Kenya’s president says he won’t sign finance bill that led protesters to storm parliament


NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Kenyan President William Ruto said Wednesday he won’t sign into law a finance bill proposing new taxes, a day after protesters stormed parliament and several people were shot dead. It was the biggest assault on Kenya’s government in decades.

President Ruto says he won't sign into lAw the finance bill
President Ruto gives an address at State House, Nairobi, Kenya, on Wednesday following deadly protests at the country's Parliament. (Image: AP Photo/Patrick Ngugi)

The government wanted to raise funds to pay off debt, but Kenyans said the bill caused more economic pain as millions struggle to get by. The chaos on Tuesday led the government to deploy the military, and Ruto called protesters’ actions “treasonous.”

The president now says the bill caused “widespread dissatisfaction” and he has listened and “conceded.” It’s a major setback for Ruto, who came to power vowing to help Kenyans cope with rising costs but has seen much of the country, led by youth, unite in opposition to his latest attempt at reforms.

“It is necessary for us to have a conversation as a nation on how to do we manage the affairs of the country together,” he said.

Kenyans faced the lingering smell of tear gas and military in the streets a day after the latest protests saw thousands storm parliament, an act of defiance that Ruto had called an “existential” threat. At least 22 people were killed, a human rights group said, and police were accused of some shooting deaths.

Ruto acknowledged deaths, calling it an “unfortunate situation,” and offered condolences. He said about 200 people had been wounded.

Nairobi has seen protests in the past, but activists and others warned the stakes were more dangerous. Ruto on Tuesday vowed to quash unrest “at whatever cost,” even as more protests were called at State House on Thursday.

“We are dealing with a new phenomenon and a group of people that is not predictable. If it would have been the normal demonstrations, I’d say it will fizzle out with time, but we don’t know whether these people will fear the army,” said Herman Manyora, an analyst and professor at the University of Nairobi.

He said the president missed an opportunity in his national address Tuesday night to adopt a more conciliatory approach.

Kenya’s High Court on Wednesday ordered the military deployment suspended after a challenge by the Kenya Law Society.

Kenyans united beyond tribal and other divisions in the effort to keep the finance bill from becoming law. It would have raised taxes and fees on a range of daily items and services, from egg imports to bank transfers.

There were no reports of violence Wednesday, but there was fear. Civil society groups have reported abductions of people involved in recent protests and expect more to come. The High Court ordered police to release all people arrested in the protests. Ruto said those allegedly abducted had been released or processed in court.

Many young people who helped vote Ruto into power in 2022 with cheers for his promises of economic relief now object to the pain of reforms. Part of the parliament building burned Tuesday, and clashes occurred in several communities beyond the capital.

At least 22 people were killed, the Kenya National Human Rights Commission said. Commission chairperson Roseline Odede said 300 others were injured and 50 people were arrested.

The mother of a teenager killed, Edith Wanjiku, told journalists at a morgue that the police who shot her son should be charged with murder because her 19-year-old son had been unarmed.

“He had just completed school and was peacefully protesting,” she said.

Parliament, city hall and the supreme court were cordoned off with tape reading “Crime Scene Do Not Enter.” Authorities said police fired over 700 blanks to disperse protesters in the Nairobi suburb of Githurai overnight.

“My plea to the president is to listen to us and understand that this financial bill they want to pass is not as important as people’s lives,” said one Nairobi businessman, Gideon Hamisi. “Many young people lost their lives yesterday. I am a young man, and I feel deeply pained by what transpired.”

Opposition leader Raila Odinga called for dialogue, asserting that Kenya’s constitution had been suspended. “Kenya cannot afford to kill its children just because the children are asking for food, jobs and a listening ear,” he said in a statement.

In Nairobi, a regional hub for expatriates and home to a United Nations complex, inequality among Kenyans has sharpened along with long-held frustrations over state corruption. The booming young population is also frustrated by the lavish lifestyles of politicians including the president. Some who had passionately supported Ruto, who won power by portraying himself as a “hustler” of humble background, feel betrayed.

The youth, commonly referred to as Gen Zs, mobilized the protests and sought to keep lawmakers from approving the finance bill Tuesday. Ruto had had two weeks to sign the bill into law.

The president’s concession was “self preservation” by a leader worried about his reputation, opposition Sen. Edwin Sifuna wrote on X.

The events are a sharp turn for Ruto, who has been embraced by the United States as a welcome partner in Africa while frustration grows elsewhere on the continent with the U.S. and some other Western powers.

In May, Ruto went to Washington in the first state visit by an African leader in 16 years. On Tuesday, as the protests exploded, the U.S designated Kenya as its first major non-NATO ally in sub-Saharan Africa, a largely symbolic act but one highlighting their security partnership. Also Tuesday, hundreds of Kenyan police deployed to lead a multinational force against gangs in Haiti, an initiative that brought thanks from U.S. President Joe Biden.

Now Kenya’s government, along with protesters, face pleas for calm from partners including the U.S., which joined a dozen other nations in a statement Tuesday expressing “deep concern” over the violence and abductions.

“How did we get here?” Kenya’s vice president, Rigathi Gachagua, asked Wednesday in nationally broadcast comments after the president’s turnabout, openly wondering how the government had become so unpopular in just two years. “We were the darling of the Kenyan people.”

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