- Police battle protesters in several towns and cities
- Dozens of activists arrested, human rights groups say
- Finance law doubled fuel tax, imposed housing levy
NAIROBI, July 7 (Reuters) – Kenyan police on Friday fired tear gas and fought running battles with opposition supporters in major towns around the country protesting against a raft of tax hikes.
Opposition leader Raila Odinga called the protests to oppose tax increases imposed at a time when many are already struggling with high prices of basic commodities such as maize flour.
Kenya’s High Court ordered that the tax hikes be suspended but the government has raised petrol prices anyway, leading to a further court challenge.
Police arrested 17 protesters in the capital Nairobi, said a coalition of human rights groups including Article 19. Another 11 activists were arrested in other towns, the groups said.
“We witnessed protesters being dragged on the ground,” the group of 10 watchdogs said in a statement, calling for an investigation into police conduct during the protests.
There was no immediate comment by the police on the reports.
The government says the tax hikes, expected to raise an extra 200 billion shillings ($1.42 billion) a year, are needed to help deal with growing debt repayments and to fund job-creation initiatives in Kenya, East Africa’s largest economy.
Addressing about 2,000 supporters, Odinga accused President William Ruto of failing to tackle the high cost of living, poaching opposition lawmakers and unilaterally moving to reconstitute the election commission.
“Members of parliament have betrayed the people,” he said, adding that Ruto had also contravened his own promises, justifying a movement for people to retake back their authority.
Since the two men faced off in a close election won by Ruto last August, they have clashed over a series of issues around the high cost of living and management of future elections.
TEAR GAS, STONES
“Ruto is backed into a corner by a number of circumstances; some of his making, some he inherited,” said Fergus Kell, a researcher at London international affairs think-tank Chatham House, citing past loans and a tough global economy.
Odinga is trying to exploit the opportunity, but has not presented his vision clearly, Kell said.
“I don’t think he is necessarily presenting a coherent alternative agenda to Ruto beyond having a platform to criticize him in what are very difficult times.”
The High Court suspended implementation of the finance law last week but the government raised the retail prices of petrol, forcing the opposition senator who lodged the case to seek the jailing of the head of the energy sector regulator for contempt.
The court will rule on the contempt application on Monday and give further directions on the main lawsuit the same day.
At the main rally in Nairobi, protesters blew into loud horns and whistles while others danced. Many yelled “tumechoka!” – Swahili for ‘we are tired’, as well as “Ruto must go!” and “No Raila no peace.”
Some temporarily blocked roads with burning tyres that police later extinguished, and threw stones at police officers.
Odinga’s convoy spent at least two hours trying to access the main Nairobi business district via different routes, as police blocked their way with tear gas.
Television news channels showed footage of police firing tear gas to disperse protesters in the port city of Mombasa, the western city of Kisumu and town of Kisii also in the west.