28. June 2024

#RejectFinanceBill2024 protests in Kenya – When austerity leads to human rights violations

“Tumechoka!” – “We are tired!” For days, thousands of Kenyans across the country have been protesting against the planned tax increases on essential goods and services. Under the hashtag #RejectFinanceBill2024, young people in particular have called for peaceful protests on social media such as TikTok, Instagram and X (formerly Twitter). Following the murder of Rex Kanyeki Masai, allegedly by the police, the situation in Kenya’s capital Nairobi escalated.

At least 23 deaths according to the Kenyan Medical Association, countless injuries and abductions and arrests of anti-government protesters were the result of the largest protest to date on June 25, 2024, a day which many Kenyans are already describing as one of the darkest days in the history of the young republic. erlassjahr.de expresses its solidarity with the protesters in Kenya and condemns the Kenyan government’s repressive and violent response to the protests.

Kenya’s sovereign debt

In the view of erlassjahr.de, Kenya’s high level of foreign debt and the way it is dealt with are partly responsible for the current developments in the country. The costs of the current debt crisis are to be passed on to the poorest of Kenya’s population through austerity measures such as regressive taxes. The Global Sovereign Debt Monitor 2024 shows that Kenya will have to spend a quarter of its public revenue on interest and principal payments to foreign creditors alone in 2024 – a ratio that is unsustainable. Last year, the austerity policy already led to the Kenyan government paying five times as much to its creditors as it spent on healthcare. In addition, twice as much money was spent on debt repayments as was spent on education.

Due to its critical debt situation, Kenya is part of a multi-year International Monetary Fund (IMF) program in which program funds are only disbursed on the condition that the government further reduces its budget deficit. The budget deficit in 2023 was just minus 0.4 percent. In the midst of an economic crisis, this is a very low figure. The Kenyan government under President William Ruto is now trying to reduce this deficit even further by raising taxes and cutting spending. This is hitting a population that is already affected by inflation costs, rising grocery prices and high youth unemployment.

The IMF and German government are partly responsible

In the view of erlassjahr.de, the IMF is complicit in the victims of police violence and the human rights violations of the past days. Concerns about the rising cost of living have driven Kenya’s youth onto the streets. The Daily Nation, Kenya’s largest and most widely read daily newspaper, reported on June 27 that the IMF had already predicted protests against the planned tax reforms months ago. In a report published in January 2024, the IMF wrote of unrest in connection with the protests against necessary tax increases, which could disrupt trade and tourism in Kenya. Nevertheless, the IMF called on the Kenyan government to stick to the reforms as part of its program. By imposing these conditions on the Kenyan government, the IMF shares responsibility for the repressive handling of the protests.

However, erlassjahr.de also considers the German government to be co-responsible for the situation in Kenya. Firstly, as the IMF’s fourth largest shareholder, the German government is co-responsible for the Fund’s policies. Secondly, in its coalition agreement, the coalition government has agreed to support an initiative for a sovereign debt workout mechanism and to implement debt cancellation for vulnerable states. However, because fair and transparent negotiations on debt cancellation are still not a reality, over-indebted countries such as Kenya continue to pay off their debts at the expense of the population.

What could happen next?

Kenyan President William Ruto has bowed to pressure from the Kenyan people and announced in an address to the nation on June 26 that he will not sign the tax bill passed by parliament. However, this does not seem to have appeased Kenyans who have taken their discontent and anger to the streets of Nairobi, Mombasa, Eldoret and elsewhere in recent days. The repressive, violent restrictions on their right to protest and renewed debates about corruption and national debt are raising awareness among the Kenyan people.

“We’re running our countries on debt! We’re running our countries knowing full well that our communities, our people do not have the financial power to have enough money to put into our coffers to pay off that debt. So why would we get indebted? Why are we such an expensive country to run when the majority of people are so poor?” (Dr. Auma Obama)

That’s what activist and author Dr. Auma Obama said in an interview with Democracy Now! The still heated atmosphere in the country suggests that the young movement will go on and that Kenyans will continue to take their demands to the streets, fearlessly and despite existing repression. The new hashtag #RutoMustGo is already being used to mobilize and call for actions and protests.


Text: Amelie Fischer, erlassjahr.de