Kenyan leader faces furious young people in online debate

Kenyan leader faces furious young people in online debate

Kenya’s President William Ruto has faced tough questions from furious anti-tax protesters during a debate on the social media platform X.

For the first time he apologised for the police brutality witnessed during the recent protests and the abductions of the alleged organisers.

Last week, the president was forced to withdraw his controversial finance bill because of the demonstrations that have rocked his presidency.

The protests were organised via X Spaces, a feature that allows users to host live audio conversations with others on the platform formerly known as Twitter.

Mr Ruto’s X Space session, dubbed #EngageThePresident, started more than an hour late. Technical difficulties cut into what was supposed to be a three-hour debate.

But the discussions were frank, with more than 150,000 people listening – some calling the president a liar and accusing him of lacking empathy – to which he responded robustly.

He pledged to sack all officials implicated in corruption, adding: “I agree some of our officials display obnoxious opulence and I have called them personally and advised them how to conduct themselves. I will do more.”

A state-funded human rights commission estimates more than 40 people died during the protests, most on the day the bill was passed by MPs last week.

But during the X Space conversation, Mr Ruto accused some “reckless” people of inflating the number of people who were killed during the recent protests, putting the number at 25.

The proposed tax increases were intended to help reduce Kenya’s debt burden of more than $80bn (£63bn).

He confirmed that the bill had indeed been withdrawn – protesters feared it still might become law after 21 days as it had been passed by parliament. But the president defended many of the proposals, saying a lot of them had been misunderstood and had been intended to boost Kenyan businesses.

The demonstrations have since morphed into calls for Mr Ruto’s resignation and demands that the security forces face justice over the killing of protesters.

Earlier Mr Ruto’s daughter Charlene tweeted to publicise the three-hour opportunity to chat directly with the president: “Young people, the chance of a lifetime awaits you,” she posted.

Some members of Mr Ruto’s cabinet were also present for the X Space conversation – though none of them spoke.

On the matter of police brutality, the president said he did not personally instruct the police, but would make sure the regulator investigated.

When pushed on the subject, he urged those at the X Space session to share photos and videos of an officer they described as a “killer policeman” for opening fire on protesters.

“I will look for the rogue police and ensure he is apprehended,” he said.

The discussion was hosted by the president’s spokesperson and Kevin Monari, an online content creator and leading voice of the protesters who spoke about his abduction by plain clothes gunmen.

“I promise to follow up on the [abduction] issue and take action,” the president said.

Several others involved in the protests say they were abducted by state agents, held for several hours, intimidated and then released without ever going to court.

Before his X Space session began, President Ruto delivered a national address on TV, promising a raft of spending cuts, saying they were needed because the planned tax rises had been scrapped. These include:

  • The dissolution of 47 state corporations with overlapping functions

  • Suspending the purchase of new vehicles for state officials for six months

  • Suspending all non-essential travel for state officials

  • Reducing government advisers by 50%

  • Scrapping the budget for first lady and spouses of deputy president and the prime cabinet secretary

  • Enforcing the retirement of public servants at the age of 60.

He expressed his condolences but said this “difficult time” was an opportunity for the country:

“We are finally having the right conversation, not about our tribes, or personalities, or political formations, but rather issues that affect each and every one of us: issues such as taxation, debt, the budget, corruption, the cost of living, unemployment, and opportunities for our young people.”

He reiterated such sentiments during his X Space session.

But one X user summed up the mood of protesters with the comment: “Why do you keep quiet until things get out of hand? It is so clear that our lives don’t really matter to you?”

Unlike in the previous addresses where he appeared combative and defensive, President Ruto showed more remorse.

The 57-year-old handled with finesse what could have become a shouting match – and had a confident, friendly manner, addressing most of those who asked questions as “my brother”, “my sister” or “my friend”.

The president ended the debate despite many wanting to ask more questions, saying he had to go off to meet Kenya’s Olympic team before they departed for Paris.

But he said he had learnt much during the X Space session and hoped to do more of them.

In particular, he said it had taught him that he needed to show more empathy about the plight of his fellow citizens.

More BBC stories on Kenya’s tax crisis:

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[Getty Images/BBC]

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