Protests Hit Nairobi as Kenya Debates a Controversial Finance Bill

Protests Hit Nairobi as Kenya Debates a Controversial Finance Bill
A Kenyan activist shouts amid teargas during a protest over tax hike plans in Nairobi on June 6, 2023. Kenyan police fired tear gas and arrested 11 protesters during a march in Nairobi on June 6 against a new finance bill that critics say will pile more economic hardship on ordinary people. (Simon Maina/AFP via Getty Images)
Dominic Kirui

A group of activists took to the streets in Nairobi on June 6 to protest a controversial finance bill that Kenya's president is pushing.

The bill, which seeks to introduce more taxes on Kenyans, also proposes a 3 percent housing levy for all workers in the country, to be deducted from their monthly salaries. The government intends to build affordable housing using the funds.

This has led to an uproar among workers in the country, with many arguing that they are already dealing with the high cost of living.

James Kariuki, a clinical officer in Nairobi, participated in the protests and said that the government should not impose affordable housing on Kenyans as most already have houses.

"Some of us already have houses. Where will the money that the government wants to deduct go? They say we will take it out after seven years; how about those retiring in a year? Why force this on everyone, even those in the rural parts who already have houses and don't need a second one in Nairobi?" Kariuki posted on Twitter.

While addressing the media on June 8, Raila Odinga, the leader of Azimio la Umoja One Kenya Alliance, asked the government to withdraw the bill, as it would only hurt Kenyans should it pass. Odinga further asked President William Ruto to apologize to Kenyans over the anxiety caused by the bill.

"We ask Ruto to humble himself, withdraw this bill, apologize, and seek forgiveness from Kenyans for the anxiety caused, then begin afresh," Odinga said.

The controversial Finance Bill 2023 is now in Parliament, waiting for a decision by the House members before it is signed into law by the president.

'Kenyans Are Hurting'

On June 7, the opposition leader hinted at the return of the weekly protests, saying that the Kenya Kwanza government had failed to listen to the grievances of Kenyans. He said that there was an apparent disregard for the struggles faced by millions of Kenyans by the government.

"Kenyans are hurting. They are suffering. They came to power through the backdoor when they were not ready to govern and now want to pour their inefficiency on poor Kenyans," Odinga said.

Odinga said the Kenyan government was imposing an unbearable tax regime on its citizens, and turning a deaf ear to their cries, asking Kenyans to prepare for a possible passing of the bill, which would inflict more pain on them, even as the government refuses to address the high cost of living that has made it impossible for Kenyans to afford basic necessities.

In a more controversial move, Ruto proposed that the voting process in Parliament be made public so that he could monitor those who vote against the bill. While arguing that the bill proposes the creation of work opportunities for the youth who are going to build the houses, Ruto said that members of Parliament who vote against the bill would be denying them these opportunities.

"I am waiting for these MPs who will oppose the Housing Fund levy in the Finance Bill 2023, then Kenyans will know he is an enemy of the people against employing jobless youth through the Housing Fund. I am beseeching MPs to pass the Finance Bill 2023 with the Housing Fund levy because it is good for Kenyans," the president added.

As he advocated for the Housing Fund levy under the Affordable Housing Project, Ruto said the program would create millions of jobs for the Kenyan youth.

Deputy Rigathi Gachagua, who had been mixed up in controversy for saying the government is run like a company and only stakeholders shall benefit, said that those who do not vote for the bill will not be allocated development money for their constituents.

"Some of you leaders are lying to Kenyans, but know that if your MP is opposed to the finance bill, they should not ask for roads. Even if you make noise and put sufurias [cooking pots] on your head, even if you reject the bill, thinking it won't pass, you don't have the numbers, and that's the truth, there's no need," he said.

'Bad for the Economy'

Odinga said Ruto's government had run out of ideas to explain why the Finance Bill 2023 must be passed in Parliament. "We have noted that the regime has run out of sound bites and explanations for these proposals and has resorted to threats," he said while speaking with the media on June 8.

He said that his opposition party would not allow the president's threats to undermine the country's democracy.

"We have agreed with our MPs on what to do; vote against tax rises. Should Ruto overrun the National Assembly, we will regroup and overrun him in the wider National Assembly of the whole people of Kenya," Odinga added.

He also asked the Kenyan citizens to reject the bill, saying it imposed excess taxation that the government would use to finance wasteful expenditures.

"It is urgent that we bring Ruto back to Earth because he lives on another planet. We must tell him that when people have to park cars at home because of the cost of fuel, it is bad for the economy. We must tell Ruto that when Kenyans postpone traveling upcountry because they can't afford fuel or fare, it is bad for the economy," he said.