Challenging greed in Africa’s capital centre

Deep inequality and poverty in Kenya will not be solved by neoliberal economic policies.

Kenya greedy pig protest
Kenyan protesters carried pigs to symbolise MPs' greed after voting to increase their own salaries [AFP]

On May 28, Kenyan members of parliament unanimously voted to overturn a directive by the newly established Salaries and Remuneration Commission (SRC), constitutionally established to remove parliamentarians’ powers to decide their own pay, which had reduced their pay from $126,000 to $78,000 earlier this year.

The national budget of Kenya has an extraordinary wage bill, and the SRC highlighted, in issuing the directive, that Kenyan MPs are among the highest-paid in the world.

It is as yet unclear whether parliament has the power to change the decision of the SRC, and this will surely be decided in court. Whatever the result may be, the damage has already been done. Parliamentarians have voted unanimously and unanimously sealed their perception among the people of Kenya. On May 14, Kenyans from all walks of life took to the streets of Nairobi to protest threats by MPs to disband the SRC. Kenyan MPs are not only among the best-paid, they are also seemingly among the greediest, frequently awarding themselves such substantial pay raises.

Given the country’s new constitutional framework, including the massive decentralisation of power, the hope is that this parliament, elected in March, would begin a new era of sincere leadership. But, true to the long legacy of rapacity among the country’s political elite, MPs appear bent on increasing their individual lot instead.

‘Greedy pig’ protest held at Kenya parliament

The protest of May 14, borrowing the slightly worn Occupy label, was in some ways more show than substance. Activists wearing black and white walked from the historic Freedom Corner of Uhuru Park to parliament. They used live pigs to symbolise what Kenyans have been calling MPigs on social media for more than a year, and smeared blood over the animals in front of the parliament building. Animal rights activists decried the act as cruel to the pigs, while Muslim members of parliament professed horror at being associated with the animals.

Beyond the spectacle’s distracting controversy, the protesters’ aims were valiant and critical. Greed and its merriments are largely encouraged in a global order that favours capital over people. Kenyan MPs’ behaviour is deserving not only of naming and shaming, but also of resistance. Their salaries are perhaps among the few remaining issues that arouse Kenyan people’s indignation across regions, class and gender. But the salaries are only a symptom of a much larger systemic problem plaguing Kenya, Africa and the world.

Is development the solution?

Our global economic system continues to increase inequality to levels unparalleled in human history. Every second, the imperative to reduce inequality becomes ever more pressing: it enables the overconsumption by a few by exacerbating the impoverishment of many, and has already destroyed large swathes of our common resources.

But a recent UN report on the “post-2015 development agenda” – the UN’s Millenium Development Goals come to an end in 2015 – does not include equality as a goal, nor does it tackle the global system that entrenches inequality and poverty.

It does, however, include a goal of creating a global enabling environment and catalysing long-term finance, acknowledging that a fair trade system and reform of the global financial system is critical to reducing inequality, that ending illicit financial flows, tax evasion and theft is paramount to development, and that climate change will determine whether any of this is possible.

This is actually quite a leap from the current Millennium Development Goals, which are content with addressing the surface manifestations rather than the deep causes of poverty. However, the goals being proposed in the post-2015 framework are still reductionist and a far cry from the transformative agenda that the planet needs.

When the streets talk

Writer and activist Arundhati Roy has written: “Here in India, even in the midst of all the violence and greed, there is still hope. If anyone can do it, we can. We still have a population that has not yet been completely colonised by that consumerist dream.”

Kenya, like India, is at a tipping point between hope and the “colonisation of the consumerist dream”. The Kenyan government’s articulated vision for 2030 is that of a middle-income country complete with all the trappings of industrialised development, and the certainty that trickles to the bottom will be enough for most to quietly remain poor. In global economic fora, Kenya has long been touted as the gateway to the continent, with few natural resources but a commitment to the global financial creed.

Kenya voters wield technology to fight fraud

According to the Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality, Kenya’s inequality is similar to that of the US, and far from the levels prevailing in places such as South Africa. This may sound like good news, but it actually means that the country’s poorest 20 percent earn about five percent of the country’s total income, whereas the wealthiest 20 percent earn 53 percent. Kenya is also plagued by a national deficit of roughly $1.9bn.

In order to address this, the government tabled a value added tax bill last year which proposed to tax basic goods such as wheat flour, bread and milk, which were previously exempt and already expensive for many. This proposition would put the burden of the national deficit on those who can least afford it.

And yet the government’s own estimates claim that the country loses more than $1.1bn a year to unnecessary tax breaks and tax holidays for big businesses. The International Monetary Fund itself has disproved the claim that these tax holidays increase investment – they only pull resources created by the people away from the people.

These are the kinds of policy practices that further entrench inequality, and should be tackled and challenged at the global level. Where they are being tackled instead is on the streets and in social media. Kenyans for Tax Justice, led by movements such as Unga Revolution and Bunge la Wamama, are challenging these systems. Similarly, Occupy Parliament has vowed to continue to confront MPs’ greed, despite the police violence they were confronted with during their last peaceful action.

What the world witnessed in its most splendid display in Tunisia and Egypt was the reclamation of power by the people. These movements are growing and articulating alternative paradigms to the status quo. Ideologies are divergent: in Greece, for instance, the fascist right has gained as much ground from the explosion of capitalist contradictions as the socialist left. More interesting are the experiments with thought and practice that go beyond left and right, capitalist and socialist, south and north dichotomies and attempt to define a just vision of the future.

President Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso once said: “You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. In this case, it comes from nonconformity, the courage to turn your back on the old formulas, the courage to invent the future.”

It is the courage that the protesters in Kenya are carrying, the courage of the indigenous peoples in Ecuador, the courage of the women in Spain, the courage of the farmers in Madagascar, the courage of the miners in South Africa. The solution is unlikely to come from reformed development, but from the new futures and decolonised economies these movements are creating.

Hakima Abbas is a political scientist, policy analyst and activist. Her work as a trainer, strategist and researcher, has focused on strengthening and supporting movements for change in Africa and the Middle East. She is a board member and adviser to several global philanthropic and civil society initiatives.

Follow her on Twitter:  @HakimaAbbas