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Youth-Led Protests Over Finance Bill Rocked Kenya Amid Uneasy Calm

NAIROBI — This week, at least five people have been killed in Kenya as protests against a controversial finance bill have escalated, culminating in part of the parliament building being set on fire.

The demonstrators argue that the bill would impose unsustainable tax increases on ordinary citizens and businesses already struggling with a high cost of living. On Tuesday, police fired live rounds at the protesters, resulting in multiple fatalities and hundreds of injuries.

Despite the government retracting some of the bill’s most contentious provisions, protesters continue to demand its complete withdrawal. The initial draft of the bill proposed a 16% sales tax on bread and a 25% duty on cooking oil. Additionally, there were plans to increase the tax on financial transactions and introduce a new annual tax on vehicle ownership, amounting to 2.5% of the vehicle’s value.

In response to widespread public opposition, the government announced it would eliminate these measures. However, another key provision of the bill—the eco levy—remains contentious.

Meanwhile , the Eco Levy Controversy remains.

The levy, intended to charge products contributing to environmental waste, faced backlash for potentially raising the cost of essential items such as sanitary pads and baby nappies. Critics highlighted that many girls, already unable to afford sanitary products, often miss school during their periods. Initially applied broadly, the government later specified the levy would only target imported products.

This levy also extends to digital products, including mobile phones, cameras, and recording equipment—items many Kenyans rely on for their livelihoods in the digital economy.

More Tax Measures?

Among the measures still in place is a 16% tax on goods and services used exclusively in constructing and equipping specialized hospitals with a minimum of 50 beds. Many Kenyans fear this could lead to higher healthcare costs. Kuria Kimani, chairman of the parliamentary finance committee, dismissed claims that the bill would tax cancer patients as “falsehoods.”

The bill also proposes increasing the import tax rate from 2.5% to 3% of the item’s value, paid by the importer. This comes just a year after the rate was reduced from 3.5% to 2.5%, prompting concerns that the changes would drive up prices for imported goods.

Escalation

The protests intensified on Tuesday when MPs passed the bill without some of its most contentious measures. Demonstrators breached police lines, storming the parliament building and setting part of it ablaze. Police responded with live ammunition, killing at least five people. A BBC reporter at the scene witnessed bodies lying in the street.

Western nations have expressed concern over the violence and called for calm. President William Ruto had previously vowed to address the protesters’ concerns but has faced criticism for not taking citizens’ grievances seriously.

Lingering Discontent

Despite the government’s concessions, protesters remain dissatisfied. The higher import tax, among other remaining provisions, continues to fuel anger. More broadly, Kenyans are frustrated with a government they feel has long ignored their concerns.

President Ruto’s assurances that Kenyan taxes are relatively low compared to other African nations have not placated demonstrators. A finance law enacted last year, which introduced several unpopular taxes, also sparked protests at the time.

With the bill passed, President Ruto now has 14 days to either sign it into law or return it to parliament with suggested amendments. The government could consider other measures to alleviate public pressure, such as deferring the bill, though this appears unlikely.

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