World/Foreign News

At least five shot dead, dozens wounded as protesters breach Kenya parliament

A bill to raise taxes in Kenya descended into violence yesterday, with police firing on demonstrators trying to storm the legislature, killing at least five.

In chaotic scenes in the capital Nairobi, protesters overwhelmed police and chased them away in an attempt to enter the parliament compound.

Citizen TV later showed damage from inside the parliament building, which had been partially set ablaze.

Protests and clashes also took place in several other cities and towns across Kenya, with many calling for Kenyan President, William Ruto, to quit, as well as voicing their opposition to the tax rises, Reuters reported.

In a televised address to the nation, Ruto said security was his “utmost priority”. He maintained that the tax debate had been “hijacked by dangerous people”.

The president said, “It is not in order, or even conceivable, that criminals pretending to be peaceful protesters can reign terror against the people.” He said pledged a swift response to the “treasonous events”.

Police in Nairobi opened fire after tear gas and water cannon failed to disperse the crowds. They eventually managed to drive protesters from the parliament building and lawmakers were evacuated through an underground tunnel, local media said.

Later yesterday, Defence Minister Aden Duale said the army had been deployed to help the police deal with a “security emergency”, which had resulted in the “destruction and breaching of critical infrastructure”.

Reuters said one of its journalists counted the bodies of at least five protesters outside parliament.

The Kenya Medical Association said at least five people had been shot dead while treating the injured, and that 31 people had been injured, and another 13 shot with live bullets and four with rubber bullets.

The association called on the authorities to establish safe medical corridors to protect medical staff and ambulances.

Ruto won an election almost two years ago on a platform of championing Kenya’s working poor, but had been caught between the competing demands of lenders, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which continued to urge the government to cut deficits to obtain more funding, and a hard-pressed population.

Kenyans have been struggling to cope with several economic shocks caused by the lingering impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, two consecutive years of drought, and depreciation of the currency.

The finance bill aimed to raise an additional $2.7 billion in taxes as part of an effort to lighten Kenya’s heavy debt load, with interest payments alone consuming 37 per cent of annual revenue.

In Washington, the White House said the United States was closely monitoring the situation in Nairobi and urging calm. Ambassadors and high commissioners from countries, including Britain, the US and Germany, said in a joint statement they were deeply concerned by violence they had witnessed during recent anti-tax protests and called for restraint on all sides.

Kenyan activist Auma Obama, the half-sister of former US President Barack Obama, was among protesters tear-gassed during the demonstrations, a CNN interview showed.

Internet services across the East African country experienced severe disruptions during the police crackdown, internet monitor Netblocks said. Kenya’s leading network operator Safaricom said outages had affected two of its undersea cables but the root cause of the outages remained unclear.

Parliament approved the finance bill, moving it through to a third reading by lawmakers. The next step was for the legislation to be sent to the president for signing. He can send it back to parliament if he has any objections.

The government had made some concessions, promising to scrap proposed new taxes on bread, cooking oil, car ownership and financial transactions. But that had not been enough for protesters.

The finance ministry said the concessions would blow a 200 billion Kenyan shilling ($1.56 billion) hole in the 2024-25 budget, and compel the government to make spending cuts or raise taxes elsewhere.

Tuesday’s protests began in a festival-like atmosphere, but as crowds swelled, police fired tear gas in Nairobi’s Central Business District and the poor neighbourhood of Kibera. Protesters ducked for cover and threw stones at police lines.

Police also fired tear gas in Eldoret, Ruto’s hometown in western Kenya, where crowds of protesters filled the streets and many businesses were closed for fear of violence.

Further clashes broke out in the coastal city of Mombasa and demonstrations were held in Kisumu, on Lake Victoria, and Garissa in eastern Kenya, where police blocked the main road to neighbouring Somalia’s port of Kismayu.

In Nairobi, people chanted “Ruto must go” and crowds sang in Swahili: “All can be possible without Ruto”. Music played from loudspeakers and protesters waved Kenyan flags and blew whistles in the few hours before the violence escalated.

Thousands had taken to the streets of Nairobi and several other cities during two days of protests last week as an online, youth-led movement gathered momentum.

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