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Kenyan anti-tax hike protests subside as police clampdown

By Jefferson Kahinju and Thomas Mukoya

NAIROBI (Reuters) – Protests in Kenyan cities against tax hikes and high living costs largely subsided on Thursday amid a heavy police presence, after several people were reported shot in clashes between security forces and demonstrators a day earlier.

At least 300 people were arrested, including several senior opposition leaders and several people were reported shot, some possibly fatally, in clashes with police on Wednesday. The demonstrations, planned for Wednesday to Friday, are the third round of protests that the opposition has called this month.

Apart from minor skirmishes between about 500 protesters and police on Thursday in Kibera, a vast shantytown in the southwest of the capital Nairobi, most residents were going about their daily business as normal.

ALSO READ: Kenya president, facing a cash crunch, accuses tax agency of graft

Many shops in the capital’s central business district reopened and traffic picked up on major roads. Schools also reopened in Nairobi, the port city of Mombasa and Kisumu, the country’s third-largest city, after being shut on Wednesday.

Protests this year have cost the economy more than $20 million per day, according to a private sector lobby group.

Riot police officers react as supporters of Kenya’s opposition leader Raila Odinga of the Azimio La Umoja (Declaration of Unity) One Kenya Alliance attend an anti-government protest against the imposition of tax hikes by the government in Nairobi, Kenya July 20, 2023. REUTERS/Monicah Mwangi

Veteran opposition leader Raila Odinga did not make a public appearance on Wednesday or Thursday as he did during previous protests.

An afternoon rally called by his Azimio La Umoja coalition in central Nairobi on Thursday did not materialise, as anti-riot police kept watch in areas where the opposition often gathers.

Anti-riot police also patrolled main business streets in Mombasa, according to a Reuters reporter.

Odinga told privately-owned NTV Kenya television he had been out of public limelight while he recovered from a bad flu and said the protests were about the citizens, not him or his fellow opposition leaders.

“The demonstrations are for all Kenyans,” he said.

Odinga lost last August’s election to President William Ruto, his fifth election defeat in a row, and has repeatedly called for acts of civil disobedience against a government he accuses of raising the cost of living and consolidating power.

Ruto, who has pledged to champion the interests of the poor while the price of basic commodities has ballooned under his administration, commended the police on Thursday for containing the protests.

A woman looks through door as supporters of Kenya’s opposition leader Raila Odinga of the Azimio La Umoja (Declaration of Unity) One Kenya Alliance, participate in an anti-government protest against the imposition of tax hikes by the government in Nairobi, Kenya July 20, 2023. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

“Congratulations for standing firm and ensuring there is peace, and making sure all criminals are apprehended,” he said at an event in Isiolo in central Kenya.

ALSO READ: Kenyan president’s tax hikes alienate his ‘hustler’ base

Ruto’s government argues higher taxes enacted last month were necessary to help with growing debt repayments and to fund job-creation initiatives. A Kenyan court froze the tax hikes late last month, pending a ruling by senior judges.

At least 15 people were killed in the two previous rounds of protests earlier this month. Civic leaders have warned about sporadic incidents of apparent ethnic-based attacks in a country with a history of deadly political violence.

Paul Ongili, an opposition lawmaker who was among those arrested on Wednesday, was charged in a Nairobi court along with six others with conspiring to commit “subversive activities which are prejudicial to public order”. He denies the charges.

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