Kenya dispatch: police teargas protesters and arrest hundreds opposing government Finance Bill on Nairobi streets Dispatches
© JURIST // Aynsley Genga
Kenya dispatch: police teargas protesters and arrest hundreds opposing government Finance Bill on Nairobi streets

Aynsley Genga is JURIST’s senior Kenya correspondent. She files this from Nairobi.

What is democracy? At its core, democracy embodies the will of the people. While definitions may vary, democracy is fundamentally a system of governance where the people’s voices are not only heard, but honored. In a true democracy, laws are crafted to serve the collective good, ensuring that the interests of the many prevail over those of a privileged few.

On Tuesday, Kenya witnessed its first anti-Finance Bill demonstrations. People flooded the streets of Nairobi’s Central Business District (CBD) to stand against the controversial bill that seeks to place taxes on cancer treatment, a treatment that is already too costly for most Kenyans; a bill that seeks to exempt the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) from the jurisdiction of the Data Protection Act thus enabling them to go through citizens personal data without any restriction: a bill that would add taxes on sanitary pads and diapers and further increase taxes on imports as well as on delivery services. The government even wanted to place a 16% tax on bread but exempted it after numerous complaints from the public. Put simply, the bill is not only unfair but also punitive, effectively turning existence in Kenya into a sentence of hardship.

The government held a press conference at noon in order to declare some of the amendments that had been made to the bill after hearing the cries of its people. At first everyone was excited, many thought the war had been won but that was unfortunately not the case. Some of the amendments included the removal of tax on bread, transportation of sugar and even financial services. The Cabinet Secretary (CS) for Public Service went on to further add that the Eco tax will only be applied to imported finished products. It is important to note that the government only amended a handful of provisions despite citizens’ cries for the bill to be scrapped. Major provisions such as the provision regarding  KRA exemption from the eyes of the Data Protection Act were not amended despite demands from the public to remove it. Additionally,  the amendment on Eco Tax provision does not really change anything. This is because if one is to consider products such as diapers, sanitary towels and even mobile phones; Kenya does not have any major company that manufactures any of them. Our mobile phones are usually imported, the common sanitary towels like Always are also imported which means they will still be taxed. The government has decided to tax sanitary towels despite the fact that 65 percent of women in Kenya cannot afford sanitary pads and reusable pads are notan option for many since they are too expensive for the common folk. If this bill is passed many will suffer and that is an undeniable truth.

I was able to attend today’s demonstrations in person and it was quite the experience, from running from the police the entirety of the day due to them throwing tear gas to interacting with my fellow Kenyans and getting to understand why they have taken to the streets. I talked with women who were fighting against the taxes of sanitary towels and diapers as well as fighting to ensure their children and families have a more hopeful future. I interacted with a man who took to the streets simply because he did not know what to do anymore; he was frustrated and in a state of despair, he had a family at home to support but he could not find any source of employment since many employers lack adequate resources to hire extra workers anymore. I was also able to interact with many from my generation who were simply fighting for a brighter tomorrow.

Talking to these people makes one realise just how dire the situation in Kenya is. So many people are suffering to the point that people did not even need the opposition party to organise the protests for them. To the surprise of many, the organisers of these demonstrations were young Kenyans who finally had enough of the suffering and decided to stand for something. As of last week Friday, ordinary citizens could be seen online contributing towards the acquisition of posters for the protests and even water to help in combating tear gas. Others were involved in messaging their leaders and pressuring them to reject the finance bill. Even during the protests, hotline numbers to help arrested victims were being spread everywhere to ensure the protection of everyone.

Many including journalists were arrested as well as harassed by the police. I was also harassed for recording the police by officers in plain clothing and I was nearly arrested. According to the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNHCR), 335 people were actually arrested and the Law Society of Kenya (LSK) worked tirelessly throughout the day to ensure their release, even working through the teargas that was thrown at them at Central police station. LSK president Faith Odhiambo released a statement condemning the acts of the police. As it stands majority of those arrested have been released.

Currently, Members of Parliament (MPs) are scheduled to debate on Wednesday and convene for a special session on Thursday leading up to the crucial vote on the Finance Bill next Tuesday, June 25th. Meanwhile citizens are exploring alternative avenues to exert pressure on the government, including the possibility of recalling MPs. We also have towns such as Mombasa that are set to have demonstrations on Wednesday while Eldoret is set to join Nairobi in protesting on Thursday. There is widespread anticipation about the outcome of the vote, with many hoping that the MPs will prioritise the interests of the People. However, only time will reveal what lies ahead for the people of Kenya.