Rethinking our parliamentary structure will help make it sustainable

Friday May 4 2018

By LUIS FRANCESCHI
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The European Parliament is one of the most complicated bureaucratic structures in the world. It operates from three different buildings. Its 751 members (MEPs) meet and deliberate in Brussels and Strasbourg for plenary sessions, while Luxembourg hosts the administrative staff offices. MEPs earn a standard monthly salary of Sh955,500, which is on a par with a British MP's salary.

Thousands of men and women with their huge files and heavy boxes full of documents are on the move, the neo-nomads of political bureaucracy. Indeed, they are nomads. While our traditional nomad communities moved in search of greener pastures, these neo-nomads are also in search of greener pastures. The change is only accidental. Pastures have been transformed into papers, but in substance all remains constant…making something fatter. While nomads made their cows fatter, neo-nomads fatten their pockets.

What is really shocking is that the Europarliament’s complex structure and organisation obeys historical reasons. There is a logic behind that supports such an expense, and that expense, as inefficient as it may be, is carefully controlled.

KENYA'S COSTLY PARLIAMENT

Brussels became the European capital de facto due to lack of agreement. It was what we could call “alphabetic luck”. In 1958, it had been decided that the European institutions would be chaired by the relevant ministers of each of the member states, in rotational alphabetic order. Belgium was first and thus it became the EU capital.

Brussels benefited thanks to the alphabet, but Strasbourg was chosen for sentimental reasons. Strasbourg, in the Alsace region, had been a bitter point of contention between Germany and France. After the Second World War, it became the symbol of reconciliation, and it also gave France the chance of hosting at least one of the European institutions.

Despite such a complicated mega structure that includes 751 MEPs, hundreds of staff, constant simultaneous translation into more than 20 languages and an operation that moves every month between three different buildings in three different countries, the Europarliament costs the European taxpayer Sh330 per month.

These numbers triggered my curiosity. How much does the Kenyan Parliament cost Kenyans? Lo and behold, it costs Sh511 per citizen per month.

According to AfricaCheck, “a recent audit commissioned by Kenya’s Parliament and overseen by the auditor-general found that the budget for the two-chamber house was 2% of the national budget.” This is far above the recommended global average of 0.57% for countries with a population of between 10 and 50 million.

LEANER HOUSE NEEDED

To make it worse, Kenya’s taxpaying citizens are far fewer than the European average. Our formal economy, age, employment and purchasing power is much smaller than the European average. When these variables are considered, our Parliament becomes almost thrice more expensive than the Europarliament is for the Europeans.

One may argue that the two institutions are different in nature. They may say that ours is a national Parliament while the other is a regional parliament, and that perhaps then the only appropriate comparison should be the British or German parliaments. And that we should only compare the Europarliament to the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA). Well, not exactly.

MEPs are directly elected by the people like our MPs, while EALA members are nominated by member states. Additionally, the Europarliament has functions and powers that are more like the powers of our national parliaments, while EALA’s impact on local life, governance and operational policy is still largely irrelevant.

We have quite an expensive Parliament, with a relatively small formal economy and low purchasing power. This is one of the issues a future constitutional referendum ought to revisit. We may need to think of a leaner, cost efficient and sustainable Parliament.

Dr Franceschi is the dean of Strathmore Law School. [email protected]; Twitter: @lgfranceschi