Fix the Roads: Kenya’s MPs and the Audacity of Greed

“If you feel MPs are being paid heftily, join parliament. [And if you are in Parliament], if you feel you have enough, give a chance to your colleagues,” so says Assistant Minister Aden Duale, who staunchly defended the Kenyan Parliament’s recent passing of an 18 percent MP (Member of Parliament) salary increase, which would make Kenya’s MPs the highest paid lawmakers in the world. In fact, if the salary increase gains the approval of the Cabinet, as well as the President, and is subsequently implemented, the Kenyan Prime Minister will make more annually than the President of the United States. The MPs were quick to defend the pay raises, arguing that current salaries could not compensate for the heavy responsibility they shoulder in their struggle to politically and economically develop Kenya. MP Boni Khalwale rather audaciously characterized the salary raise as “a move towards restoring honor to the profession of politics,” leading many to suspect that he had perhaps confused the word ‘greed’ with the word ‘honor’. Fortunately, most Kenyans are not convinced, and upon hearing of the salary increase, scores took to the streets in early July to convey their outrage over the vote. Since most of the population earns less than $1 per day, it is easy to understand the widespread anger towards this decision, as Kenyan MPs will now make (but certainly not earn) upwards of $128,000 per year. What makes the decision even more appalling is the record of Kenya’s MPs, deemed by the World Bank as comprising one of the most corrupt parliaments in the world; not to mention the fact that sitting Ministers are likely to face charges of crimes against humanity for their role in the 2007 post-election violence.

The MPs’ plan to in essence rob the country’s coffers actually began several years ago. In 2003, when a new Parliament came to power in Kenya, its first order of business after the election was, not to produce legislation that would improve the lives of Kenya’s poor or help Kenya’s emerging middle class businesses, but to quadruple the salary of its MPs, well beyond the base inflation rate. Unlike most other countries, in which independent committees determine MP salaries, in Kenya, MPs have the power to set their own salary. There’s essentially no oversight, leaving MPs free to abuse that power as they please. The 2003 salary raise was interpreted by many as an attempt by the MPs to refill their spent election funds. Public outcry against the move was widespread, as many rightfully criticized the increase as contemptible. How could MPs raise their salaries to such amounts when half of Kenya’s population was struggling to make a basic living? Despite the utter depravity of the move, the salary increase went ahead, with the approval of then new President Mwai Kibaki (who by the way also approved the doubling of his own salary to about $312,000/yr). It was quickly followed by even more avarice, in the form of additional votes to ensure low interest home and car loans, as well as generous healthcare and retirement packages for the MPs.

Then in 2006, while millions of Kenyans lost their livelihoods to severe drought and were subsequently struggling to feed themselves, the MPs, to the utter disbelief of their constituents and the rest of the world, once again voted to raise their salaries. The pay increase involved a near doubling of MPs’ travel allowance. MPs would now get another $5,000 monthly to cover travel to their constituencies. And that was just for the first 350km of travel; they would obtain another $1.60 for every additional km traveled. To ensure they received the new allowances, MPs held the annual budget hostage. They refused to approve the budget unless their demands for more money were met. The move was nothing less than immoral, as their refusal to approve the budget meant that over $3.5 million in aid to people facing food shortages would be delayed. Even more disturbing is that the additional money spent to accommodate the pay raise, which amounts to almost $3 million in total annually, could have significantly helped those affected by the drought. In defense of the increase, MPs decried the difficulties of traveling to their constituencies, complaining specifically that the deteriorating roads were damaging their luxury vehicles. So once again the question was posed by many, how could MPs complain about having to replace the tires of their Mercedes and Land rovers, when thousands of people, even their own constituents, were starving? Were the MPs’ tires more important than Kenyan lives?

In response to the MPs’ self-serving reasoning, the public exclaimed rather simply, ‘Fix the roads!’ Seemed like the most logical solution. Instead of using the $3 million to pay for the possibility that some vehicles may need repair, the government should put the money towards repairing the roads, so that all Kenyans could benefit. After all, wasn’t it the MPs’ job to serve Kenyans, not the other way around? How much more did Kenyans have to pay before the MPs started doing their job? Although the public failed to prevent the MPs from increasing their salary, outrage over the President’s salary raise forced Kibaki, whose family wealth is already immense, to refuse his own increase. Under the proposed presidential pay increase, Kibaki would have received a 187 percent raise, bringing his salary annually to almost $500,000. The MPs’ reason for increasing Kibaki’s salary to ludicrous levels was as they exclaimed, “to give the respect and dignity the presidency deserves.” Since when is an individual’s level of ‘respect and dignity’ measured by the amount of money he or she makes? It is through an individual’s actions that respect is earned, and given the fact that an estimated $1 billion in donor aid has gone missing under Kibaki’s administration, any reward or praise of the President may be, to say the least, misplaced. Although respect cannot be bought, apparently support can, which is what MPs were really aiming for when they offered Kibaki the substantial increase. The MPs knew that they could not gain the President’s approval for another pay raise unless they provided something sizeable in return, hence the 187 percent raise. Kibaki ultimately rejected the increase, stating it would be superfluous given the economic and social situation of the country. However, it took several months of intense public pressure for Kibaki to place the country’s needs before his own.

As of 2010, MPs make an annual base salary of approximately $126,000, or about Kenyan Shilling (Ksh) 851,000 per month. In addition to this base salary, MPs get an extravagant set of allowances. When MPs are first elected, they receive a Ksh10 million (approx. $125,000) allowance to either purchase or build a home, which is subsequently complemented by a monthly housing allowance of another Ksh140,000 ($1,750). MPs will typically opt to build lavish new mansions in their constituencies. However, to do that, they will take out exorbitant loans, leaving them heavily indebted. In fact, much of their monthly salary will go towards repaying loans used to fund a luxurious lifestyle. In defense of this extravagance, MPs actually fault their own constituents, claiming that Kenyans expect their MP to convey an image of wealth and prosperity. Well, naturally a person who is struggling to eat would find comfort in the fact that others are inordinately wealthy. Interestingly, a recent oversight report—the same report that called for the pay raises—also recommended that MPs should be prevented from committing more than two-thirds of their salaries to loans. The MPs were quick to reject the proposal however, claiming rather ironically that it implied they could not manage their finances.

In addition to money for housing, MPs also get a car allowance of almost Ksh3 million (approx. $40,000) when they are first elected, as well as an additional Ksh75,000 ($1,000) per month for ‘car maintenance’ (plus the $5,000 for travel). They also receive monthly allowances for entertainment (Ksh60,000) and other extraneous expenses (Ksh50,000). Perhaps most offensive is the ‘sitting’ allowance; MPs are actually paid an additional allowance of Ksh10,000 ($125) just for showing up to work, and under the proposed salary increase, MPs could get up to Ksh30,000 per sitting at a maximum of three sittings per day ($1,125 total). How exactly could that happen? An MP could attend two parliamentary sittings and a committee meeting in one day and amazingly be credited with three sittings. Also worth mention is MPs’ severance packages, which are mighty hefty; all MPs receive Ksh1.5 million after each five-year term. This is regardless of whether they are re-elected or not. Under the proposed increase, that amount will be raised to Ksh3.6 million ($45,000). But that’s not all; any MP without a pension or receiving less than $1,000 pension per month would also receive another $1,000 per month, regardless of length of service.

Members of Parliament are currently costing Kenyans an estimated $33 million annually, but that number could double or even triple if the new salary raise is passed, and the proposed increase in the number of MP seats from 222 to 349 is also approved. These proposals are the product of the Akiwumi tribunal, which was formed shortly after the 2007 post-election violence, to review the terms and conditions of service for MPs and National Assembly members. One of the main purposes of the tribunal, headed by former Kenyan appeals court judge Akilano Akiwumi, was to reassess MP salaries, following widespread public anger over MPs not paying taxes on excessive allowances. Currently, MPs only pay 25 percent taxes on their base salary; their allowances are not affected. Although the Akiwumi report was meant to bring a measure of fairness to the MP tax situation, it did just the opposite. While the tribunal recommended a larger tax burden for MPs that included tax on allowances, it also recommended an almost equal raise in pay, completely offsetting the proposed taxes and actually resulting in a slight increase in MP salaries. Under the proposed changes, MPs will see raises in their basic salary from Ksh851,000 to Ksh1,191,000 per month, plus raises in their allowances across the board. And although they will pay 228,000 in taxes on their basic salary, because of the salary increase, they will now take home over Ksh863,000; even more unsettling, they will not pay taxes on the largest allowances (housing, car).

The report’s recommendations were baffling, given the tribunal’s recognition of MPs’ extravagant spending and resulting indebtedness. The House debate was non-existent; MPs touted their positions and offered ridiculous arguments in favor of the salary increases. MP Walter Nyambati claimed that a tax of over Ksh200,000 without a comparable salary raise would be severely detrimental to MPs, particularly to those who ‘were elected based on a certain take-home remuneration and have consequently made arrangements based on that take-home remuneration,’ implying that MPs have either promised something in return for votes, or that they have already spent or promised beyond their means. He then advocated for large severance packages for MPs who serve only one term, claiming that they are most vulnerable. To what? The debts they incurred? If an MP lives well beyond his or her means, taking on numerous loans, and then is not re-elected, is it the public’s responsibility to continue to pay for his uncontrolled greed, well after he has left office? Is he not accountable for his own debt like all other Kenyans? In what was a rather juvenile argument, Duale actually ranted on about how other sectors of Kenyan society also avoid paying taxes, as if to imply that because of that fact, it was permissible for MPs to do the same. He then childishly demanded that the ‘opinion-makers’ (media, public) now redirect their attention to these other groups and insist that they too pay, which is an odd demand, since it’s the government’s job to enforce the tax code. And as if it somehow justifies their exorbitant salaries, Assistant Minister Ole Metito stated that although MPs are the highest paid lawmakers in the world, they aren’t the highest paid individuals in Kenya. Metito seemed to convey a slight resentment at that fact.

With Kenyans set to vote on a new Constitution in August, Kenya’s MPs have rushed to fill their pockets before new rules regulating future MP salary changes are put in place. Under the new constitution, MPs will no longer determine their own salaries—that power will transfer to a national remuneration commission—and they will have to pay taxes. To ensure the pay raise’s approval, MPs have threatened once again to impede the budget process, even after Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta announced decidedly that the Treasury did not have the money to accommodate such a raise. Kenyatta, along with Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Planning Assistant Minister Peter Kenneth, has strongly opposed the proposed increase. Kenyatta explained that in order to implement the raise, the government would have to either borrow more money, placing the nation under greater debt, or increase taxes, placing the burden directly upon Kenyans. Odinga has been particularly vocal in his criticism of the pay raise, stating simply that it is unfair for MPs to arbitrarily award themselves such large salaries, considering the country’s economic situation. Opposition from Kenya’s civil groups, NGOs as well as other public service groups has been massive, with civil service workers threatening a strike. Since 2003, as MPs have raised their own salaries with little debate, those working in the public and civil service sectors have repeatedly had their requests for raises denied.

After a short delay, the Kenyan government’s Cabinet recently debated the salary increase, and out of fear of fierce public protest, the proposal was rejected; however, the Cabinet did concede somewhat, agreeing to delay taxation of MPs’ salaries until 2012. Although the proposed salary increase was defeated, victory was certainly incomplete, as Kenyans will still be left to contend with an audaciously greedy and corrupt government. The fact that such an egregious proposal obtained near unanimous backing from Kenya’s MPs is unnerving, and sadly, Kenyans will continue to have to defend themselves against their own government in the future, or at least until the next election.