Scrap projects and cut down on debt, clerics tell Uhuru

Friday September 14 2018

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From left: Bishop Martin Kivuva, Canon Peter Karanja and Archbishop Timothy Ndambuki hold a press conference at Ufungamano House on September 13, 2018. They urged the government to reduce its borrowing rate. PHOTO | MARTIN MUKANGU | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

PATRICK LANG'AT
By PATRICK LANG'AT
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Religious leaders and a section of civil society on Thursday rebuked the government over the mounting debt and the mismanagement of the economy and demanded the shelving of big infrastructure projects.

Eight years after a new constitution, the clerics returned to Ufungamano House pushing for an office of executive prime minister and reduction of the number of MPs.

With the country already saddled with a debt of Sh5 trillion, and as the borrowing appetite continues, the religious leaders now want the government to suspend the construction of the Mombasa-Nairobi express highway, to be funded with loans from the US, and the second phase of the Standard Gauge Railway, which is to be built with Chinese debt.

“We are very concerned that our borrowing has hit the roof, and we are not totally convinced that what we borrowed has gone to development, because of endemic corruption.

"So today we ask: Do we have a limitless capacity of carrying debt? Or should we as a nation cut according to our cloth?” Canon Peter Karanja of the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) asked.

FOREIGN DEBT

Speaking under the Dialogue Reference Group, the leaders said the proposed 466-kilometre, six-lane Mombasa-Nairobi expressway expected to cost Sh450 billion, and the Sh380 billion extension of the SGR from Naivasha to Malaba will sink Kenya further in debt at a time, they said, the country could no longer take more.

The three-day national dialogue conference was chaired by Archbishop Martin Kivuva of the Catholic Diocese of Mombasa — and echoes similar initiatives in the 1990s when the religious groups helped reshape the current Constitution.

Statistics from Treasury show that Kenya’s outstanding foreign debt stood at Sh2.563 trillion as at the end of February, with domestic debt standing at Sh2.448 trillion as at May this year, a total of Sh5.011 trillion.

The proposed building of the expressway has become a diplomatic issue with the US hoping to lend the money for the project as part of a turf war with China. During the recent visit by President Kenyatta to the White House, he promised to have the matter concluded soon.

SUSPEND MASSIVE PROJECTS

But the religious leaders say the expressway was not a priority since Mombasa and Nairobi are linked by the multibillion SGR.

They said the government should instead focus more on increasing the use of the railway line “to make it worth the colossal investment made to build it”.

Last weekend, Deputy President William Ruto dismissed critics and said that the country's debts are still within manageable levels — dashing hopes of critics who would like the country to stop the incessant borrowing.

“The country is broke and cannot even feed its own people,” the religious and civil society leaders claimed yesterday while asking the government to suspend the Naivasha-Malaba extension of the SGR.

Pundits, worldwide, have criticised China for using debt to increase its footprint in emerging economies in what has been christened as "debt-trap diplomacy" or "debt colonialism".

“Kenya must avoid recolonisation through debt as has been witnessed in other countries,” the Kenyan leaders warned.

AUDIT DEBTS

With some of the projects already riddled with corruption, the group also called for an independent audit of the national debts to establish who is owed, how much is owed, the terms of the debts, purposes for which the money was borrowed, and if the debts were invested for the purposes they were intended.

“If Parliament does not commence this process within six months or if it is not undertaken fully and satisfactorily, the Dialogue Reference Group will set up a people’s national debt audit task force to undertake the assignment,” they said in a joint statement.

The group also called for a stop of the levy on petroleum products, saying the focus should be on reduction of wastage, and the wage bill, rather than taxation.

As another cost-cutting measure, the group also proposed that all public officers and state officials should only receive health services from public health facilities.

NATIONAL BUDGET

In addition to NCCK, groups represented in the forum included the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya, the Hindu Council of Kenya, and the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims, among others.

“The National Assembly must forthwith use its powers to ensure that Treasury prepares a balanced budget based on our national income to stop the trend of borrowing to cover deficits,” the group said.

In what appears to be a move towards Constitutional amendment, the group has proposed the reduction of constituencies from the current 290 to 150, resulting in the creation of a 209-member National Assembly, down from 347, with 47 woman representatives, and 12 nominated.

It was at Ufungamano House that religious leaders and civil society helped push for the new Constitution.

But while they want the number of MPs reduced, the leaders want the creation of the position of an executive prime minister and two deputies, as well as the creation of the office of the leader of opposition in the National Assembly and the Senate to be taken by the runners-up in the presidential election, and their running mate, respectively.