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Published On: Tue, Dec 23rd, 2014

Kenyan MPs and public wrath

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kenya flagKenyan parliamentarians recently did the rather unreasonable thing of awarding themselves a £17 million pay bonus that would have ensured they continue to live a good life even after they leave office before the next election. The bonus which they smuggled into the Finance Bill sent by former President Mwai Kibaki would have meant additional money for each parliamentarian, at present already earning £9, 000 a month. This translates to some £82, 000 a year compared to a British backbench MP’s annual £65, 738 take home.

Two things made the Kenyan MPs’ move particularly egregious: firstly, they smuggled the so-called retirement bonus into a budget that did not provide for it. Secondly, the increase was to be funded by increased taxes on mobile phone money transfers, cheque encashment and money withdrawals through ATMs. The taxes would have hit Kenya’s poor middle-class the hardest. It is estimated that it would take an average worker 66 years to earn what each MP would have been given if the bill had received the president’s signature. Kenya’s annual per capita income is just £1, 125.

As it turned out, the MPs’ move was rejected because it was “unconstitutional” and “unaffordable”. It would have been the height of insensitivity and double standard if he had approved the bonus demanded by the parliamentarians, given that his government did not agree a pay rise demanded by public school teachers and doctors who have been on strike for close to two months now.

The outrage that greeted the MPs’ action was unprecedented in that it was nationwide; it defied Kenya’s insidious political and ethnic cleavages that politicians have consistently exploited to perpetuate their hold on power. Some government and all opposition MPs came together to oppose it.  .

As it is, already Kenya’s members of parliament are said to be the highest paid in the world, but their productivity nowhere matches their hefty pay. Indeed, they are seen by their compatriots as the “laziest in Africa”.  Yet they are never tired of pushing for pay increment at the slightest opportunity.  Between 2003 and 2010, the MPs increased their salaries and allowances twice. In 2003, after the 2002 election, their first order of business was to quadruple their pay, and last year, they raised it by 25%, claiming that new government taxes that year bankrupted them. But the truth is that almost a third of each MP’s monthly £9, 000 salary and perks are virtually tax-free.

However, now they have met more than their match in a citizenry that could no longer stomach the MPs’ shenanigans. Indeed, protesters that camped outside parliament building in Nairobi, the capital, shouted “thief” at every MP that drove past. The Kenyan protests have once again demonstrated the potency of people power against self-serving political leaders. If not for the street protests, the MPs might have had their way.

There is something in the Kenya narrative for Nigerians to chew on. We have been told that each of our 109 senators collects about N45 million and each of 360 House of Representatives members N27 million each quarter of the year. This, in a country where state governments claim they cannot pay a meagre monthly N18, 000 national minimum wage and the majority of a 160 million strong population live on less than a dollar a day.

Our tragic case is that civil society is too weak to raise its voice above the din of corruption in high places. The few courageous ones among us who try to draw attention to the drain our lawmakers have become on our economy are browbeaten into making a retraction. Recall the sad experience of CBN Governor Sanusi Lamido Sanusi after he said last year that House members and senators alone accounted for the federal government’s annual recurrent budget.

Clearly, the impunity of our lawmakers, at the federal level especially, must stop at some point, but this is only when civil society is able to find its voice as happened recently in Kenya.

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