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Unless he learns quickly from history, president could end up in trouble

President William Ruto speaking during labour day celebrations at Uhuru Gardens in Nairobi on 1st May 2023. [PCS]

In the past, the wise warned leaders not push the people to breaking point for if they did, they would have serious problems in their hands. The Hebrew Kingdom of Judah, for instance, broke up after Solomon's death around 931 BCE because Solomon's son, Rehoboam, the new king, increased taxation and oppression of his subjects. Ancient China's Confucius, around 500 BCE also advised rulers to be fair and just or risk uprisings. Since not all rulers internalise such advice or heed warnings, countries suffer different levels of revolutions. Taxation is often at the centre of citizens' grievances. Kenya has had its seasons of taxes and 'revolutions' and this is likely to continue. President William Ruto, who ignores history, is in danger of experiencing some sort of revolution due to the seeming insensitivity of his taxing policy.

Famous 'revolutions' partly started as rebellions against perceptions of unfair taxation. In the British American colonies, after the Seven Year War with France, the 1765 tax on official documents, or the stamp duty, prompted the Stamp Act Congress issuing such slogans as no taxation without representation and forced repeal. Another tax on tea inspired the dumping of tea in the Boston harbour, better known as the Boston Tea Party, which laid the background to fighting in 1775 and the 1776 Declaration of Independence.

France helped the English rebels across the Atlantic but then found itself cash-strapped. It looked for innovative tax ways to raise money and taxing the hapless poor initially looked like a solution. Among the problems in France was that aristocrats did not pay taxes although they lived large on state resources. Any attempt to make them pay taxes led to aristocratic rebellions which made poor King Louis XVI to cave in. Desperate for funds, he called the moribund Estate General to help him but he got nothing. Instead, he lost his head to the guillotine.

The setting up of colonial states, racially based slave states in situ, in the 20th Century relied on two symbiotic instruments of poverty creation and enslavement compliance; taxation and brute force. Over taxation and torture were meant to turn Africans into slaves, labelled 'natives', to subsidiae settlers and colonial officials. Since the dependency so created was to be perpetual, both material and mental, poverty creation called for the destruction of the African values and beliefs.

This reality, Idha Salim once observed, made the Waswahili struggle to avoid being classified as 'natives' in order to escape harsh taxation and related mistreatment. Subsequently, resistance to unfair taxation to pamper settlers and colonial officials was one of the causes of anti-colonialism. This resistance to the new order led to what became the Mau Mau War, just as Francis Hall and Richard Meinertzhagen had predicted while planting the British Empire in East Africa. The war led to independence, eliminated racially based tax discrimination, and generated new tax related grievances.

The post-colonial period has had its taxation challenges that have made governments unpopular. Up to the 1990s, people complained about 'harambee' taxation, chiefs confiscating chicken to raise funds and forced Kanu membership fees. This was the background to the 'second liberation' which ushered in the Narc government. Initially, the Narc government did well collecting and managing taxes but its Finance minister Amos Kimunya not having learned from Louis VI's ministers not to touch 'aristocrats', stepped on hot political wire by suggesting that MPs pay taxes. The MPs, being Kenyan 'aristocrats', found good reasons to shout 'Kimunya Must Go', and he went. Dr Ruto should also learn from history. His 3 per cent housing tax, for instance, reinforces the 'Zakayo' image that Raila Odinga thrust at him. Given that most of those forced to contribute will not benefit from the houses, Ruto looks bad. It is as if he is sleep-walking into tax-induced revolutionary disaster.