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Revealed: Impact of anti-tax demos on Kenya’s image abroad

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A crowd of youthful protestors mob a police car during demonstrations on the streets of Nairobi on June 20, 2024.

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

Kenyan officials are struggling to uphold the country’s image abroad as a maturing democracy while trying to suppress widespread protests against the controversial Finance Bill.

Right from Tuesday last week, when youths poured into the streets to protest against proposed taxes, authorities picked every tool in the box to counter the wave of protests.

But the protests have spread fast to other towns beyond Nairobi.

Police officers have since been accused of brutalising peaceful protesters, with perceived leaders and mobilisers of the protesters being abducted and forced to provide information about plans for the protests. 

In its efforts to suppress the protests, the State has even attempted to curtail media coverage of the demonstrations.

Government Spokesman Isaac Mwaura has echoed the sentiments of politicians allied to the ruling Kenya Kwanza coalition that the protests are being funded or influenced by foreigners.

He has even named certain countries as being behind the street demos.

“There could be a foreign hand into this issue,” Mwaura said on Saturday during a virtual press conference that was strangely organised at 11pm. 

Protesters

A protester displays posters in a cloud of teargas during anti-finance bill demonstrations on Moi Avenue, Nairobi on June 18, 2024.
 

Photo credit: Sila Kiplagat | Nation Media Group

Mr Mwaura ventured into some of the issues President William Ruto has spoken about lately on the international stage – Kenya’s debt, climate change, the war in Ukraine and the difficulty of relying on foreign currency for trade.

“If the Dollar is strong, it affects our economy negatively. That is why we are in a debt trap. We take 48 per cent of what we collect and pay those people,” Mr Mwaura said.

Last week, while attending a summit on Ukraine in Switzerland, President Ruto said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was against the UN Charter.

On the other hand, he also lampooned the Western countries for trying to freeze Russian assets in Western banks and handing them over to Ukraine. 

“Just as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was unlawful and unacceptable, the unilateral seizure of Russian assets is equally unlawful and unacceptable. Unilateral actions, which contradict the essence of multilateralism and collective action, must be avoided by all means,” President Ruto had said on June 15 in Burgenstock.

While the Russian government has not responded to Mr Mwaura’s statement, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Maria Zakharova dismissed the peace summit in Switzerland as an “eyewash and trickery.”

“They are not interested in peace in Ukraine, they need further confrontation, escalation and expanded hostilities to implement their unrealistic dream of inflicting ‘strategic defeat,” she said.

However, for President Ruto, the protests have provided a dilemma on how to keep an image he has curated abroad while ensuring the opposition to the budget do not impinge on the economic commitments he has made, including with funding partners.

But according to David Monda, Professor of Political Science at the City University of New York, the idea of foreign funding could be an attempt by the State to change the narrative.

“I think this is a diversionary tactic to delegitimise the authenticity of the protests,” Monda told the Nation. 

“It’s a red herring to distract the public from holding the government accountable for its reckless taxation policy,” he explained.

However, Prof Monda said the protests are unlikely to affect Nairobi’s commitments on the international stage, including the conditions it signed on with lenders. 

“I don't think the protests affect Kenya's commitments abroad as Kenyans are more concerned with domestic affairs like the Finance Bill for now. 

“However, if things go badly on commitments abroad, there will be a likelihood of more protests similar to those against the Finance Bill. But time will tell,” he said.

On Sunday, Kenyans in the US joined in the protests by holding demos outside the Kenyan Embassy in Washington DC. 

Further protests are planned for London, The Hague and Berlin this week.

Protesters

Protesters engage police officers during Anti-Finance Bill demonstrations in Nairobi on June 20, 2024.


 

Photo credit: Sila Kiplagat | Nation Media Group

Opposition leaders in South Africa and Uganda have also weighed in on the matter. 

Julius Malema, the firebrand leader of South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), said his party supports Kenyans opposed to more taxes.

“We stand in solidarity with the people of Kenya who are bravely protesting against this exploitative legislation that seeks to impose severe tax,” the EFF said in a statement.

The South African opposition party also accused the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World of fueling the problem by conditioning their loans to countries on taxation.

“This is therefore a broader problem faced by many developing nations under the yoke of the IMF and World Bank loans…. treating African economies like lab rats for neoliberal templates,” EFF said.

Ugandan opposition leaders Bobi Wine said the protests in Kenya have attracted much attention in Uganda.

“Power to you the people of Kenya. You are speaking up and your voices are being heard. We hope your leaders too are listening. We continue to stand in solidarity with you. Viva,” Bobi Wine wrote on X on Monday.

In his recent tours abroad, President Ruto has projected Kenya as a maturing democracy.

He has also been on record for challenging the existing financial infrastructure where African countries get expensive loans.

But at home, he has imposed stringent taxation measures to help ease Kenya’s debt burden.

The protests come in the backdrop of the deployment of the first batch of Kenyan police officers to Haiti as part of the Multinational Security Support Mission.

This even with Haitian activists writing to the Inspector General of Police Japhet Koome over concerns of brutality by Kenyan police officers during the protests.

“Kenyan police have been known to assault journalists and activists within your own country. This behaviour, indicative of a flagrant disregard for human rights and freedom of the press, will not be accepted in Haiti, a nation built on the principles of liberty and self-determination. We will not allow such oppressive tactics to take root on our soil,” said Eliphete Joseph, President of the Haitian civil organisation; Movement Unforgettable Dessalines Jean Jacques.

In spite of the struggle to contain the narrative, some observers think the good thing with the protests is that they have in fact demonstrated that the public is actively involved in policy issues.

Protesters

A protester displays posters during anti-finance bill demonstrations on Moi Avenue, Nairobi on June 18, 2024.

Photo credit: Sila Kiplagat | Nation Media Group

“That Gen Z have room and space to express their positions on the Finance Bill highlights the fact that Kenya is a stable democracy where citizens enjoy freedom of association and expression,” said Dismus Mokua, a political risk analyst in Nairobi.

“Gen Z protests have redefined public participation. Public participation will no longer be ceremonial and mechanical. Both the National Treasury and National Assembly Committees will now need to proactively engage citizens, partners and stakeholders and capture positions so presented,” he explained.

Protesters have resoundingly rejected the amendments that were introduced to the Bill, instead demanding that the entire Bill be rejected.

But Mokua says significant changes to the tax proposals could lessen the blow. 

While he holds the view that the protests are unlikely to hurt Kenya’s foreign commitments, he says the challenge for government officials will be how to communicate changes in future, which can be the difference between protests and civil engagement.

“The National Treasury has had communication challenges and poor stakeholder engagement strategy. The National Treasury leadership must abandon economic jargon and engage Gen Z and other stakeholders in a transparent manner devoid of technical and jargon. Stakeholders will appreciate and support the Finance Bills if the National Treasury communicates in a respectful manner by developing citizens’ centric communications collaterals,” Mokua said.