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

Kenyan President William Ruto gives an address at the State House in Nairobi, Kenya Wednesday, June 26, 2024. Kenyan President William Ruto said he won't sign into law a finance bill proposing new taxes a day after protesters stormed parliament and several people were shot dead. (AP Photo/Patrick Ngugi)
Original Publication Date June 26, 2024 - 12:46 AM

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Kenya's president said on Wednesday he won't sign into law a finance bill proposing new taxes that prompted thousands of protesters to storm the parliament the previous day, leaving several people killed as police opened fire. It was the biggest assault on Kenya’s government in decades.

The government wanted to raise funds to pay off debt, but Kenyans said the bill would have caused more economic pain as millions struggle to get by. Tuesday's chaos led authorities to deploy the military, and Kenyan President William Ruto called protesters' actions “treasonous.”

He now says the proposed bill caused “widespread dissatisfaction” and that 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 its youth — unite in opposition to his latest attempted 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 on Wednesday morning, a day after the protesters' act of defiance that Ruto had called an “existential” threat. Parliament, city hall and the supreme court were cordoned off.

At least 22 people were killed, the Kenya National Human Rights Commission said, and police were accused of some shooting deaths. Chairperson Roseline Odede said 50 people were arrested.

Ruto acknowledged there were deaths, without elaborating, called it an "unfortunate situation” and offered condolences. He also said about 200 people had been wounded in the chaos. Part of the parliament building burned and clashes occurred in several communities beyond the capital, Nairobi.

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

“We are dealing with a new phenomenon and a group of people that is not predictable,” said Herman Manyora, an analyst and professor at the University of Nairobi. “We don’t know whether these people will fear the army.”

The demonstrations showed Kenyans bridged tribal and other divisions to keep the finance bill from becoming law. It would have raised taxes and fees on a range of items and services, from egg imports to bank transfers.

White House national security spokesman John Kirby urged the Kenyan government to exercise “restraint so that no further Kenyans are put in harm’s way while exercising their right to peaceful public assembly."

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. Kenya's High Court ordered police to release all those arrested in the protests. Ruto said those allegedly abducted had been released or processed in court.

Later Wednesday, the High Court, acting on a challenge from Kenyan lawyers, ordered the military be pulled back from the streets. It was not immediately clear if the government would do so.

The mother of a killed teenager, Edith Wanjiku, told reporters at a morgue that the police who shot her son should be charged with murder because her 19-year-old was unarmed. “He had just completed school and was peacefully protesting,” she said.

Many young people who helped vote Ruto into power in 2022, supporting his promises of economic relief, now oppose the pain of reforms. 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.

“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.”

The bill was 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. “Kenya cannot afford to kill its children just because the children are asking for food, jobs and a listening ear.”

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

The events are a sharp turn for Ruto, who has been embraced by the United States as a welcome, stable 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 erupted, 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 President Joe Biden.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had been expected to speak with Ruto on Wednesday about the Haiti deployment, a call planned prior to Tuesday’s violence.

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Associated Press reporters Brian Inganga in Nairobi, Kenya, and Aamer Madhani in Washington contributed to this report.

News from © The Associated Press, 2024
The Associated Press

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