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Deadly protests break out in Kenya’s capital Nairobi over proposed tax hikes

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Why did people in Kenya storm their own Parliament?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The protesters created a moment that the president called an attack on democracy. While objecting to a tax increase, they stormed the home of the legislature, overcame security, broke into the building and left many dead and injured. The details of that tax hike - where the money is to come from and where it goes - have a lot to do with it.

MARTÍNEZ: Emmanuel Igunza is a journalist in Nairobi, where he saw some of the violence firsthand. And just a warning, listeners, that some of his reporting might be very graphic.

Emmanuel, what did you see yesterday, and what's the situation now?

EMMANUEL IGUNZA: The protests last week had called for seven days of rage, and it turned out to be just that outside Parliament. Both houses - the National Assembly and the Senate - were extensively damaged during these protests. The symbols of power - the maces - were taken by the protesters who stormed in, forcing MPs to hide, and then they were whisked away via an underground tunnel hidden in ambulances.

I saw parts of the complex on fire, a police truck immobilized and set ablaze, and, on the road leading to Parliament, you could see pools of blood and several bodies lying on the road, which were quickly wrapped up by the protesters in the Kenyan flag and taken by ambulances. There were tear gas canisters. Bullet shells was scattered on the road.

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MARTÍNEZ: So what sparked the protest to begin with?

IGUNZA: The protesters had always insisted they wanted to occupy Parliament, and that was one of the hashtags they'd been using online to mobilize. These are young people, college students, calling themselves the Gen Z. This protest started out as an opposition to the proposed finance bill 2024, which seeks to raise about 2.9 billion dollars in taxes that the government says it needs to pay off huge foreign debt. But the protesters are saying that the taxes would make life much harder as it is. It targets such things as sanitary pads, diapers. And there's an increase in fuel taxes, which will make things like transport and production much more expensive.

MARTÍNEZ: OK, then how did the protests get out of control?

IGUNZA: President Ruto has blamed criminals for infiltrating the protests. Let's listen to him.

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PRESIDENT WILLIAM RUTO: The security infrastructure established to protect our republic and its sovereignty will be deployed to secure the country and restore normalcy.

IGUNZA: Well, but these marches across the country were, by and large, very peaceful. We saw the protesters only with placards, antigovernment placards, their phones and cameras and water bottles. And throughout, they were chanting that they want peace. They want peace. But then, when the overwhelmed police then broke the lines, police opened fire. I saw at least three bodies of people with head-shot wounds lying outside Parliament.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, you reported on the program yesterday that all of this is happening at the same exact time that the first U.N.-backed contingent of Kenyan police officers arrived in Haiti to try and restore law and order.

IGUNZA: Well, indeed, the contingent that's now in Haiti comes from the General Service Unit, which is the same paramilitary group that was overwhelmed by protesters in Kenya. We've seen video footage of them being chased away by crowds. And this has forced the president to call in the military to maintain law and order and guard Parliament, Statehouse and other government buildings.

So it's a big headache for President Ruto, who has styled himself internationally as a strong ally of the West. But, domestically, he faces serious questions on his handling of the protests. There is this perception that he's doing the dirty work for the U.S. in Haiti while his own backyard is on fire.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Emmanuel Igunza, a journalist in Nairobi. Thank you very much.

IGUNZA: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emmanuel Igunza
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.