News and HeadlinesWorld News

Actions

Here's what led Kenyans to burn part of parliament and call for the president's resignation

The unrest in East Africa's most stable democracy was the most serious assault on Kenya's government in decades.
Kenya Protest
Posted at 8:56 AM, Jun 26, 2024

Kenya's president came to power by appealing to the common people, describing himself as a “hustler” and vowing relief from economic pain. But Tuesday's deadly chaos in the capital, Nairobi, shows how far support for him has turned.

Part of parliament burned as protesters rushed in and lawmakers fled. Bodies lay in the streets, and medical workers and watchdogs said police had opened fire. The military was deployed. A youth-led movement had warned the government of President William Ruto against passing a finance bill they said would add to Kenyans' economic troubles. Lawmakers passed it anyway. Ruto is expected to sign it, even as religious leaders called it “unwarranted.”

Here’s a look at the unrest in East Africa’s most stable democracy and the most serious assault on Kenya's government in decades.

From internet data to diapers

The finance bill was meant to raise or introduce taxes or fees on a range of daily items and services including internet data, fuel, bank transfers and diapers. Some measures were stripped as anger grew. The proposals are part of the Kenyan government’s efforts to raise an extra $2.7 billion in domestic revenue.

The government says the changes are necessary to pay interest on national debt, reduce the budget deficit and keep the government running. Protesters see them as punitive, since the high cost of living already makes it hard to get by.

A 2023 finance bill signed into law by Ruto was also unpopular, featuring a tax on salaries for housing, but the anger was nothing like this.

A youth-led protest

Young Kenyans have been organizing on social media, organizing peaceful street demonstrations meant to force authorities to drop this finance bill altogether. The protests started on June 18 after the bill was made public for the first time.

The protests began in Nairobi but have spread to other parts of Kenya, including the Indian Ocean city of Mombasa and even in Eldoret, a town in the Rift Valley region that’s been a bastion of support for the president.

Kenya’s political opposition stormed out of Tuesday session's in which the bill was passed.

The president is questioned

Ruto, elected in 2022, has consistently urged all Kenyans to pay their fair share of taxes. Some Kenyans now mock him as “Zakayo,” after the biblical tax collector Zacchaeus. Many see his aggressive stance as a form of dictatorship that’s out of sync with the realities of ordinary people.

In 2023, after the courts blocked some of his tax proposals, the president threatened to disregard court orders. That drew criticism from the Law Society of Kenya, whose leader accused Ruto of seeing himself as above the law.

Pro-democracy activists have warned that Ruto's attacks on the judiciary indicate an authoritarian streak. Some see similarities between Ruto and his mentor Daniel arap Moi, the former president who led Kenya during a long period of one-party rule.

Common man, chartered plane

Ruto in his presidential campaign called himself the anti-establishment candidate and vowed to implement policies to put more money in Kenyans' pockets. But the so-called “hustlers” who supported him were dismayed when his government removed crucial fuel and maize flour subsidies. Many Kenyans saw it as a betrayal.

Ruto, now fabulously wealthy, frequently urges Kenyans to tighten their belts. But his state visit to the United States in May created controversy when he chartered a luxury private jet instead of using the presidential jet or Kenya's national carrier. Ruto later said the chartered jet had been paid for by friends he didn’t name.

Related Story