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Kenya police fire rubber bullets, tear gas at protesters after President Ruto urges talks

Kenya police fire rubber bullets, tear gas at protesters after President Ruto urges talks
June 27, 2024 Web Desk

NAIROBI (AFP) - Kenyan police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at demonstrators in Nairobi on Thursday, as protesters returned to the streets despite President William Ruto scrapping contentious tax hikes after deadly clashes.

The protests -- led largely by young Kenyans -- caught the authorities off-guard, as Ruto's government ricocheted between taking a tough line on the unrest and calling for dialogue. Dozens of protesters gathered in Nairobi's central business district, with soldiers deployed and police in anti-riot gear blocking access along roads leading to Ruto's office at State House and parliament, according to AFP journalists.

Officers fired rubber bullets and tear gas at small groups of protesters and arrested at least seven people, with scuffles erupting as some demonstrators threw stones at police, AFP journalists saw. "The youth will not rest," Lucky, a 27-year-old university graduate, told AFP.

"It's our future we are fighting for," he said, adding that he did not trust Ruto, who had earlier likened the demonstrators to "criminals" before backing down. Many shops remained shuttered as traders worried about further unrest. Protesters also rallied in the port city of Mombasa and the opposition bastion of Kisumu, with some blocking roads and lighting fires in the lakeside city.

After the parliament complex was ransacked on Tuesday and police opened fire on protesters, Ruto made a surprise U-turn on the tax hikes that set off the demonstrations. He declined to sign the increases into law and withdrew the bill on Wednesday. "The people have spoken," he said, adding that he would seek "engagement with the young people of our nation".

But protesters maintained Thursday's rally in memory of those killed in the demonstrations, criticising Ruto's dramatic reversal as a case of too little, too late. Ivy, a 26-year-old job seeker, told AFP Wednesday that Ruto's about-turn was "a start to changing things." "He could have done this earlier without people having to die," she added, echoing the words of other protesters interviewed by AFP.

'Cannot take risk' 

A state-backed rights group counted 22 dead nationwide -- 19 in Nairobi alone -- in the aftermath of Tuesday's protests and vowed an investigation. "This is the largest number of deaths (in) a single day protest," said Roseline Odede, chairwoman of the state-funded Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, adding that 300 people were injured across the country.

Shops were largely closed in Nairobi's business district on Thursday. "We cannot take risk. We don't know what happens next," said Joe, an employee in a perfume store, as he prepared to head home. "Why did they have to kill these young people? This bill is not worth people dying," the 30-year-old said. "We are in uncharted waters."

The unrest has alarmed the international community, with Washington calling on Kenya to respect the right to peaceful protest and the UN urging "accountability" for the bloodshed. Rights watchdogs have accused the authorities of abducting protesters. The police have not responded to AFP requests for comment.

Debt fears 

Ruto rolled back some of the tax measures last week, prompting the treasury to warn of a budget shortfall of 200 billion shillings ($1.6 billion). Ruto said Wednesday that withdrawing the bill would mean a significant hole in funding for development programmes to help farmers and teachers, among others.

The cash-strapped government had said previously that the increases were necessary to service Kenya's debt of some 10 trillion shillings ($78 billion), equal to roughly 70 percent of GDP. Analysts warned that Ruto's administration faced a tough choice in the weeks ahead.

The government "will now have to find a way to pacify two opposing forces: a populace willing to resort to violence to protect livelihoods, and a macroeconomic trajectory that, bar considerable multilateral support, is heading towards a cliff," Oxford Economics said in a note. Ruto's administration is under pressure from the International Monetary Fund, which has called for fiscal reforms in order to access crucial funding.