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Kenya's president has withdrawn the controversial tax bill after deadly protests

Kenyan President William Ruto gives an address at the State House in Nairobi, Kenya, Wednesday. He 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.
Patrick Ngugi
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AP
Kenyan President William Ruto gives an address at the State House in Nairobi, Kenya, Wednesday. He 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.

NAIROBI, Kenya — Kenyan President William Ruto says he will not sign into law a controversial tax bill that has sparked widespread protests across the country, but activists said demonstrations will continue.

More than 20 people died in the protests Tuesday, according to the Kenya Human Rights Commission, which said some were shot by police. Protesters stormed into and set fire to parts of the nation's parliament buildings.

"Listening keenly to the people of Kenya who have said loudly that they want nothing to do with this finance bill 2024, I concede, and therefore I will not sign the 2024 finance bill and it shall subsequently be withdrawn," Ruto said in a national address on Wednesday.

He acknowledged the country has "witnessed widespread expression of dissatisfaction" over Tuesday's vote in parliament, where lawmakers approved the bill, and he expressed regret at the loss of life and destruction of property during the protests.

The president said his government would instead widen austerity measures, including cuts in hospitality and travel expenses for his office. He has sent the bill back to parliament for amendments.

But protesters have vowed to march on Thursday across the country to call for the resignation of the president and all members of parliament who voted for the bill this week.

Protesters scatter as Kenya police spray water canon at them during a protest over proposed tax hikes in a finance bill in downtown Nairobi, Kenya Tuesday, June. 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)
Brian Inganga / AP
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AP
Protesters scatter as Kenya police spray water canon at them during a protest over proposed tax hikes in a finance bill in downtown Nairobi, Kenya Tuesday, June. 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)

This comes as human rights bodies announced a rise in the death toll after Tuesday’s deadly protests outside parliament. The Kenya Human Rights Commission issued a statement condemning the response by police, who have been accused of using heavy-handed tactics during these protests, including live rounds on crowds, beatings and even abductions.

The incidents have also shone a spotlight on the Kenyan police who have been criticized for their tactics in the past.

The protests are the biggest challenge yet for Ruto, who demonstrators say has failed to improve the lives of millions of young people who voted for him two years ago.

Abroad, the unrest and the police response have created some awkward optics at a time when the first contingent of hundreds of Kenyan police officers arrived in Haiti to lead a United Nations-backed force to help restore peace in that Caribbean country.

The contingent now in Haiti comes from the General Service Unit, which is the same paramilitary group that was overwhelmed by protesters in Kenya on Tuesday.

It’s a big headache for Ruto, who has styled himself as a strong ally of the West but domestically faces serious questions over his handling of the protests.

Most of the protesters are young people, college students calling themselves the "Gen Z," who galvanized much of the opposition to finance bill 2024 on social media.

The legislation sought to raise about $2.9 billion in taxes that the government said it needed to pay off huge foreign debt.

But the protesters said that the taxes would make life much harder, raising the cost of such things as cooking oil, sanitary pads and diapers, as well as fuel taxes that would make transportation and production more expensive.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Emmanuel Igunza