, Kenya’s main opposition coalition, Azimio, said the government had “unleashed brute force on our country’s children”.

“Kenya cannot afford to kill its children just because the children are asking for food, jobs and a listening ear,” it said in a statement.

The military deployment was “in response to the security emergency” across Kenya, Defence Minister Aden Bare Duale said in a statement.

Despite the heavy police presence, thousands of protesters had earlier marched peacefully through Nairobi’s business district, many live-streaming the action as they sang and beat drums in their push towards parliament.

Crowds also marched in the port city of Mombasa, the opposition bastion of Kisumu, and Ruto’s stronghold of Eldoret, images on Kenyan TV channels showed.

Protesters ‘Abducted’

On X Tuesday, Amnesty International’s Kenya chapter stated that “the pattern of policing protests is deteriorating fast” and urged the government to respect demonstrators’ right to assembly.

Rights groups have also accused the authorities of kidnapping demonstrators.

The Kenya Human Rights Commission stated that the majority of the abductions took place at night and were “conducted by police officers in civilian clothes and unmarked cars,” and demanded the unconditional release of all abductees.

Police have not responded to AFP’s requests for comment on the claims.

The cash-strapped government agreed last week to reverse many tax increases.

However, it aims to hike other taxes to cover the hole created by the reforms, such as fuel costs and export taxes, citing the need to fill state coffers and reduce reliance on external borrowing.

Critics argue that the decision will raise the cost of living in a country already plagued by high inflation and where many young Kenyans are unable to obtain well-paying employment.

Kenya has one of the most active economies in East Africa, but one-third of its 52 million people live in poverty.

The government has a massive debt mountain, whose servicing costs have skyrocketed as the value of the local currency has fallen over the last two years, increasing the cost of interest payments on foreign-currency loans.

After the government agreed to eliminate fees on wheat purchases, car ownership, and financial and mobile services, the Treasury warned of a 200 billion shilling ($1.56 billion) budget shortfall.

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