Photo credit: Flickr user DEMOSH
In the midst of a contentious campaign period leading up to an August 4 constitutional referendum, members of Kenya’s Parliament (MPs) have voted to award themselves a pay raise of almost 25 percent, an increase that places them among the highest-paid legislators in the world. MP salaries will rise to 1,091,000 shillings ($12,841) a month, an amount considerably higher than many of their European counterparts—lawmakers in the United Kingdom, for example, are paid $8,445 a month. Even more dramatic is the discrepancy between the MPs and those they represent. A majority of Kenyans live in dire poverty, and the proposed increase would set MP income at fully 240 times Kenyan GDP per capita.
Kenya’s current government formed in April 2008, in the wake of the violent 2007 election crisis. After an election officially declared “irredeemably polluted,” the Grand Coalition Government was formed to quell the crisis and put into place much-needed reforms of the country’s political system. The 2010 Countries at the Crossroads report detailed the crisis and outlined the meager progress made on the core challenges that the new government vowed to tackle: among other things, electoral reform has stalled, ethnic divisions continue to be profound, and little progress has been made on the complex, vexing problem of land reform.
In stark contrast to this record of inaction, MPs hastened to propose the salary increases before the August 4 referendum as the new constitution would remove lawmakers’ ability to set their own salaries. Defense of the increase—and the rare spirit of near-complete unity shown in parliament—is based on changes in MPs’ tax status. Until recently, parliamentarians enjoyed tax-free status on virtually all income, but public discontent over the issue rose dramatically, leading MPs to finally resign themselves to annual taxation of 227,000 shillings ($2,671) in annual taxes, which will be more than covered by the salary increase of 350,000 shillings ($4,119). The other defense of the increases asserts that the widespread expectation that legislators provide for their constituents entitles them to higher levels of income. High salaries are appropriate, under this reckoning, because legislators distribute their income among constituents in the form of school fees, funeral expenses, and other costs. House Speaker Kenneth Marende defended the increases, stating “I envision a Kenya where the priest, teachers, and the police will be properly remunerated; not just the politician…Ask yourself: is your contribution impunity? Corruption? Ethnicity? Let’s support each other.” This change, it seems, starts at home.
Anticipating resistance from the public and the executive, which can delay or veto the bill, legislators are attempting to force the government into approving the proposed increase by refusing to pass legislation on any government activities. In particular, they are refusing to pass the Appropriations Bill, which authorizes virtually all government spending. Absent legislative approval of the bill before August 31, the government will be effectively left with no legal options to draw money for its daily operations.
Not surprisingly, many (if not most) Kenyans do not support the raise. The proposal sparked outrage among civil servants, who have threatened to go on strike if the government approves the increase. In a recent editorial, two civil society leaders condemned the bill as a clear indicator that legislators have forsaken their civic duties in the face of bald greed. Officials of the NGO Kenyans for Peace with Truth and Justice assert that “Parliament is meant to constitute a general check upon executive power, instead of perpetrating fraud upon the very people it purports to serve. Otherwise, who will guard the guardians?” These and other civil society leaders are calling upon the government to shoot down the proposal regardless of the MPs’ threats. Indeed, government resistance has already surfaced in the Minister of Finance’s declaration that the budget has exhausted all available resources and that new salaries could be financed only through additional borrowing or higher taxes, to the detriment of the Kenyan economy.
This controversy comes at a crucial time, as the country prepares to vote on the most significant political reforms in its recent history. The nongovernmental Kenya Human Rights Commission describes the draft constitution as imperfect but an important improvement over the current constitution, given that it “embodies fundamental principles necessary for the realization of accountability within the Government of Kenya.” This support is far from universal, however. Violence is again threatening to tarnish the political scene, as tensions rise between the new constitution’s supporters and detractors. As the National Cohesion and Integration Committee’s Alice Nderitu warned of the growing threat, “It's tense but manageable... but it's only manageable to the extent that the law enforcement officers don't work alone. When we start talking about death, you know the threat of violence is real.”
Given the power-sharing government’s scant progress on the goals it set for itself and the growing threat of referendum-related violence—let alone the presidential election scheduled for 2012—Kenya’s legislators clearly have much work to do to achieve the political stability deemed essential two years ago. In light of such formidable challenges, the pay raise is symbolic of the ongoing disconnect between the priorities of Kenyan society and the country’s governing class, a gap that continues to threaten the country’s progress and stability.