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Tear gas, stones and flames as Kenya protesters say ‘Ruto must go!’

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Anti-government protests against the imposition of tax hikes by the government in Nairobi

Item 1 of 7 People take part in a demonstration over police killings of people protesting against the imposition of tax hikes by the government, as police use teargas to disperse them, in Nairobi, Kenya, July 2, 2024. REUTERS/Monicah Mwangi

NAIROBI/MOMBASA, July 2 (Reuters) – Riot police fired tear gas grenades and charged at stone-throwing protesters in downtown Nairobi and across Kenya on Tuesday in the most widespread unrest since at least two dozen protesters died in clashes a week ago.

The nationwide demonstrations signalled that President William Ruto had failed to appease a spontaneous youth protest movement, despite having abandoned plans for tax rises that triggered the unrest last week.

Tuesday’s demonstrations began in ebullient mood but turned more violent as the day wore on. In Nairobi’s downtown business district, police wearing helmets and carrying shields and wooden clubs charged at the protesters, and tear gas bombs exploded in the crowds.

A kiosk was set ablaze in the centre of a street. Medics tended to a youth who lay on the pavement with a bloody hand. Police bundled other youths into the bed of a pickup truck.

Outside the capital, hundreds of protesters marched through Mombasa, Kenya’s second largest city, on the Indian Ocean coast. They carried palm fronds, blew on plastic horns and beat on drums, chanting “Ruto must go!”

Later, Kenya’s NTV television reported two people shot in Mombasa, showing pictures of cars ablaze.

Ruto, facing the worst crisis of his nearly two-year-old presidency, has been caught between the demands of lenders such as the International Monetary Fund to cut deficits, and a hard-pressed population reeling from the soaring cost of living.

Members of the protest movement, which has no official leaders and largely organises via social media, have rejected Ruto’s appeals for dialogue – even after he abandoned his proposed tax rises.

“People are dying in the streets and the only thing he can talk about is money. We are not money. We are people. We are human beings,” protester Milan Waudo told Reuters in Mombasa. “He needs to care about his people, because if he can’t care about his people then we don’t need him in that chair.”

Other protests took place in Kisumu, Nakuru, Kajiado, Migori, Mlolongo and Rongo, according to images broadcast on Kenyan television. In the southwestern town of Migori, protesters set tyres on fire.

The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNHCR) says 39 Kenyans have been killed in demonstrations and clashes with police since June 18. Most of the deaths took place on June 25 when officers opened fire near parliament where some protesters tried to storm the building to prevent lawmakers from voting on the tax hikes.

‘BEAUTIFUL DAY’

“We are determined to push for the president’s resignation,” said Ojango Omondi, an activist in Nairobi. “We hope for a peaceful protest and minimal casualties, if any.”

The authorities appealed for calm.

“It’s a beautiful day to choose patriotism. A beautiful day to choose peace, order and the sanctity of our nationhood,” State House communications director Gerald Bitok wrote on X on Tuesday, adding in Swahili: “Violence is not patriotism.”

Some activists who had called for the demonstrations deplored the unrest. “Goons have infiltrated,” Hanifa Adan, an activist and reporter for the Eastleigh Voice newspaper, wrote on X, followed by broken heart emojis.

Opposition leader Raila Odinga, runner-up in the last four presidential elections, backed the protesters though they have called on politicians to keep out of it.

“The youth have given our country its last best chance,” Odinga’s ODM party said in a statement. “We either seize it and swim with it by implementing all their demands, or we ignore it and sink the country altogether.”

The protests, which started as an online outpouring of anger over nearly $2.7 billion of tax increases in a proposed finance bill, have grown into a nationwide movement against corruption and misgovernance.

Ruto has directed the treasury to come up with ways to cut spending to fill a budget gap left by the withdrawal of the tax plans, and also said more borrowing would be required.

Veteran anti-corruption activist John Githongo told Reuters that while Ruto had addressed the nation and media, “there isn’t an indication that he wants to take action” on protesters’ demands, including firing corrupt officials.

“There hasn’t been any indication by the government that they are going to take the calls to deal with corruption seriously,” he said.

The protests had been mostly peaceful until June 25, when some demonstrators briefly stormed parliament and set part of it ablaze, prompting police to open fire.

Ruto has defended the actions of the police and blamed the violence on “criminals” who had hijacked the demonstrations.

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