THE BLOG

Kenyan President Deserves Praise for Rejecting Hefty Bonuses for MPs

By vetoing a bill that would have increased retirement bonuses for Kenyan lawmakers, President Mwai Kibaki may have redeemed himself and paved way for Kenyans to forgive him for his role in the 2007 post-election violence.

The violence began after the head of the Electoral Commission of Kenya declared incumbent Kibaki the winner over Raila Odinga, in an election observers said was severely flawed. Kibaki was sworn in on the same day.

Almost immediately, Odinga's supporters began to attack people thought to have voted for Kibaki. Unfortunately, because of the ethnic nature of Kenyan politics, it was widely believed that all Kikuyus (Kibaki's ethnic group, and Kenya's largest) voted for him. That's whom Odinga's supporters began to attack. The violence continued for several weeks and ended only after former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan brokered a power-sharing agreement. By Feb. 28, the day the two rivals signed the deal, the ethnic clashes had claimed the lives of an estimated 1,200 people, and left more than a quarter a million displaced.

Since then, Kibaki hasn't done anything grand enough to be remembered by. (Some might argue that in 2010 Kenyans got a new constitution under his watch, but he cannot solely take credit, as there were contributions from citizens, civic organizations, and other political parties. Fortunately for the president, last week the pack of greedy hyenas that was Kenya's 10th Parliament gave him a great opportunity to leave a positive legacy.

On Jan. 9, Parliament met for the last time before the new elections scheduled for March 4. Top on the agenda was a bill that would have awarded lawmakers retirement packages so hefty they'd make even legislators in the wealthiest nations of the world envious. The proposed bill would have given each outgoing Member of Parliament a cash payment of approximately $110,000 (American), a taxpayer-funded bodyguard for life, unlimited access to the VIP lounges at all Kenyan airports, and diplomatic passports for each MP and spouse. (It's not clear whether MPs with multiple wives would have received a diplomatic passport for each. Maybe roll a dice to determine which wife gets one?) As part of the package, lawmakers also wanted Kenyans to accord every retired MP a state funeral.

Unsurprisingly, the bill passed.

What is insulting to Kenyans is that the package was in addition to the more than $10,000 each MP has been receiving monthly in salary and allowances -- most of which is tax-free. In contrast, the average Kenyan makes about $1,700 a year, and 40 percent of the country is unemployed. When MPs' pay is compared to the average salary in the country, it makes them the highest paid lawmakers in the world.

The goons wanted to steal from Kenyans once more because they realized that Kenya's politics has changed. Running for public office is more competitive than ever. It is now more difficult for an incumbent to survive the party nomination primary, let alone to win reelection. The legislators were banking on the retirement package as their insurance in case they don't return to Parliament. The only thing that stood between them and their loot was President Kibaki's signature.

They knew that in the past Kibaki had refused to sign similar bills. This time, however, the lawmakers crafted a separate bill that included a lucrative retirement package for the president, which they hoped would entice him to sign. It's also likely that they thought that because this is (hopefully) Kibaki's last term in office, he had little to lose politically and would therefore sign their filthy bill.

They were dead wrong.

Kenyans widely believe that post-election violence happened because Kibaki rigged the 2007 elections. (On Jan. 2, 2007, the electoral commissioner, admitted that he couldn't say unequivocally who won the elections -- that the president's camp pressured him into declaring Kibaki the winner.)

It's possible that Kibaki saw the lawmakers' greed as a chance for him to leave a positive legacy. He had to decide whether he wanted Kenyans to remember him as the president who held on to power and led to violence, and the man who at the end of his second term added an insult to Kenyans by allowing Parliament to steal from them. But he wisely chose to be remembered as the president who stood unwaveringly on the side of Kenyans every time hyenas wanted to loot the treasury.

Kibaki deserves praise because had he approved the obscene bonuses, the stakes of the next elections and future ones would have increased tremendously. It would have been more likely for politicians to resort to drastic means -- including violence -- to get elected. Had he failed to take the side of the people, a signature on the bill would have been a big "screw you" to the victims of the last post-election violence, and it would have made it more difficult for Kenyans to forgive him.

Now that the treasury is secure -- albeit temporarily -- Kenyans can move on to the next elections, where many hope to use their votes to give those greedy lawmakers a different kind of "state funeral."

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