Anti-tax Protesters Storm Kenya’s Parliament, Drawing Police Fire as President Vows to Quash Unrest

AP Photo/Brian Inganga
Protesters scatter as Kenya police sprays water cannon at them during a protest over proposed tax hikes in a finance bill in downtown Nairobi, Kenya Tuesday, June 25, 2024.

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Thousands of protesters stormed Kenya’s parliament Tuesday to protest tax proposals, burning part of the building, sending lawmakers fleeing and drawing fire from police in unrest that the president vowed to quash. Several people were killed.

It was the most direct assault on the government in decades. Journalists saw at least three bodies outside the complex where police had opened fire, and medical workers reported five people killed. Clashes spread to other cities. There was no immediate word on arrests.

“Today’s events mark a critical turning point on how we respond to threats to our national security,” President William Ruto said, calling the events “treasonous” and vowing to quash the unrest “at whatever cost.”

Kenya’s defense minister said the military had been deployed to support police during the “security emergency” and “breaching of critical infrastructure.”

Protesters had demanded that legislators vote against a finance bill imposing new taxes on East Africa’s economic hub, where frustrations over the high cost of living have simmered. Youth who had voted Ruto into power with cheers for his promises of economic relief have taken to the streets to object to the pain of reforms.

Lawmakers managed to pass the bill before fleeing through a tunnel as protesters outmaneuvered police and poured in. The fire at the building was later put out.

The Kenya Medical Association said in a statement that at least five people were fatally shot while trying to treat wounded people at the scene. It said more than 30 people were wounded, at least 13 with live bullets. Police fired live ammunition and threw tear gas canisters at protesters who sought treatment at a medical tent at a nearby church. Elsewhere in town, Kenyatta National Hospital said it received 45 casualties.

One person shot dead was wrapped in a Kenyan flag and carried away. Another lay on the sidewalk, their head in the gutter.

Internet service in the country noticeably slowed in what NetBlocks called a “major disruption,” and at least one broadcaster issued a statement saying that “we have received threats from the authorities to shut us down.”

Ruto had been outside Nairobi attending an African Union retreat. He was expected to sign the finance bill into law this week. He has two weeks to act but faces calls from religious and other leaders to think again.

The nearby office of the Nairobi governor, a member of the ruling party, also was briefly on fire Tuesday, smoke pouring from its white facade. Police water cannons were used to extinguish the fire.

Protesters could be heard shouting, “We’re coming for every politician.”

The Kenya Human Rights Commission shared a video of officers shooting at protesters, and it urged Ruto to issue an immediate order to “stop the killings.”

The president instead said the government had “mobilized all resources” to ensure order.

On Sunday, Ruto tried to calm the rising public tensions, saying he was proud of the young Kenyans who came out to exercise their democratic duty in earlier protests. The politician who had promoted himself as a “hustler” from humble beginnings said he would engage them on their concerns.

Youth had announced they were uniting to keep the government in check as prices for fuel, food and other necessities have soared. In Nairobi, a regional hub for expatriates and home to a United Nations complex, the inequality among Kenyans has sharpened along with long-held frustrations over state corruption.

Opposition to the finance bill has united a large part of the country, with some explicitly rejecting the tribal divisions that have torn Kenya apart in the past. Some who had passionately supported Ruto felt betrayed.

“I fell for his lies. Now I’m out here regretting why I voted for him,” youth Oscar Saina told The Associated Press last week

As throngs of protesters rushed through the streets Tuesday, defiance emerged elsewhere in the country — including in the town where the president was, Naivasha, as protesters chanted “Ruto must go.”

Protesters tried to storm the State House in the western city of Nakuru, a witness said. There were clashes in the western lakeside city of Kisumu. The governor of Mombasa, Kenya’s second largest city, joined protesters outside his office and expressed his support for them.

Protesters burned ruling party offices in Embu in central Kenya, the Nation newspaper reported. Citizen TV showed footage from Nyeri in central Kenya with police confronting protesters in the smoking streets.

A national gathering of Catholic bishops urged police not to attack protesters and pleaded with the government to listen to citizens’ pain over the “unwarranted” taxes, saying “the country is bleeding … families are immensely suffering.”

Two people died in similar protests last week, and civil society groups have raised the alarm about a crackdown.

The Kenya Law Society President Faith Odhiambo said earlier Tuesday that 50 Kenyans, including her personal assistant, had been “abducted” by people believed to be police officers. Some had been vocal in the demonstrations and were taken from homes, workplaces and public spaces ahead of Tuesday’s protests, according to civil society groups.

A statement by diplomats from 13 Western countries including the United States said they were “shocked” by the scenes outside parliament and expressed concern about the violence and abductions of protesters.

Police officials did not immediately return calls seeking comment. Parliament Speaker Moses Wetangula had directed the inspector general of police to provide information on the whereabouts of those missing.

Also Tuesday, hundreds of Kenya’s police officers, long accused of abuses by human rights watchdogs and others, arrived in Haiti to lead a United Nations-backed multinational force against the powerful gangs who have the country in its grip. The deployment faces a legal challenge in Kenya but Ruto’s government has gone ahead, with the thanks of U.S. President Joe Biden.