NAIROBI, Kenya -- Kenyan legislators, considered by many citizens here as both overpaid and greedy, are quietly attempting to change a constitutional provision that recently took away the parliamentarians' powers to set their own salaries.
The salaries for members of parliament have sparked widespread outrage here. Legislators in June agreed to accept a salary of about $75,000, down from the $120,000 or so members previously earned. The average Kenyan earns about $1,800 a year.
Legislators in recent days moved a motion to change the constitution to remove themselves, judges, magistrates and country assembly members from the category of state officers.
Salaries of state officers, including the president, are determined by a salaries commission. Removing themselves from that list would enable legislators to again set their own pay, said lawyer Kamotho Waiganjo, a commissioner with the Constitution Implementation Commission, the government body overseeing the implementation of a Kenya's 2010 constitution.
The pay for members of Kenya's parliament contrasts dramatically with the incomes of most people in this East African where nearly 50 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. When newly elected President Uhuru Kenyatta opened parliament in mid-April he told legislators that the bill for government salaries came to 12 percent of GDP, above the internationally accepted level of 7 percent.
Kenyatta said 50 percent of revenue collected by government went to pay government salaries.
The motion to change the constitution was introduced in parliament Aug. 1, after which the country's constitution requires parliament to facilitate public discussions within a period of 90 days.
Legislators, however, seem to be biding their time for the 90-day period to elapse to avoid public discourse, said anti-corruption crusader Mwalimu Mati. Earlier this year attempts by legislators to award themselves hefty perks led to a public uproar and street protests.
"If you were them why would you go out there and tell the public that you are going to change the constitution," Waiganjo said.
Legislator Samuel Chepkonga, who introduced the motion to amend the constitution, said the intention of removing the legislators, judges and magistrates from the list of state officials is to ensure there is separation of powers among the three arms of government.
Chepkonga said parliamentarians object to provisions in the constitution that bars them from being directors of private companies. Chepkonga denied that MPs are changing the constitution for selfish reasons.
When the salaries commission this year cut legislators' pay, parliamentarians responded by threatening to impeach the commissioners. Protesters spilled cow blood, released nearly three dozen piglets at an entrance of the parliament buildings and began calling MPs "MPigs." In January hundreds of demonstrators set fire to 221 coffins, representing the number of parliamentarians, outside parliament's main entrance.
The decision to reduce the pay for legislators came after a public outcry when the previous parliament attempted to raise their salaries to $175,000 annually and award themselves a bonus of $110,000 at the end of their terms.
Many Kenyans see their legislators as lazy and greedy in a country where hundreds of thousands live in slums. Legislators often argue that they need high salaries to give hand-outs to poor constituents for school fees and hospital bills.