New Kenyan lawmakers vote themselves free luxury car perk, worth $60,000

Before elections in March, salaries for politicians in the East African nation were agreed to be pruned as a matter of national contrition. That didn't last long.

Ben Curtis/AP/File
In January, a demonstrator lies on mock coffins on which are written 'State Burial, Ballot Revolution,' before the coffins were carried to the Parliament and set on fire to protest against an attempt by Members of Parliament (MPs) to award themselves a $110,000 bonus, which was later vetoed by the president, in Nairobi, Kenya.

Barely a fortnight into their jobs, Kenya’s new lawmakers have forced through a change to their salary that includes a perk of $60,000 for a luxury car.

Under a review of legislators’ earnings agreed in Kenya before the March national elections, salaries were agreed to be cut from $120,000 a year to $75,000, and perks including interest-free loans for vehicles and houses were to be scrapped.

The measures were necessary because under a new constitution that made structural changes including a new senate, the older wages for public servants were predicted to be unsustainable. 

But part of those cuts are already being reversed. Kenyan budgetary officials were this week forced to backtrack and agree that the 416 new legislators will each be handed $60,000 for a new car.

Rates for mileage driven while on official business have also almost doubled, to between $2 and $3.70 a mile, depending on the vehicle's engine size. 

The move has been met with weary resignation – and some anger – among Kenyans who elected new members of parliament, hoping they might achieve a break from the pork and excesses of the past.

“Sometimes I wonder if we Kenyans are stupid truly to believe any new parliament will be different from the last one,” says Beatrice Mathenge, an office cleaner in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. “Each time they reach office, the very first thing they do is award themselves more salary. Meanwhile we are all struggling even to make ends to meet.”

Originally the lawmakers were to be offered loans of up to $82,000 to fund vehicle purchases, and to be repaid over five years at 3 percent interest.

Even though this interest rate is a fraction of the average 19 percent that Kenya’s commercial banks offer to account holders, members of parliament said they would not be able to afford to pay the loans back.

This was despite their salaries – even at reduced levels – being 42 times higher than an average Kenyan would expect to earn in a year. 
In March when announcing the lower pay, Sarah Serem, head of the salaries commission, said, “We are trying to instill a sense of fiscal prudence by letting the MPs own and maintain their own cars or homes."

This week, one parliamentarian complained that Ms. Serem “wanted MPs to go and buy cheap cars like a [Toyota] Probox,” a small Japanese station wagon popular with ordinary Kenyans.

“What type of car does she think we can buy with $60,000,” Mithika Linturi asked in Kenya’s Standard newspaper.

Financial analysts calculate that Kenya’s $5.5 billion public sector wage bill has doubled in the last four years and now consumes half of domestic revenue.

Legislators have also warned that they plan to enact new laws that will overturn the pay cut instituted by the salaries commission, and return their earnings to $120,000 a year or more. 

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