Some thoughts on Kenyan MPs and their salaries

Update: Sarah Serem and the SRC appear to be backtracking and are now “open to dialogue” with MPs over their pay.

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“False standards are set with salary scales for MPs, Ministers and top civil servants that the country cannot possibly afford in a time when examples not of extravagance but of austerity and sacrifice should be set. In 1963 MPs earned K£ 620 a year [in present terms about Ksh 89,704.34 a month].

This was increased to K£ 840 then to K£ 1200 a year [about Ksh 173,619.53 a month in present terms], making three increases and a doubling of salary in less than three years (And the K£ 100 a month is augmented by a daily sitting allowance, plus mileage and other allowances). Junior Ministers earn K£ 2260 a year. The President’s salary has been fixed at K£ 15,000 a year tax free and including other emoluments……. In six months an MP receives more money than the average peasant earns in half a life-time.”

That is Oginga Odinga writing in his autobiography Not Yet Uhuru.

As Kenyan MPs prepare to adopt a report this afternoon that will allegedly give the Parliamentary Service Commission legal cover to grant them a 59% pay rise, we should remember that this is not a new phenomenon. Top public officers in Kenya, and in particular MPs, have always been remunerated well relative to the country’s per capita income.

Activists block the entrance to the National Assembly in protest at MPigs' greed

Activists block the entrance Parliament in Nairobi with a sow and piglets in protest at the greed of “MPigs”

I must admit that as a researcher on legislatures in Africa, and Kenya and Zambia in particular, the issue of how to look at MPs’ salaries is not a straightforward one. On the one hand it is absolutely obscene that in a poor country like Kenya MPs make more than their counterparts in far much wealthier countries in Western Europe. But on the other hand I also realize the importance of shielding the House from the influence of money bags from State House. Poorer paid parliamentarians across the Continent (including in “shining star” Ghana) live and work at the mercy of the executive. It is no coincidence that Barkan and colleagues concluded in Legislative Power in Emerging African Democracies that Kenya has the strongest legislature in the region.

The ratio of the president’s pay to MPs’ is instructive. Back in the sixties, the president made 12.5 times what the MPs made. That ratio has since shrunk to less than 2.5.

As Oloo Aringo passionately argued in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the high pay of Kenyan MPs is partly responsible for the rise in legislative power in Kenya (Part of my work in the dissertation, among other things, will be to convince you that this is true – that relative pay of MPs matters. Stay tuned). In the present Kenyan case there is an argument to be made for the Salaries and Remuneration Commission (SRC) to review the salaries of all State Officers; and to bump MPs higher up the totem pole (by cutting the pay of other state officers) than where they are right now as far as their pay is concerned. Ms Serem’s first stop should be the numerous seminars,workshops & capacity building obsessed talking shops independent constitutional commissions that continue to drain the exchequer with nothing to show for their work (OK, I’ll admit that some of the commissions are useful).

Kenyan MPs should definitely not get a pay hike. But the fight against greed in the august House should not be overdone, lest we end up with a weak parliament at the mercy of State House. This is the balancing act that I hope will inform the SRC commissioners’ actions as they try to tame our MPigs’ Honorable Members’ appetite.

kenya is not in a constitutional crisis

Kenya’s newly emboldened imperial parliament is up to some mischief. MPs rejected nominees to two crucial commissions created by the country’s new constitution: the Revenues Allocation Commission and the Commission for the Implementation of the New Constitution. The MPs rejected the nominees to the two commissions in response to a court decision that ordered the boundaries commission not to gazette newly created parliamentary constituencies. Their mischievous excuse was that the commissions lacked regional balance.

Pols from central Kenya went to court challenging how the redistricting was done. Many of them thought that the boundaries commission favored ODM, the Premier’s party. MPs from the western half of the country, the northeast and the coastal region seem to be OK with the list. I still do not understand how in the world anyone thought that redistricting of constituencies would be apolitical. [Despite the existence of a formula in the constitution].

I am always amazed by the naivete and lack of strategy among Kenyan politicians who seem to think that public officials always have the best of intentions – never mind the fact that the country is one of the most corrupt in the world. Given the outcome, Mr. Ligale and his commissioners must have been in the pockets of ODM. The losers should learn from this and in the future design more airtight systems that assume the worst of public officials. No country has ever succeeded whose institutions depended on human goodwill.

As a result, a crucial deadline has been missed in the implementation of the new constitution and any Kenyan can go to court demanding the dissolution of parliament.

Lawyers, however, refute the notion that Kenya is in a constitutional crisis. There are ways around the matter. Firstly, the MPs can amend the constitution to give themselves more time. Secondly, the judiciary can give the boundaries commission a new lease of life and extend its mandate until the job is done. Lastly, and perhaps most plausibly, the President and his Premier can arrive at a political solution to the problem and allow the process of implementing the new constitution to move on.

And in other news, Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga has very bad advisers. Asking that gays be arrested is so 16th century. In any case the last thing we want to do is waste critical police man hours policing private morality while criminal gangs continue to make the lives of many Kenyans a living hell. Mr. Odinga should know better.