Kenyan activists call for more protests as govt pledges austerity

By Aaron Ross

NAIROBI (Reuters) -Kenyan activists called for protesters to take to the streets again on Tuesday, with many rejecting appeals from President William Ruto for dialogue following his decision to withdraw proposed tax hikes.

At least 24 people were killed in clashes between protesters and police last week, when parliament was briefly stormed and set ablaze.

The protests, which have been led by young people and organised largely on social media, were initially sparked by a finance bill intended to raise 346 billion Kenyan shillings ($2.69 billion) in taxes.

But the demands of many protesters have escalated over the past two weeks to include calls to root out corruption and for Ruto to step down, presenting the most serious crisis of his two-year-old presidency.

An interview Ruto gave on Sunday evening to Kenyan television networks, in which he mostly defended the actions of the police and his government, seemed to have only hardened the positions of protesters.

On Monday, activists were sharing pamphlets on social media that urged people to occupy the capital Nairobi's Central Business District. Many posted under the hashtag #OccupyCBDTuesday.

The protest movement has no official leadership, and it was not clear to what extent people would respond to these calls after tens of thousands came out last week in some of the country's largest protests in recent memory.

In audio forums on social media, activists have been discussing how to maintain momentum now that the immediate objective of killing the finance bill has been attained.


In his interview on Sunday, Ruto reiterated his previous calls for dialogue with young people. He said he was prepared to do this in a forum of their choosing, including the X Spaces where they often gather to discuss issues and strategise.

Many protesters reject the calls for dialogue, seeing them as an effort to co-opt the movement.

"You can’t dialogue with someone who is killing you on the other hand," one activist said during an X Space over the weekend.

Ruto defended the conduct of the police in his interview, saying they had done the best they could under the circumstances and blaming "criminals" who he said had hijacked peaceful protests.

Ruto also suggested in the interview that the budget gap caused by the withdrawal of proposed tax hikes would be funded by borrowing, seemingly contradicting earlier statement that money would be saved through austerity measures.

Asked about this on Monday, Finance Minister Njuguna Ndung'u noted that there are legal limits on borrowing and the carrying capacity of debt.

"So it means that we must have expenditure cuts. This will be known once Parliament approves Supplementary one (budget)," he told Reuters in a text message.

Kenya's national debt of more than 70% of gross domestic product already surpasses the statutory limit of 55% of GDP.

After withdrawing the bill, Ruto asked lawmakers to pass a supplementary budget, but parliament is currently in recess.

($1 = 128.5000 Kenyan shillings)

(Reporting by Aaron Ross; Editing by George Obulutsa and Toby Chopra)