A survey by Twaweza and the Centre for Fiscal Affairs shows that three-quarters of Kenyans were completely opposed to the Finance Bill 2023, which has now been passed into a law and is being challenged in court. Less than 2% of the 25,966 Kenyans who participated in the survey supported the Bill, while more than 90% of those surveyed rejected the raising of Value Added Tax (VAT) on fuel products from 8% to 16%, alongside the introduction of the housing tax. The proposal to increase excise tax on mobile money transfer services from 12% to 15% was opposed by 90% of the respondents.

Media reports and chats on social media also indicate that the majority of Kenyans disapprove of the new Finance Act, which will likely have an inflationary effect on the cost of essential items, from transport to food. The impact on the economy will be devastating. Even the World Bank had warned that passing the Bill would slow down the economy and reduce household consumption,  which, in turn, would mean reduced taxes for the government, thereby negating the ultimate aim of the government – to raise revenue through taxes. Employers burdened with their contributions towards the housing and other taxes could lay off workers, thus increasing levels of unemployment. 

In a democracy, the will of the people is paramount. The Constitution of Kenya 2010 dictates that sovereign power belongs to the people of Kenya.  And the people have spoken (much as their parliamentary representatives who passed the law – or were coerced to pass the law – didn’t listen). They have said they reject the proposals in the new law because they will hurt them and the economy. 

Yet a majority of parliamentarians, who are supposed to represent the people, unashamedly passed a Bill that the majority of Kenyans rejected loudly and clearly. Their vote is a reflection of their contempt for the people of Kenya. No doubt the threats and bullying of parliamentarians by the Executive played some role in this massive betrayal. But parliamentarians should know that they are not accountable to the president; they are accountable to their constituents. 

The Finance Act 2023 also has colonial undertones that should make Kenyans very nervous. “The levy to enable more Kenyans to own their own houses is morphing into something akin to the obnoxious colonial ‘hut tax’,” stated an editorial in the Daily Nation.  The tax that the newspaper is referring to is the Native Hut Tax, introduced in 1901, when the British wanted to consolidate their power over this land and its people.  All huts used as a dwelling were expected to pay an annual tax. 

The hut tax was introduced ostensibly to turn an economy that was barter-based into a cash economy. But it had more sinister motives. It forced thousands of indigenous people to migrate in search of paid work. This allowed the British to gain access to cheap labour. To add insult to injury, these migrants were then forced to carry a kipande (pass) which was used to monitor their movements and keep track of their employment histories. Those who could not pay the tax were used as free labour on roads and other infrastructure. The ultimate aim was to colonise the people and their land. How the colonisers imposed taxes on people after stealing their land is one of the biggest heists of the 20th century. 

The British forcibly displaced the indigenous populations through the establishment of so-called “African reserves” where each ethnic group was expected to live and eke out a living separately. Furthermore, Africans were forbidden from growing cash crops. Those who grew maize and other staple foods were forced to sell them to marketing boards at a set price (some of these boards remain in existence to this day, and have continued to exploit and rob farmers, as has been witnessed in various recent scandals).

Just as we are being told that the additional taxes proposed in the Finance Act will bring “development” to Kenya, the colonisers who grabbed indigenous people’s land said they were here to protect the interests of the “natives” who would apparently benefit from being colonised. They were on a “civilizing mission” that would bring modern education and infrastructure, in addition to Christianity, to “backward” people. Of course, we now know that the real aim was the plunder and control of the land and its people for the benefit of the British Empire, colonial administrators and white settlers. 

As a form of “indirect rule”, the colonialists co-opted local chiefs whose primary responsibility was to recruit labour and to collect taxes. The “home guards” – as the loyalist chiefs and specially-appointed agents who were in the service of the British were known – were rewarded with plots of land, trade licences and tax exemptions.  

When Kenya gained independence, the former home guards became the biggest beneficiaries of land left behind by the departing British. Funded resettlement schemes were manipulated in their favour, and many dispossessed Kenyans found that independence did not result in freedom from want. 

The new elite class of post-colonial rulers who had benefitted from the colonial system decided to continue with the plunder and exploitation of their own people. The Kenya Land and Freedom Army (christened Mau Mau by the British), which had struggled to regain land from the colonialists, was outlawed and its members found themselves either landless or forced to eke out a dehumanising existence in slums. 

In essence, the departing British colonisers never left – they left their agents behind who could be relied on not to disrupt Britain’s hold on its former colony. As former Chief Justice, Dr. Willy Mutunga, told me recently during an interview that Kenya is ruled by “neocolonials” who continue to be agents of foreign interest (many believe the 2023 Finance Act will only benefit the International Monetary Fund, which they believe authored parts of it).

Kenya has since colonialism remained a predatory state that benefits only a few elite. Most trade unions, consumer watchdog associations, and state environmental agencies exist only in name, meaning that the majority of Kenyans are left to their own devices to defend their interests. 

Going by its punitive provisions, the Finance Act 2023 was drafted for the benefit of the minority, not the majority (that’s why there are tax exemptions for helicopters, of all things!) It will kill industry, impoverish mama mbogas and so-called “hustlers”, and cause even more hardship to people who are already struggling. Maybe this is what Kenya Kwanza intended – a citizenry that is so disempowered, dispossessed and impoverished that it will be easier to control and exploit, colonial style. 

Thankfully, many Kenyans are now seeing that many of the promises made by Kenya Kwanza leaders prior to the last election were false. A mass boycott might be required to stop the fleasing. 

Author

  • Rasna Warah

    Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist with over two decades of experience as an editor, writer and communications specialist. She wrote a weekly op-ed column for the Daily Nation, Kenya’s leading newspaper, for many years, and has contributed to various regional and international publications, including, the UK’s Guardian, Africa is a Country, The East African, The Mail and Guardian, The Elephant, and Kwani? She has worked as an editor and writer at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) and has published two books on Somalia: Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) and War Crimes (2016). Her first book, Triple Heritage (1998), explored the history of South Asians in East Africa. Her latest book, Lords of Impunity (2022), examines the failures and internal contradictions of the United Nations and what can be done to transform this global body. She holds a Master’s degree in Communication for Development from Malmö University in Sweden and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology and Women’s Studies from Suffolk University in Boston, USA. She is based in Nairobi, Kenya.