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Kenyan President Ruto ready for ‘conversation’ with ‘peaceful’ young protesters.

NAIROBI: Kenyan President William Ruto said on Sunday he was ready for “a conversation” with thousands of “peaceful” young protesters who staged nationwide demonstrations this week to oppose proposed tax hikes.

Organized on social media and led largely by Gen-Z Kenyans, who streamed the demonstrations live, the protests have caught Ruto’s government off guard as discontent grows over his economic policies.

“I am very proud of our youth… they have stepped forward peacefully and I want to tell them that we will engage them,” Ruto said in his first public comments on the protests. “We will have a conversation so that together we can build a greater nation,” Ruto said during a church service in the Rift Valley town of Nyahururu.

His characterization of the protests as “peaceful” came after human rights campaigners reported two deaths following Thursday’s demonstrations in Nairobi.

There was no immediate response from the protesters, who called for a national strike on June 25. The demonstrations were largely peaceful, but officers fired tear gas and water cannons throughout the day to disperse protesters near parliament.

According to a Kenya Human Rights Commission official, 21-year-old Evans Kiratu was “hit by a tear gas canister” during the protests and died in hospital.

On Friday, a police watchdog said it was investigating allegations that a 29-year-old man was shot dead by officers in Nairobi after demonstrations. The Independent Police Oversight Authority said it had “documented the death … believed to be the result of a police shooting” on Thursday. Several organizations, including Amnesty International Kenya, said at least 200 people were injured in the protests in Nairobi, while thousands took to the streets across the country.

Ruto’s administration has defended the proposed taxes as necessary to fill its coffers and reduce reliance on foreign borrowing. Following smaller-scale demonstrations on Tuesday, the cash-strapped government agreed to roll back some tax hikes in a new bill.

However, Ruto’s administration still plans to raise some taxes, defending the proposed levies as necessary to raise the money.

Kenya has a mountain of debt and maintenance costs have risen due to the depreciation of the local currency over the past two years, leaving Ruto with few options.

The tax hikes will pile even more pressure on Kenyans, many of whom are already struggling, as the cost of living rises and well-paid jobs remain out of reach for young people. “Tuesday June 25: #OccupyParliament and Total Shutdown Kenya. A national strike,” read a poster widely shared online, adding that “Gen Z is giving all hardworking Kenyans a day off. Parents, keep your children at home in solidarity.”

After the government agreed to scrap taxes on bread purchases, car ownership and financial and mobile services, the treasury warned of a 200 billion shilling ($1.5 billion) shortfall.

The government has now targeted an increase in fuel prices and export taxes to fill the gap left by the changes – a move critics say will make life more expensive in a country already plagued by high inflation.

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