Rights groups call for repealing of Finance Act to address protests grievances

William Ruto

President William Ruto signing the Finance Bill to law at State House, Nairobi on June 26. 

Photo credit: PCS

Civil society organisations have called for the resumption of bipartisan talks and the repeal of the Finance Act, 2023, to address grievances that have contributed to anti-government protests.

The organisations, which include Transparency International Kenya, the Centre for Multiparty Democracy, the Elections Observation Group, the Constitution and Reform Education Consortium (CRECO) and the Electoral Law and Governance Institute for Africa (ELGIA), also condemned the use of "unnecessary force and arbitrary and unlawful arrests" by the police.

"We call for the immediate resumption of the bipartisan talks and stress the importance of making them multi-sectoral. The bipartisan talks gave Kenyans a glimmer of hope as it provided a unique opportunity to discuss and address issues affecting Kenyans.  Only through inclusive dialogue can we address the root causes of discontent and pave the way for a more just and equitable society," said Joshua Chngwony, Executive Director of CRECO.

He also explained that they had submitted a proposal to persuade the government to tackle corruption, illicit financial flows and asset recovery instead of overtaxing Kenyans and businesses. These measures, he said, would have protected Kenyans from the high cost of living. He adds that by assenting to the Finance Bill, the President has disregarded the welfare of many Kenyans who are already struggling with the high cost of living.

"In June, the National Assembly passed and the President assented to the Finance Act, 2023, which imposes onerous tax burdens on Kenyans amidst the rising cost of living and a global economic recession, in complete disregard of many Kenyans who protested against the onerous and unfair tax measures in the Act, citing the high cost of living. According to Tifa polls, 60 per cent of Kenyans rejected the Finance Bill and this should not be ignored".

"The Finance Bill 2023, if implemented in its current form, will increase the cost of various basic commodities through punitive taxes, including the doubling of VAT on fuel to 16 per cent, the ripple effect of which is an increase in the price of unga, bread and commuter fares, among other key basic commodities and services. Small businesses will also be hit, with the tax on their total turnover rising from one per cent to three per cent. This will cripple struggling small businesses that have been reporting losses since the COVID-19 pandemic began," he added.

While condemning police brutality, he also called on Azimio leaders to publicly call on their followers to demonstrate peacefully without destroying property.

"We recognise that while the right to protest is enshrined in law, there is a corresponding duty to exercise it in a peaceful manner. We therefore call on members of the public exercising their constitutional right to demonstrate to do so peacefully and within the confines of the law. We would also like to call on the organisers of the demonstrations to make public statements calling on their supporters to refrain from destroying property and disrupting the livelihoods and businesses of their fellow Kenyans," said Changwony.

His colleagues also called for an urgent reconstitution of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) to allow for a speedy delimitation of boundaries in areas where the process has been put on hold.

"If this process drags on, the country risks falling into a constitutional crisis. Every Kenyan has the right to representation, and continued uncertainty about when the by-elections will be held could lead to the disenfranchisement of the residents of these constituencies. We therefore urge that sober discussions and meaningful engagements in this regard be expedited and a consensus reached to move this process forward".

While urging leaders to avoid reckless language that could "incite violence and chaos", the CSOs noted that the protests have brought with them "increasing cases of media harassment, misinformation and hate speech".

"We call on all parties to respect media freedom. An environment in which journalists can report without fear of reprisal is essential for an informed citizenry and a thriving democracy. We note with concern the increasing spread of disinformation, misinformation and hate speech through social media platforms and some vernacular broadcasters. We have observed the use of old images and videos, inflammatory video posts and clips and tweets targeting specific political leaders, political parties and communities. We urge users of communication channels to be mindful of the content they share and to exercise restraint".