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We must bridge gap between the very poor and their leaders

Friday March 17 2017

President Uhuru Kenyatta delivers a State of the Nation address at Parliament Buildings in Nairobi on March 15, 2017. PHOTO | PSCU

President Uhuru Kenyatta delivers a State of the Nation address at Parliament Buildings in Nairobi on March 15, 2017. PHOTO | PSCU 

By MAGESHA NGWIRI
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This year’s State of the Nation address was, thankfully, devoid of theatrics and most legislators behaved the way they should as representatives of the people. In fact, except for a chap who later grumbled, in the customary knee-jerk fashion, that the address was a campaign document to push for the President’s re-election – a very natural thing to do, if you ask me – and another who described it as a public relations job, the address was, on the whole, taken positively by many.

That aside, the highlight of the speech was President Uhuru Kenyatta’s bold declaration that after the elections, all elected officials, from MCAs to the presidency, all State and public officials, will have to take a pay-cut. That was sheer music in the ears of many Kenyans who have seen their lot plummet as their leaders, a tiny elite, hovered all over them in private or hired choppers.

Indeed, the ever widening gap between the majority of Kenyans and their rulers is an issue that will have to be dealt with sooner or later by this or any other government. One of the reasons this gap has kept widening is that there is no relationship between the salaries earned by a tiny minority and those earned by people forced to survive on starvation wages.

It came as a surprise to many people when their President told them that more than Sh600 billion a year is gobbled up by a tiny number of Kenyans. It is estimated there are 700,000 civil servants, State officials, and public servants in government employ and they take home at least 50 per cent of the total revenue collected in tax.

TO BORROW

This means the government is left with the other half for infrastructure projects, disbursement to county governments, and for other exigencies like famine and floods. Is it any wonder the government has to borrow to bridge the gap?

The argument used by detractors that the government is doing so too liberally and that the country is on the verge of defaulting on its loans is, therefore, merely self-serving. Even if only 2,000 of legislators earn more than Sh1 million, we are talking about Sh2 billion every month. If you multiply this by 12 months, then it is easy to see into whose pockets the bulk of our tax money goes. And these are the same hypocrites with the cheek to accuse the government of over-borrowing? What should it do, print money?

The point it, the income gap between the rich and poor is too obscene, and the only way to make it less so is to reduce the salaries and allowances paid to elected leaders and top civil servants. The day we find a way to remove the power legislators gave themselves to dictate their own pay – even if a referendum is required – will be the day the rest of Kenyans will enjoy true liberation. Let the Salaries and Remuneration Commission set the salary levels of all elected leaders and public servants. It is a tall order I know, but to continue this way can only lead to cataclysmic turmoil eventually.

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The new interactive talk show on NTV hosted by my erstwhile colleagues Larry Madowo and Wallace Kantai is a great idea, but it seems to be going through teething problems which require urgent attention. The programme, Sidebar, comes at the right time when politicians, political pundits and other commentators on current issues badly require a forum in which to ventilate their opinions on what is important for the country.

However, this Wednesday’s session was complete bedlam when two politicians went at it hammer and tongs and would not listen to one another. To tell the truth, the whole show would have been a complete disaster were it not for the maturity of Prof Anyang’ Nyong’o and Senate Deputy Speaker Kembi Gitura, who behaved with proper decorum and saved the show.

But not Mbita MP Millie Odhiambo and Senator Beatrice Elachi. I have never, in my life, felt like shouting at participants in a televised debate to shut up, but this time I almost did.

It appears Sidebar requires some rules of engagement, three of which should be that you must allow other participants to have their say, refrain from uttering complete inanities, and stop hogging all the time available, thus denying others a chance to air their views.

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