Kenyan Police Erect Roadblocks Amid "Occupy State House" Protests

Kenyan police put up roadblocks on streets leading to the presidential palace on Thursday as some protesters vowed to "occupy State House" , despite the president's climbdown on proposed tax hike
Police officers stand outside the Parliament building where protesters who are against the Kenya's proposed finance bill 2024/2025 were shot dead in Nairobi, Kenya, June 26, 2024.
Police officers stand outside the Parliament building where protesters who are against the Kenya's proposed finance bill 2024/2025 were shot dead in Nairobi, Kenya, June 26, 2024. REUTERS/Monicah Mwangi

By Aaron Ross

NAIROBI (Reuters) -Kenyan police put up roadblocks on streets leading to the presidential palace on Thursday as some protesters vowed to "occupy State House", despite the president's climbdown on proposed tax hikes that sparked a week of demonstrations.

It was not clear how far protesters would be mollified by President William Ruto's Wednesday decision to withdraw the finance bill a day after clashes killed at least 23 people and saw parliament being stormed briefly.

Ruto is grappling with the most serious crisis of his two-year-old presidency as the youth-led protest movement has grown rapidly from online condemnations of the tax hikes into mass rallies demanding a political overhaul.

Lacking a formal leadership structure, however, protest supporters were divided on how far to carry the demonstrations.

"Let's not be foolish as we fight for a better Kenya," Boniface Mwangi, a prominent social justice activist, said in an Instagram post.

He voiced support for demonstrations on Thursday but opposed calls to invade State House, the president's formal offices and residence, a move that he said could spur more violence and be used to justify a crackdown.

Reuters reporters saw an army vehicle in the capital's central business district, site of the bulk of Tuesday's protests, after the government deployed the military to help police rein in the violence.

Although some protest supporters said they would not demonstrate on Thursday as the finance bill had been scrapped, others pledged to press on, saying only Ruto's resignation would satisfy them.

"Right now is not about just the finance bill but about #RutoMustGo," Davis Tafari told Reuters in a text message. "As political activists we have to make sure that Ruto and his MPs have resigned and fresh elections are held."

He added, "We occupy State House for dignity and justice."

DIALOGUE, AUSTERITY ARE NEXT STEPS

In a speech on Wednesday, Ruto defended his push to raise taxes on items such as bread, cooking oil and diapers, saying it was justified by the need to cut Kenya's high debt, which has made borrowing difficult and squeezed the currency.

But he acknowledged that the public had overwhelmingly rejected the finance bill. He said he would now start a dialogue with Kenyan youth and work on austerity measures, beginning with cuts to the budget of the presidency.

Unlike previous demonstrations in Kenya called by political figures and often mobilised on the basis of ethnicity, the current protests have appealed broadly to those weary of rising living costs and endemic corruption.

From big cities to rural areas, most of Kenya's 47 counties saw protests on Tuesday, even in Ruto's hometown of Eldoret in his ethnic Kalenjin heartland.

At least 23 people were killed nationwide and 30 were being treated for bullet wounds, the Kenya Medical Association said. Medical officials in Nairobi said scores were injured.

(Reporting by Aaron Ross; Additional reporting by Giulia Paravicini, Monicah Mwangi and Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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