Kenyan lawmakers raise taxes, take a hefty bonus

Protests broke out in Kenya after lawmakers voted to give themselves a $25 million bonus in a bill that raises taxes.

Ben Curtis/AP
Kenyans demonstrate against their Members of Parliament who last week quietly awarded themselves a $110,000 bonus for five years of service in parliament, in downtown Nairobi, Kenya Tuesday, Oct. 9.

Demonstrators marched through Nairobi’s capital today to protest another attempt by Kenyan lawmakers to boost their pay, after it emerged the officials had voted for a $25 million bonus for when they leave office.

In a quiet amendment added to the Finance Bill late Thursday, members of Parliament approved a golden handshake of $110,000 each to be paid after their term ends early next year.

The sweetener comes on top of an annual package worth $125,000, which is 70 times more than the average Kenyan worker takes home each year. It would take an average Kenyan worker 61 years to earn the sum that each of the country’s 222 lawmakers would be given under the bonus.

“There’s no one I’ve come across who’s not been totally outraged about this,” says Rachel Gichinga, a manager at a Nairobi technology development center, who joined yesterday’s protests.

The move comes less than a fortnight after Kenya’s government said it could not afford to cover pay increases demanded by teachers and doctors, who had been on strike for three weeks in September.

“After everything that’s been happening with the teachers’ and doctors’ strikes, when the government said it had no money to pay them higher salaries, to then give themselves $25 million is beyond unreasonable,” says Ms. Gichinga.

The raises for law makers will add to a revenue shortfall that will be covered by increased taxes outlined in the bill on mobile phone money transfers, banking checks, and withdrawing money from ATMs. There were reports that costs of some popular drinks, mobile phone airtime, and accessing the Internet would also be increased to cover the shortfall. All are areas that will hit both Kenya’s middle classes and its poorest citizens, in a country where the average annual per capital income is roughly $1,800.

“We have been suffering for so long with these people as our leaders, and they know we will vote them out at the next election,” says Evans Odera, a civil rights campaigner living in Kisumu, western Kenya’s main town. “That can be the only reason they are trying to steal so much from us. It will not work.”

Mr. Odera may be right.

A coalition of pressure groups, campaigners, and even some MPs and senior ministers has formed to fight the move, and together they called on Mwai Kibaki, the president, to refuse to sign the bill into law if the bonus remained. [UPDATE: Four hours after this story ran, Kenya's president announced that he would refuse to sign the bill into law if the lawmakers' bonus amendment remained, meaning that the legislation will go back to parliament to be redrafted. It is expected that a majority of MPs, aware of the public outrage, will now distance themselves from the pay-off.]

Prime minister criticizes

Raila Odinga, the prime minister, took to Twitter yesterday to tell followers that he was “against the MPs' gratuity bonus.” In 2010, he turned down a pay-rise, agreed by lawmakers, that would have taken his salary to more than that of Barack Obama’s.

Paul Muite, a former MP, said that his colleagues amending a bill to boost their own salaries was “unconstitutional” and vowed to challenge it in the courts.

In 2003, Kenyan lawmakers quadrupled their pay as their first order of business after the 2002 election, and they have since tried to increase their income far above the rate of inflation on three other occasions.

In 2010, they voted themselves a 25 percent pay-rise, to more than $14,000 a month, saying that new taxes on their income were leaving them near-bankrupt. The proposal was removed after a public outcry.

Mwalimu Mati, head of Mars Group, a Kenyan governance watchdog, called the proposed bonus “brazen” and “without regard to Kenya’s constitution.”

“We note that yet again [MPs] and the parliamentary service commission have abused their privileges and disregarded all rules of decency and
conflict of interest to purport to yet again enact increases to their personal remuneration and allowances,” he says.

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