Sun, May 28, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Poverty stricken? Get on board the Kenyan legislative gravy train

Politicians in the poor African nation are among the most well-paid anywhere, and for good reason: They keep giving themselves fat salary increases

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NAIROBI

It has been a trying year in Kenya, one of the worst in decades, as a severe drought killed off crops and cattle and left millions with empty stomachs and uncertain futures.

In the midst of such suffering, members of Kenya's Parliament have been roused to action as seldom before, finding common ground on an issue so pressing that they threatened to stonewall the budget until it was addressed: another big increase in their pay.

The move last month to reward themselves in a time of crisis infuriated Kenyan voters, most of whom skimp out a living on a fraction of what their elected officials earn. It also reinforced the notion that this was a political drought, one that owed its origins as much to mismanagement in a country that should be able to feed itself as to the vagaries of nature.

"They are greedy," said Jackson Ndungu, 50, a computer programmer who offered one of the milder critiques one can hear on the streets of Nairobi these days. "They are out only for themselves."

Their reputation as fat cats did not come out of thin air. After taking office in 2003 with promises to reform an out-of-touch, authoritarian government, they squandered much of the public good will with their very first vote: It quadrupled their annual salaries.

Then they really got to work, voting to give themselves low-interest car and home loans, generous health insurance and retirement packages. As for other types of legislation, the record has been rather mixed, with fewer than a dozen bills becoming law each year.

Kenya is a place where members of the National Assembly are expected to dole out cash to their constituents, and that is one of the justifications that legislators use to increase their own benefits. They say they frequently pay out of their pockets for funerals, school costs and other expenses associated with the people back home. They also contend that Kenyans expect their elected officials to dress well, live well and drive a car that is not a clunker.

The legislative branch of Kenya's government is flexing its muscles after years of being sidelined by an all-powerful head of state.

"What we are witnessing in Kenya is the rise of parliament as a force to be reckoned with in the governance equation after 40 years of being more or less a rubber stamp for the executive," said Marc Cassidy, a US-financed democracy adviser to Kenya's parliament.

Still, some say Kenya's legislators have lost touch with the poor districts they represent. Kenya's per capita income is about US$463 a year, which nobody here would expect a lawmaker to survive on. The minimum wage is US$924 a year, still far too little, in most Kenyans' view, for someone taking care of the nation's business.

But the base compensation that Kenya's legislators earn is about US$81,000 a year, tax free, plus a variety of allowances and perks, which can effectively double their take-home pay. That means these public servants earn more than most Kenyan corporate executives and also outstrip the salaries of many of their counterparts in the developed world.

"They are behaving like we are rich and as if there's no famine and poverty in the country," Maina Kiai, chairman of the Kenya National Commission of Human Rights, complained to the Daily Nation newspaper recently. "They want to make as much money as they can."

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