Have you ever been to the Masai Mara to watch the annual wildebeest migration? It is an awesome sight to behold. My best part is watching as a large herd of wildebeests gets to the point where they have to cross the Mara river, which is teeming with crocodiles. A patina of pregnant expectation fills the air as the wildebeest mill around the steep embankments, mulling the treacherous but inevitable crossing. The crocodiles lick their chomps in readiness. But what is interesting to observe is that it takes a long time before the lone nut, the valiant self appointed leader of the wildebeest takes the suicidal leap into the waters. The few seconds when the first hooves sail in the air is all it takes for the other animals mucking about on the sides to mobilize themselves into a frenzied march of followers. The river then becomes a battlefield filled with thousands of animals cleaving the riverbed for traction and trampling on crocodiles as they cross en mass to the promised land on the other side.
I would be remiss if I failed to talk about the ongoing teacher’s strike which is much like watching wildebeests at the Mara River crossing. The teacher’s union and its members are the lone nuts, the valiant, self appointed leaders of Kenya’s public work force who have decided to take the first jump. They have entered into an unpleasant face off with the government, akin to entering a gunfight armed with a toothpick. The President fired the cannonball last week: “Can’t pay, won’t pay” but the teachers have stayed put. The government’s point remains extremely valid that there’s not enough money to go round. The government recognizes that if it gives in to the teachers, then the other public officers will also want to jump behind them: doctors, nurses, police, civil servants all following the courageous fight demonstrated by the teachers on how to cross the river to the promised land.
But what should worry us more was the headline in last Wednesday’s Daily Nation: “Former councillors demand Kshs 18 billion”. These chaps want to be paid a one off gratuity that comes to Kshs 18 billion and a monthly pension of Kshs 30,000 per ex-councillor which comes to about Kshs 4 billion annually. Listening to the sycophantic soundbytes on radio for support of the councillor’s proposals from two senators who previously held cabinet positions in the Kibaki administration, I realized that our collective sanity as a country fell off the precipice of normalcy when we signed the new constitution. Somehow the new constitution seems to have us all in a catatonic state of hypnosis where we cannot connect the dots between what goes into the government coffers and taxes collected from blood, sweat and tears of production. The same state of hypnosis allows us to view government revenue as a line item of self-entitlement; one that is fair game for all of us to take a swipe at given whatever opportunity presents itself.
But let’s step back to the idyllic wildebeest scene at the Mara River. Wildebeest, like many wild animals, are often crawling with ticks and fleas. The problem with these parasites is that they survive by sucking blood from their very unwilling hosts. The ticks and fleas today are in the form of retired legislators and God knows which other retired constituency who are watching the unfolding teachers drama with relish. The timing of the councilors absurd request for remuneration is suspect and is in complete and utter disregard of the capacity of the government to pay existing public officers.
The teachers have every right to demand for their salary increase. It’s nothing short of appalling to see what a teacher who changes the lives of students earns in a month and compare it to the Kshs 1.3 million monthly remuneration of senators and MPs whose impact on us is, well, let me plead the fifth on my views. A monumental battle has emerged and the battlefield has innocent children as its pawns.
But a crisis should never be wasted. In order to make a fire, you must burn wood. This is a good opportunity for the government to force dialogue on the wastage of resources at both central and county level. The Kshs 100,000 wheelbarrows, Kshs 2 million facebook pages, Kshs 7 million hospital gates, numerous MCA tourism jaunts you name it, we’ve got it. The Kenyan public needs to become angry. Frothing-at-the-mouth-like-a-rabid-dog kind of angry. We need to start connecting the dots between what the government raises in revenue in taxes and what is being embezzled and wasted in the form of high salaries and endemic corruption.
The children twiddling their thumbs at home and the national exam candidates who are currently rudderless in their final countdown to exams will force these conversations to happen at mwananchi level. The dialogue needs to focus on the need for austerity, on the need to bring our collective madness and parasitic greed for government resources to a screeching halt. Sadly this fire of austerity that needs to be created will use our children as the wood to burn itself.
So dear Government of Kenya: Don’t waste this crisis. Ride this crisis tiger. Let it buck and sway as it tries to throw you off. Let the public get angry with you, send out your mouthpieces to start throwing views on the need for austerity and flip that script rapidly to turn the anger on the source of high recurrent expenditure. Wheedle the public to come out of their houses and into the streets to demanding for the end of high salaries to fat cat legislators and an end to the endemic corruption at central and county government level. Let the public wail and gnash their teeth each time parasites like former councilors emerge, demanding to eat from the perceived bottomless feeding trough. Stoke the conversations about ending the power of legislators to define their own salaries. An angry public will support you.