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

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Anti-government protests in Kenya are continuing after President William Ruto made a dramatic reversal Wednesday, announcing he would not sign the finance bill that sparked a nationwide uprising, and would instead send the bill back to Parliament. At least 23 people were killed and dozens more injured when police fired live rounds, rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters who stormed Kenya’s Parliament building. We speak to a writer and activist based in Nairobi who asked to remain anonymous out of fear for her safety. She says many in the youth-led movement have been “abducted” during the police crackdown on demonstrations, which are now calling for Parliament to be dissolved and new elections to be held. We also hear from Mamka Anyona, a Kenyan international finance and development expert, who breaks down the financial crisis that led to the mass unrest. The contested finance bill deploys a tax hike in an attempt to repay $80 billion in foreign loans, largely from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. But critics say mismanagement and corruption have led to high inflation and unemployment, and characterize both the bill and the loans themselves as undemocratic decisions reached without constituent approval. ​​”It has all ended up creating this tinderbox,” Anyona says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin today’s show in Kenya, where police in the capital Nairobi have erected roadblocks and fired tear gas at protesters calling for President William Ruto to resign. Demonstrations are continuing even after Ruto made a dramatic reversal Wednesday and said he would not sign a tax bill that had prompted a nationwide uprising. This came after at least 23 people were killed and dozens more were injured Tuesday when police fired live rounds, rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters who stormed Kenya’s Parliament. Ruto spoke in a televised address Wednesday.

PRESIDENT WILLIAM RUTO: The country witnessed widespread expression of dissatisfaction with the bill as passed, regrettably resulting in the loss of life, destruction of property and desecration of constitutional institutions.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: In his address, Ruto called protests against his controversial finance bill “treasonous.” This is Lorna Dias, a member of Kenya’s Human Rights Commission.

LORNA DIAS: It’s not protesters who are treasonous. It’s Ruto’s acts that are treasonous. … There is nothing that justifies the use of live bullets on protesters, but this regime positions snipers to shoot and kill unarmed protesters.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Nairobi, Kenya. We’re joined on the phone by a Kenyan writer and activist who’s asking to remain anonymous out of fear for her safety as the military patrols the streets.

Thanks so much for joining us. I know this is very difficult for you. Can you explain what’s happening? We reported yesterday on Kenya, more than 22 people dead. Then Ruto changes his mind, says he’ll withdraw the tax bill, yet the protests are continuing. Talk about the danger you feel.

ANONYMOUS: What we’re seeing today, and has been happening for at least the last week, is continued abductions of what are considered vocal protesters or organizers. It appears that the government is trying to get to the bottom of who is funding or organizing these protests, without realizing that this is a youth-led and people-led movement. And that is part of the reason why a lot us are online trying to call for the abductions to stop and abductees to be returned. We saw yesterday several high courts order the police to make sure that anyone that is arrested and detained cannot be held incommunicado, under Article 49 of the Kenya Constitution. So, this is one of the reasons why I’m speaking to you anonymously, just for fear of being abducted myself.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what is happening, so far as you know, to the activists who have been detained and imprisoned? Is there a way for you to find out, especially after people have said that, according to Article 49, they can’t be detained like this?

ANONYMOUS: At this point, many of them are not speaking out — right — about what happened to them. We know that this morning, for instance, an activist who had appeared on TV a few days ago was found in a forest drugged and has currently been taken to hospital for treatment.

But what we’re seeing on the streets right now is also just a heavy police presence. We’ve seen the deployment of the Kenya Defense Forces, which, again, has been deemed unconstitutional. The call for the Kenya Defense Forces to be deployed cannot happen without the approval of the National Assembly. So, although we’re seeing the president say in his remarks yesterday that adherence to the law and adherence to the Constitution, what we are seeing on the ground is much more different. And we’re expecting a decision from the High Court regarding the deployment of the Kenya Defense Forces, after the Law Society of Kenya sued the government for this decision that they made.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We’d also like to bring in a guest from Lusaka, Zambia, Mamka Anyona, an international finance and development expert who’s from Kenya. Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Mamka. If you could talk about the root causes of these protests and what exactly Kenya’s debt situation is?

MAMKA ANYONA: Yes. Thank you so much, Nermeen, for bringing me into the show. Yes, so — and I salute my colleague who is speaking from the other side and braving the protests in Nairobi.

So, the protests, the match that lit this particular fire is the finance bill 2024, which you spoke about earlier, that was — which the president declined to sign. This finance bill, the reason why this was such a match to an already sensitive situation is because the country had been facing — has been in debt distress for quite a while now, and that has required the Bretton Woods institutions, specifically the IMF, to step in. And the IMF stepping in has meant that there has been quite a bit of austerity measures over the last two years that have really brought to the knees an already weak economy. And when an economy is brought to the knees, the people who feel it the most are the young, the poor.

So, the levels of unemployment in Kenya are incredibly high. The levels of poverty are rising. The number of households that go without a meal a day are rising every day. And so the situation is really quite sensitive in terms of the economic outlook, so that this new rash of taxes that were to be introduced in the finance bill felt like a step too far for a lot of Kenyans. And especially for young Kenyans who have gone to school and are sitting at home without jobs, this was a — they became incredibly engaged in the political process because of this particular situation.

Now, the debt that the government is trying to deal with really is, indeed, quite a challenge. We have about $80 million [sic] worth of debt, and that keeps — and the number keeps changing because our currency is also quite weak at this time, and it keeps — and a lot of the debt we have is denominated in dollars. And [inaudible] —

AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking 18 — you’re talking $18 billion?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Eighty, eighty.

AMY GOODMAN: Eighty billion?

MAMKA ANYONA: Eighty, eight-zero. About $82 billion, yes, for an economy of about $110 [billion] GDP per year. So this is almost 100% GDP that we have in debt, to various institutions. Our greatest debt at the moment is the World Bank, and with the IMF joining them, who have been lending quite heavily recently.

You know, a lot of what we owe is now actually external, though there is also a substantial domestic debt that is held by a lot of bondholders. So, this is a very — so, over the last, I’d say, 15 years, there’s been — the leadership took out a lot of debt for infrastructure projects. You know, we had a new railway that was funded through a loan from the Chinese Exim Bank. We have had roads, airports have been upgraded.

But then, we have to say that there’s a lot of — there has been a lot of mismanagement and misgovernance of these loans in the country, such that the infrastructure that we’re getting is not at the cost that we should expect it to be. There’s a lot of what we are calling budgeted corruption, where, you know, the cost of inputs is inflated, where there’s a lot of mismanagement of funds. And this is something that is known, to some degree has been in a discussion in the country for a long time.

And so, part of the reason why Kenyans are on the streets is not just because they don’t understand that this is debt that needs to be paid; it is because a lot of Kenyans were not consulted when this debt was being taken out. There wasn’t the proper public participation that was necessary when this debt was being incurred. And Kenyans cannot see, or they cannot feel, the positive consequences of this debt and what it did in the country. And, in fact, there are reports that some of this debt never even made it to the country due to corruption. We have our president, our former president, Uhuru Kenyatta, on record saying that we’re losing at least $20 million a day to corruption. And this is the president himself who was saying this.

So, the combination of, you know, the distress that Kenyans are feeling, the situation that requires ever more tightening of the belt that is hurting Kenyans, and then Kenyans being very aware of the fact that the public finance is being managed, and then, obviously, as was stated yesterday on the show, as well, politicians living a very opulent life that does not match — or, does not match the sort of representation you would expect in a country where people are suffering so much, it has all ended up creating this tinderbox that we’re seeing.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to ask our guest who is anonymous in Nairobi right now, the hashtag #RutoMustGo: Do you think these protests will continue to escalate unless the president is out? And can you talk about the allegations of corruption against him and his wife, among others?

ANONYMOUS: Absolutely. I think I completely agree with my comrade from Lusaka around the fact that there’s quite a bit of budgeted corruption. I mean, as much as we’re talking about the finance bill, there is also the appropriations bill, which is a new conversation that young people are having online, which allocates hundreds of millions of shillings to the offices of the wife of the president and the vice president. And these are unelected and unconstitutional offices that our taxpayer money should not be going towards. And we’ve seen young people say that our taxes cannot be your wives’ allowance, which just reflects the sort of frustration that we have around being told to tighten our belts, and, meanwhile, we’re seeing wives of offices of the state being awarded millions of shillings in taxpayer money.

And the #RutoMustGo hashtag has come up as a new hashtag. Initially, today’s protests were organized under #OccupyParliament. And we are seeing an organic move towards #RutoMustGo, saying that it’s not just enough to reject the finance bill, which the president himself does not have the power to reject the finance bill. This has to go back to Parliament, right? So, the conversation that we’re having is that there is a bigger issue beyond just the finance bill, and there is a big push to not only have fresh elections but also have the Parliament dissolved, because what we have seen over the last two weeks is that we do not have a representative democracy. The members of Parliament that we elected have said to us over and over again, “We hear your voices. We do not care about your voices. We are going to do what we think is in the best interest of the president, not in the best interest of ordinary Kenyans.” And so, the movement to then find the political and civic education and the tools to then call for accountability, as well as see the president leave office, I do not believe that that pressure is going to leave at any point.

We’ve also seen already violence in the streets today. I saw reports of people already shot in various counties across the country. So we do expect that there might be more death today. And young people are saying, “You cannot kill us all.” Right? So, even though you meet us with violence, we are still going to continue to insist that this country belongs to the people of Kenya, and especially to the young people. A third of Kenya’s 54 million population lives in poverty. Eighty percent of our population is under the age of 35. And if we are not going to listen to the voice of young people, then we have no country at stake.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both so much for being with us. Of course, we will continue to follow this story in Kenya. And I want to thank the writer and activist joining us from Nairobi, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear for her safety as the military patrols Nairobi, not to mention the rest of the country. And we want to thank Mamka Anyona, usually in Nairobi, but right now speaking to us from Lusaka, Kenya [sic], a Kenyan international — 

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Lusaka, Zambia.

AMY GOODMAN: Lusaka, Zambia. She is an international finance and development expert.

When we come back, the Gaza Project. A new collaboration involving 13 news organizations investigates the targeting of Palestinian journalists. Stay with us.

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