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POLITICS: Two Kenyas, Two Dreams: Which Do We Want?

Joyce Mulama

NAIROBI, Feb 23 2009 (IPS) - Kenya's civil society has rebuffed efforts by its embattled government to restore its tattered image in the wake of waning public confidence in the state. Their major grievance is that the country's problems, including high level graft, are the result of a culture of impunity that has engulfed the nation's top officials and politicians.

Kenya's civil society has rebuffed efforts by its embattled government to restore its tattered image in the wake of waning public confidence in the state. Their major grievance is that the country's problems, including high level graft, are the result of a culture of impunity that has engulfed the nation?s top officials and politicians.

Civic groups snubbed the coalition government national conference held on Feb. 4 to 7 February under the banner "One Kenya, One Dream: The Kenya We Want", intended to gather views from the public on how to improve government performance.

The National Civil Society Congress, an umbrella body of civic groups, staged a parallel gathering dubbed "The People's Conference: The Kenya We Do Not Want".

According to the civic body about $100 million in oil imports disappeared in January 2009. It's alleged that local oil marketing company Triton Oil colluded with the Kenya Pipeline Company (KPC) to release oil illegally. KPC is a state-owned agency that processes and distributes all the country's oil imports.

In another incident that also came to light in January 2009, an $11 million maize scandal has been unearthed by the Public Accounts Committee, the parliamentary watchdog on public spending. A fraudulent scheme involving key government officials and unscrupulous millers to export maize has resulted in an artificial shortage of the commodity, the country's staple food. This comes at a time when the country's president has appealed to donors to help feed 10 million Kenyans who are facing starvation.


Senior politicians implicated in the scandals have ignored public calls to step down and be investigated.

"We cannot be talking about fighting impunity while at the same time glossing over the highest form of impunity right before our eyes. Kenyans are right now experiencing hunger but elected representatives are refusing to pay tax which could go into ameliorating this situation," Morris Odhiambo, president of the congress told IPS.

"What Kenyans do not want is clear: a country with two sets of citizens – those who pay tax and those who do not."

The congress has since started collecting signatures from the public to petition members of parliament to pay tax. They have also set their sights on challenging the validity of the Parliamentary Service Commission (PSC) that was established by an Act of parliament in 1999 to, among others; look at compensation and benefits of parliamentarians. According to the congress the law creating the PSC contains provisions that clash with the constitution which requires all citizens to pay tax. The civic body wants the Commission scrapped. They claim parliamentarians have abused it to secure their interests and of awarding themselves hefty perks.

Parliamentarians only pay tax on their basic monthly salary of about $2,700; the bulk of their income – about $10,810 – is derived from allowances for mileage, housing, a sitting allowance, a responsibility allowance and a constituent?s allowance that is untaxed. Add to this a $44,000 dollar grant for a car.

$8 million would be added to the public coffers if the 222 MPs were taxed on their full compensation packages, enough to pay for 3,500 teachers, the backlog of which the Teachers Service Commission puts at 58,000. The money could also help address crippling shortages of health personnel; a scarcity the health ministry has said is due to an exodus of doctors and nurses to other countries.

"The government knows too well that it should be addressing these things. This is not the time to be asking what kind of Kenya we want when the answers are too obvious," George Nyongesa, spokesperson of the Peoples' Parliament, a forum for ordinary citizens formed 15 years ago to focus on development and governance told IPS.

"Apart from this, the same government knows it must deal with high level corruption that is rampant. We want to see big shots sacked and prosecuted for us to know that there is some seriousness in fighting graft."

His sharp remarks were provoked by Prime Minister Raila Odinga's address to the government conference on 4 February in which he claimed that "We want to be a beacon of good governance in Africa and beyond."

But to civil society actors these declarations have an all too familiar hollow ring to it. "For the President, Prime Minister and members of parliament to demonstrate that they are keen on the fight against impunity they have to fight this impunity in their midst," Odhiambo told IPS.

 
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