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Auma Obama, Sister of Pres. Obama, on Kenyan Police Attacks on Youth-Led Tax Protests, 22+ Killed

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Political unrest in Kenya erupted into violence Tuesday as authorities opened fire on protesters in Nairobi who oppose President William Ruto’s controversial tax bill. Hundreds of people stormed the legislature and burned part of the building. Meanwhile, inside, lawmakers voted to pass the tax measure, which will raise the cost of many everyday items to pay down government debt. The new taxes have sparked weeks of youth-led demonstrations as many call for Ruto to resign, and the president responded to Tuesday’s events by deploying the military to crack down on the protests. At least 22 people have been killed and dozens more injured in the nationwide protests. We speak with Faith Odhiambo, president of the Law Society of Kenya, who describes how high unemployment and disinvestment in social services led to the mass unrest, and to activist Auma Obama, sister of former U.S. President Barack Obama. “The Kenyan people are struggling, especially the young people,” says Obama, who was tear-gassed by police Tuesday. “The debt is irresponsible, and it is a pattern that has repeated again and again on the continent.”

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StoryJun 27, 2024Kenya Protests: Police Abduct Activists as Pres. Ruto Rejects Tax Bill Linked to Foreign Debt Crisis
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

In Kenya, at least 22 people have been killed, dozens more injured, as nationwide protests intensify after lawmakers approved a contested finance bill Tuesday that would hike taxes. Police fired live rounds, rubber bullets, tear gas at thousands of protesters who stormed Kenya’s Parliament in Nairobi, angered by the measure, which would skyrocket the cost of goods and services in Kenya to help pay off billions in foreign debt, including to the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

PROTESTER: What the government did to deploy a lot of force on us, it wasn’t good. We are not happy about it, because they killed our colleagues and fellow youths. It’s not OK. It’s very bad. We are demonstrating peacefully. It’s our right to demonstrate.

AMY GOODMAN: demonstrations also continued in other parts of Kenya, including the coastal city of Mombasa.

DANIEL: The taxes are so high. We are being taxed our salary, and any other thing that you are going to buy with the little that you’re remaining with is also taxed. So, I think let us just demonstrate. We don’t want it to be amended. We want it to be rejected in totality.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as 400 Kenyan soldiers arrived in Haiti Tuesday, the first contingent of U.S.-backed troops sent to combat worsening gang violence in Haiti. Many Haitians have opposed the mission, saying past international interventions have contributed to political destabilization and humanitarian crises in Haiti.

For more, we’re joined by a number of people in Nairobi and beyond. Faith Odhiambo is with us, president of the Law Society of Kenya. We’re also joined by Mamka Anyona, who is international finance and development expert from Kenya, who is joining us today from Kigali, Rwanda. And in a moment, we’ll be joined by Auma Obama, the Kenyan British community activist, sociologist and author, and half-sister of former U.S. President Barack Obama, tear-gassed yesterday in the protests.

But we’re going to stay in Nairobi. Faith Odhiambo, thank you for joining us. Explain what these protests are about. We talked about the number of people killed, perhaps 22. It could be more. We don’t know how many people have been disappeared. The president, Ruto, who actually just went to Washington to meet with President Biden, is also calling out the U.S. — is calling out the Kenyan military.

FAITH ODHIAMBO: Well, the protests started with regards to the proposed new finance bill 2024, and it started with discussions on what the bill is about, what it will mean on the cost of living and all the taxes — good, excise, duty, VAT — as well as increase of tax in so many goods. And so, I think the movement started that we should not have this finance bill. We are already raising over a number of billions with the old finance bill 2023, which was equally difficult for Kenyans to embrace. But at that time, we recognized that the country was not doing well and we needed to pay a bit more taxes to ensure stability. But this new bill is quite heavy on the people, to raise an extra $302 billion, which would mean those who even — in Kenya now we have people who live on a dollar, a dollar in two or three days. So it means that certain people are going hungry.

And there is not much substantial amount going into budgets — going into the budget, going into education, going into development of industry. We see more budget going to unconstitutional offices. We have the office of the first — the wife of the president, then we have the wife of the deputy president, then we have the wife of the prime minister, which are all unconstitutional offices. And the government is spending hundreds of millions allocating funds to those offices. Then we have renovations that have been done to the office of the president and the vice — and the deputy president, which Kenyans are saying this is wanton wastage. And then we see the opulent lives led by some of the cabinet secretaries close to the president. They have been in office coming now to — this will be their second year. And yet, when you see the way they live, it does not amount — you cannot account for their lifestyles. It’s obvious corruption. And we see, as well, the several corruption cases that come, and there’s no government action by the executive. And these are loans, and we are raising more money to pay those loans, which disappear in corruption.

So, once the Kenyans started analyzing what it means in the healthcare sector, reaching the healthcare system, making it more expensive for Kenyans with less services, cutting out a huge number, particularly the youth, in receiving certain healthcare services, even standing in terms of cancer. And so, people are realizing the government is on a money-making mission. No one is caring for the people. No one is caring about the healthcare sector. No one cares about the education sector. No one cares about the small and medium-size business. We’ve had quite a number of businesses moving out of the country last year and so many businesses closing down. And the most funny thing was, I remember the chair of the finance and budget committee, when people were presenting views on what this bill would mean to business, and he was saying then, “Just leave the country and go and set up in another country.” So, it shows that we don’t care, as long as we raise money.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We also have — 

FAITH ODHIAMBO: So, that’s how —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Faith Odhiambo, we also have, joining us, Auma Obama, the half-sister of former President Barack Obama, who participated in the protests and was tear-gassed recently. Welcome to Democracy Now! And could you talk to us about why you participated in the protests and what happened?

AUMA OBAMA: Well, thank you for having me.

I participated because in my work, I work for children and young people — in other words, the Gen Zs — in my foundation, and also my staff are 60% Gen Zs and millennials. So I had to be there, because I have to represent the voice of those young people, because that is what my foundation is called, Sauti Kuu Foundation, which means “powerful voices.”

On a personal level, I was there because I also feel strongly that there are items in the financial bill that are not for the benefit of the Kenyan people. The Kenyan people are struggling, especially the young people. We have over 50% of people who are not in work. They have no jobs, but they’re going to be taxed and then will end up having debt to the government. We have ancestral homes that are now being kind of like — we’re having the feeling that we’re being threatened, because there are taxes that are being introduced that will force out grandmothers and our great-grandparents and our parents to pay for the land that they’ve lived on for thousands of years.

These considerations have to be taken to see how Kenyans can cope with such taxes. We need to create jobs before we start taxing people. We need to show what we’re doing with our taxes before we start taxing people, so people can be on your side. You have to listen to the people, and especially the young people, because it is their future, and they’re seeing the mess we’re making of this future.

And that’s why I’m there. I was there as what I’m calling a Gen Wazee, because ”wazee” means “old people” in Kiswahili. We are the generation of old people who made that mess. And if we need to fix it, we need to have the young people on board. And that is why I was there.

And the fact that I was tear-gassed was just a side, you know, effect. It’s what they are going through daily. They’re being directly targeted with water, with tear gas, with live bullets, with rubber bullets. They have been killed, walking the streets for us, in order for our country to be a better country. So, to be honest, I could not have not been there, to answer your question.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Auma Obama, can you talk about the IMF pressuring the Kenyan government to enact these so-called fiscal reforms? Talk about the debt and what should happen to it in Kenya, why it is even called a debt.

AUMA OBAMA: I think the debt is irresponsible. And it’s a pattern that has continued again and again on our continent in the different countries. Why would you give somebody who has no way to pay you back a loan? None of us would do it if we have — you know, if we are thinking sensibly. We are running our countries on debt. We’re running our countries knowing full well that our communities, our people do not have the financial power to have enough money to put into our coffers to pay off that debt. So, why would we get indebted? Why are we such an expensive country to run, when the majority of people are so poor? That’s the question that we need to ask. That’s the question people who loan us money should be asking themselves. We are not a viable society, as yet, to have such big debts. And this is what the young people are asking. They’re not stupid. They can do the maths. And they’re asking: Why would we have such a high debt, when we don’t have good healthcare, when we don’t have quality education, when we don’t have roofs over our heads? It doesn’t add up. And this is the question being asked and the question everybody’s asking.

So, our leaders need to be more responsible. Our leaders must learn to say no, as the young people are saying no. The thing about this demonstration, the thing about this protest is not to threaten the leaders. The young people do not want to lead. They do not want our leaders to actually even leave. Now they want them to leave because they are fed up. But in reality, what they want is our leaders to be responsible leaders that are thinking of the benefits for the Kenyans. They must work for us, because we put them there. We employ them. And that is where humility is needed on the part of the leaders to say, “Let me talk with my young employers. Let me talk with the people who put me here and ask them what it is they need.” And they can do the maths. Do not indebt us and then expect us to pay back a debt that you have created without putting us at the table to be part of the decision-making process.

AMY GOODMAN: Auma Obama, we just have 30 —

AUMA OBAMA: That is what the yount people are saying.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds. Of course, you have close connections to the United States.

AUMA OBAMA: I’m sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: Your half-brother, President Obama. Ruto, the president of Kenya, just in Washington getting tremendous support from President Biden. What do you want the U.S. government to say right now?

AUMA OBAMA: I’m sorry, I can’t speak for that. And just to make it clear, my brother is not my half-brother. He’s just my brother. We don’t do halves in Kenya. I can’t speak for the U.S. politics. I can only talk for the young people here and what’s happening in my country. I’m so sorry. On that level, I’m really not political. I just can talk about what’s going on in Kenya.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we certainly — 

AUMA OBAMA: I think the U.S. knows what they need to do.

AMY GOODMAN: We certainly will continue to cover this issue. Auma Obama, thank you so much for being with us, sister of former U.S. President Barack Obama, and Faith Odhiambo, president of the Law Society of Kenya. Thank you both, joining us from Nairobi.

We have a development director job opening at Democracy Now! Check our website. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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Kenya Protests: Police Abduct Activists as Pres. Ruto Rejects Tax Bill Linked to Foreign Debt Crisis

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