Should Kenya lawmakers earn $175,000 a year salary?

Kenya's members of parliament voted to give themselves a 40 percent pay hike, to more than $175,000 a year in a country where the average national income is $1,600. That's more than US lawmakers make.

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    Godwin Terer stands outside parliament in Nairobi, Kenya, on July 2. Terer and many Kenyans are angry over a pay proposal by parliament to give members a pay package worth nearly $175,000, compensation decried as overly exorbitant in a country where day laborers earn $40 a month.

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A proposed pay hike agreed to by Kenya’s lawmakers that would increase their annual salary beyond that earned by a member of the US Congress has been met with outrage across the country.

The East African nation’s members of parliament voted to boost their pay by 40 percent to more than $175,000 a year in a country where the average national income is $1,600. Rank-and-file US lawmakers earn $174,000. And in terms of what their wages can buy in the local market, Kenya’s MPs would be leagues ahead and would be among the best paid legislators in the world, earning more than most European politicians.

“It is impossible for us to believe that at time when all of the world is tightening belts, our fat MPs are voting to make themselves even fatter,” says Beatrice Kahiga, a gas station attendant in the town of Nyeri, north of Nairobi. “People across this country are going without food daily, they are walking far to find work, often in vain, they are lacking electricity, clean water, hospitals. Are these not the things our taxes should go to?”

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The proposed pay hike formed part of the final report of a commission set up to review MPs’ pay after years of public dissatisfaction, especially strong because most of the remuneration is untaxed.

Three pay hikes since 2003

On at least three occasions since 2003, MPs have hiked their salaries way beyond Kenya’s base inflation rate.

Often pay review legislation sweeps through Parliament in a fraction of the time it takes other laws to pass.

So, the review panel, led by former appeal court judge Akilano Akiwumi, recommended that the country’s lawmakers should now pay tax on most of the salary and allowances. But the Akiwumi tribunal’s proposals also included the $50,000 a year sweetener – backdated to May 2008.

Calculations vary (due to complex allowance packages), but most estimate that the MPs will end up better off each month, despite paying more tax.

“Who told my MP that he deserved a salary increase? It was embarrassing listening to [him] advocate for the increase as those who deserve it, teachers, doctors, nurses, suffer,” says Nairobi resident Linus Muchenya. “Our MPs expect to earn salaries above what CEOs of respected companies earn. Do they really know how hard our CEOs work to justify their pay?”

Emergency meeting postponed

An emergency Cabinet meeting called by President Mwai Kibaki on Tuesday to discuss the pay hike has been postponed.

But the finance minister, Uhuru Kenyatta, has warned MPs that there is not enough money in his 2010 budget (Kenya’s largest ever) for the $8.8 million a year he would have to find to cover the increase.

Prime Minister Raila Odinga has already said that he would not accept his recommended pay rise, which would take his pre-tax salary to $486,000 a year, more than President Obama’s $400,000 basic wage.

Will MPs derail government business?

Already, some MPs are privately threatening to derail government business unless their salary is increased in line with the Akiwumi recommendations, which still need to be agreed by the government before taking effect.

“It appears very unpalatable to the general public, I will not deny it,” says one MP, who refuses to be named. “But one must understand that the money we are paid, so much of it is spent from our own pockets on our constituencies. The idea that we run off with it to spend it all on expensive trinkets or exotic holidays is simply not true.”

The tribunal’s findings may back up that legislator’s lament.

It found that repayment of loans – mostly taken to finance election campaigns or grand houses – left more than half of the country’s 222 MPs with take home pay of less than $1,280 a month.

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