© Reuters. Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga of the Azimio La Umoja (Declaration of Unity) One Kenya Alliance addresses supporters during an anti-government rally dubbed ‘Saba Saba (July 7) People’s March “, at Kamukunji Field in Nairobi, Kenya July
By Ayenat Mersie and Humphrey Malalo
NAIROBI (Reuters) – Kenyan police on Friday fired tear gas and fought battles with opposition supporters in major cities across the country to protest a series of tax hikes.
Opposition leader Raila Odinga has called on the protests to oppose tax hikes imposed at a time when many are already grappling with high prices for staples such as maize flour.
Kenya’s High Court ordered a halt to the tax hikes, but the government still hiked petrol prices, leading to a new legal challenge.
Police arrested 17 protesters in the capital Nairobi, a coalition of human rights groups including Article 19 said. A further 11 activists were arrested in other cities, the groups said.
“We saw protesters being dragged to the ground,” the 10-watchdog group said in a statement, calling for an investigation into police conduct during the protests.
Police did not immediately comment on the reports.
The government says the tax hikes, which are expected to bring in an additional 200 billion shillings ($1.42 billion) a year, are needed to meet rising debt repayments and fund job creation initiatives in Kenya, East Africa’s largest economy.
Addressing around 2,000 supporters, Odinga accused President William Ruto of failing to tackle the high cost of living, poaching opposition lawmakers and acting unilaterally to reconstitute the electoral commission.
“The parliamentarians betrayed the people,” he said, adding that Ruto had also broken his own promises, justifying a movement for the people to regain their authority.
Since the two men faced off in a close election won by Ruto last August, they have clashed over a range of issues concerning the high cost of living and the handling of future elections.
Tear gas, stones
“Ruto is pushed into a corner by a number of circumstances; some of his making, some of which he inherited,” said Fergus Kell, a researcher at London’s international affairs think tank Chatham House, citing loans precedents and a difficult global economy.
Odinga is trying to exploit the opportunity, but hasn’t presented his vision clearly, Kell said.
“I don’t think he necessarily presents a cohesive alternative agenda to Ruto beyond having a platform to criticize him in very difficult times.”
The High Court suspended execution of the finance bill last week but the government raised retail petrol prices, forcing the opposition senator who filed the case to seek the jailing of the leader of the regulator of the energy sector for contempt.
The court will rule on the contempt motion on Monday and issue further directions on the main trial the same day.
At the main rally in Nairobi, protesters blew loud horns and whistles while others danced. Many shouted “tumechoka!” – Swahili for ‘we are tired’, as well as “Ruto must go!” and “No Raila no peace.”
Some temporarily blocked the roads with burning tires which the police then extinguished and threw rocks at the officers.
Odinga’s convoy spent at least two hours trying to access Nairobi’s main business district via various routes, with police blocking its way with tear gas.
Television news channels showed footage of police firing tear gas to disperse protesters in the port city of Mombasa, the western town of Kisumu and the town of Kisii also in the west.
($1 = 140.9000 Kenyan shillings)