Activists vow protests to push back against taxes

Leaders of Civil Society Organisations under the Okoa Uchumi banner

Leaders of Civil Society Organisations under the Okoa Uchumi banner address journalists at Stanley Hotel in Nairobi on Monday May 22. 

Photo credit: Evans Habil | Nation Media Group

At least 25 civil society groups have threatened to lead nationwide protests in two weeks' time to protest at "punitive" tax measures in the 2023 Finance Bill.

The organisations are against, among other things, the increase in Value Added Tax (VAT) on fuel products from eight per cent to 16 percent, the proposed increase in the excise tax on mobile money transfer services to 15 percent, the proposed introduction of Sh25/kg and Sh5/kg excise tax on powdered juice and sugar, and the proposed mandatory three per cent housing fund contribution.

They said that, from June 5, they would call for citizen protests online and in the streets to pressure MPs and representatives of the presidency to abandon the punitive tax proposals and instead plug revenue leakages and theft of public funds.

"We are taking [to the] streets because our pockets are dry. If the ruling class has forgotten who their employers are, the end game is to remind them, especially Parliament, that they are the ones with the ultimate responsibility for the financial and economic mess we are in," said Ms Diana Gichengo, representing The Institute for Social Accountability (Tisa).

Ms Gichengo, who also coordinates the Okoa Uchumi Initiative, said most of the laws and policies that punish Kenyans economically are passed in Parliament, hence the decision to pressure MPs at their constituency offices.

"We are not just talking about citizen protests; we are talking about consistent engagement on both the revenue and expenditure side. The protests will not just be on Harambee Avenue, they will be in every constituency office of MPs, in every office of district and deputy district commissioners and in our digital spaces. We are occupying both the physical and digital streets from June 5," she said.

The groups complained yesterday that the government's proposed tax measures for the 2023/24 fiscal year would punish citizens, especially the low-income earners the government promised to protect.

They argue that while the government's proposal is tough on getting more from citizens through taxation, it has shown little effort to address expenditure issues that see it losing billions of shillings annually.

"The 2023 Finance Bill risks bleeding Kenyans dry through taxation. The proposed taxation measures are harmful to the Kenyan people. We urge Parliament to reject the proposal to overtax the working population and the informal sector. Instead, focus on compliance with existing taxes and a strong push for accountability of all revenues collected through taxes or acquired through debt," they said in a joint press statement.

Other organisations represented included the National Taxpayers Association, Kenya Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International Kenya, International Budget Partnership Kenya, Oxfam Kenya, Uraia Trust, Institute of Public Finance and Inuka na Sisi.

The organisations have suggested that instead of proposing to further raid the pockets of Kenyans, the government should review the conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund under the Fiscal Consolidation Programme and develop a debt renegotiation programme and genuine austerity measures to address the high level of debt.

"The austerity measures must include a review of the recruitment of high-level state officials and civil servants for political consolidation," they said. They also want the government to reduce tax expenditure, which has averaged Sh333 billion between 2017 and 2021. Tax expenditure refers to tax exemptions and other tax incentives for businesses, which the taxman forgoes collecting.

They also want government departments that run devolved functions to be disbanded or privatised, to save money on their operations.

"Some county government functions are still carried out by state corporations, which are budgeted for. These corporations can be dissolved or privatised and their funds transferred to the counties.”

Ultimately, however, the most pressure will be placed on Parliament, they said and urged citizens to petition their MPs not to pass problematic parts of the 2023 Finance Bill.

"Pressure needs to be put on that body to receive the implementation reports and recommendations from the Office of the Controller of Budget and the audit reports from the Office of the Auditor General. This will help in holding the various [ministries, departments and agencies] accountable for their expenditure," the groups said.