“It is only one who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war that can thoroughly understand the profitable way of carrying it on.” Sun Tzu -The Art of War
We have been treated to the theatre of the absurd in the last two weeks with the lead actors being Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT) and their seasonal nemesis Kenya Union of Post Primary Education Teachers (KUPPET). They chose to take the government head on and there is no worse enemy to take on than one that has time, energy and resources. Watching the various arms of the government close ranks around the increased remuneration issue was like watching the beautiful execution of a team sport. So I picked some quotes from the classic war treatise The Art of War by Sun Tzu, to try and make sense of the histrionics.
1. Convince your enemy that he will gain very little by attacking you; this will diminish his enthusiasm
As a parent and as a taxpayer, I watched the television-based shenanigans of the striking teachers and their union leaders with part shock, part dismay and a whole lot of disapprobation. Apart from the fact that much of the televised gyrations, rolling about on the tarmac and brandishing of twigs with tightly clenched fists was clearly for the sake of the news hungry reporters, it was sad to imagine that the people doing this are the primary role models and guides for our children. Years ago, I went to Kenya High School where the legendary Mrs Wanjohi was the toughest headmistress known to modern man. A withering gaze from a peeved Mrs. Wanjohi could stop a bull elephant in its tracks let alone a disobedient student or floundering teacher. I can guarantee one thing, you wouldn’t find any teacher under Mrs. Wanjohi’s administration amongst the rabble rousing, sabre rattling teachers with grossly misspelt banners that paraded the streets in mocking defiance of calls to return to work. Our teachers back then set the tone and the values based environment within which we matured from gangly, pimple faced, prepubescent girls into mature young ladies ready to tackle a big, bad world. (Having said that my mathematics teacher tore me into shreds every single day of the four tortuous years that she taught me, almost leading me to believe that I would never amount to anything more than a hair-brained reprobate. It appears she was quite evidently wrong!) From flying spittle accompanied by verbal diarrhea, the union leaders held their heads very high and talked tough at their daily press briefings, always looking from side to side to ensure that there were the requisite nodding heads from the accompanying officials. The press briefing would always end with the ubiquitous “Solidarity Forever” anthem, sang badly out of tune accompanied by swinging arms and pumped chests. Despite all this, the enemy – read government – remained largely unconvinced.
2. He will win whose army is animated by the spirit throughout all its ranks – Sun Tzu
Word soon had it that KNUT and KUPPET were keeping the strike coals burning because they were only interested in raising the amount of union dues collected. It didn’t help when the government put their Kes 9.3 billion offer for allowances on the table and it was rejected with KNUT arguing that it was an increase in basic salaries that was being demanded, not in allowances. You see, union dues can only be deducted from a member’s basic salary not their allowances. Accepting the government’s offer for increased allowances would mean that all that flying spittle was for naught. So the presenters on the Nation FM’s morning show called the chairman of KNUT, Mudzo Nzili to have a “chat” about the strike. You could not have heard a dinosaur dance above the bellowing and spirited defense that Nzili put up, at one point asking the presenters what their interest in KNUT financial matters was. Mr. Nzili, I’ll tell you what the public’s interest is: When you make demands for pay raises that amount to 80% of Kenya’s national budget, we will all sit up and pay attention as we pay the taxes that make up that budget. And what’s your interest? Assuming about 270,000 teachers in Kenya where the lowest earns Kes 16,692 and the highest Kes 144,928, I’m going to work with an average salary of Kes 35,910 which is the middle range salary. If I multiply that average salary by 270,000 I get a figure of Kes 9.695 billion. As union dues are 2% of basic salary, we are talking about Kes 193.9 million possibly being collected by unions every month or Kes 2.3 bn per annum. And I am really lowballing my averages here. When pressed about where these dues were going Mr. Nzili became colorful in his language. In between barely suppressed expletives I heard a vague mention of training for teachers, staff salaries for 60 odd KNUT employees and an annual delegates conference. The public sympathy tide started to shift away from what were starting to become horrific money demands and the ranks began to unravel. But the ruling by the industrial court last Wednesday provided the exit that was required for the unions to save face. As Sun Tzu aptly said: build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across.
But what we watched last week was actually a situation of our own making. We natives have sat back and watched MPs increase their own salaries and kept quiet. We have watched MCAs trundle around the world, flushing our money down the toilet and we have kept quiet. We have watched Goldenberg, Anglo Leasing, Maizegate, Chickengate and who knows how many other unopened gates yet we have kept quiet. How do we expect teachers to sit back and keep quiet when it’s their turn to fight? It’s a race to the “our share of the taxpayer cake” bottom, and we are hurtling at a deathly speed. Ask the Greeks, they’ve been here before.