Deeply divided politics: tax hikes for the poor, immunity for the MPs.
Tax hikes in September enraged Kenyan society. Daniel Benson-Guiu briefly investigated the politics of the country while he was there, by asking simple questions.
Everyone is talking about politics in Nairobi. Not least because taxes rose from 17% to 32% in one morning - 2nd of September of this year. The increase will affect some more than others, but they have hit Kenyan society hard. This isn’t all that’s been bothering Kenyans, however. No matter where and to whom, it seems all Kenyans have a political opinion.
Kenya is a heavily divided society, with 42 indigenous ethnic tribes, but the diversity is not represented in the political arena. The British colonial state held two larger tribes- the Kikuyu and Luo- in high regard. Since 1963, when Kenya became independent, there have only been 4 presidents, and three of whom are from the same tribe: the Kikuyu.
David Odero comes from the West of the country. He is a Luo like opposition leader Raila Odinga. While walking through the bustling streets of Kisumu, Kenya’s third largest city located on the shores of Lake Victoria, David tells me his people have been robbed.
“Raila Odinga won two elections” he says starkly. The first time was in 2007. As the votes were being counted, the TV screens declared Odinga in the lead- then the power went out. That evening Mwai Kibaki, the incumbent president, was declared the winner.
People were so outraged that the country descended into flames- the ethnic tensions snapped, causing curfews in the West and the death of more than 1300 people, including MPs. Around 250,000 became internally displaced according to conservative estimates. Due to other internal displacements since, the number of people living in tents could still be higher than 200,000.
David tells me of Kisumu during the violence, how the police treated his people and how he had to stop going to school. The spectre of the ethnic violence still looms large over Kenyan society, but in the 2013 elections the streets remained calm. Odinga had lost again, David says “in a speech after the results Odinga said he would rather peace in Kenya than a term as president”. This year there was peace.
Despite this, the new president Uhuru Kenyatta and vice-president William Ruto are both accused by the International Criminal Court of fuelling the post-electoral violence in 2007-08. Consequently boycotts by countries and NGOs are taking a toll on the Kenyan economy. In this regard the fact that Obama missed Kenya on his Africa tour was noted.
Kenyan politics are characterised by finger-pointing and corruption. The bureaucracy of the state, the judiciary and the police force are benefitted on ethnic lines. And bilateral and multilateral aid, known as systematic aid, does not seem to trickle down. Zambian author and economist Dambisa Moyo states that 1 trillion dollars in aid have been invested in Africa in the last 50 years, but the investment has failed to make an on-the-ground appearance. The current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, is the richest president in Africa according to Forbes and Nairobi’s Daily Nation, with his wealth stemming from land that was taken as British settlers left. Former presidents such as Daniel Arap Moi and Uhuru’s father have also been accused of land theft.
It’s not just people in the West of the country who believe Odinga would have changed current affairs in Kenya. In Nairobi, the owner of a hostel says “Raila Odinga is the best president that never was… He is a statesman for what he’s done”. “He has a heavy hand, but that’s what is needed”, someone tells me on a matatu, a van used by Kenyans to get around.
Lawrence Majuma, who I met on the bus in Nairobi, says “to be a politician you have to be rich already; if you’re poor, nothing good can happen to you”. This pessimistic view is contrasted with the way many Kenyans see politicians: they either fear or venerate them. The Kenyattas are freedom fighters, Raila Odinga is sometimes seen as a man of the people- his father was a freedom fighter too. Kibaki demonstrated that multi-party democracy was a possibility by defeating Moi, a ‘democratic’ dictator who silenced opposition early on in his 24-year presidency.
But what is clear is that for Kenya to change ordinary people have to be given more opportunities, subsistence farmers and small business owners need protections, education rates need to improve. David Odero says tribalism should reduce as well: “The US got a Luo president before Kenya did, but there it doesn’t matter”.
What matters is the tax increases, which affect everyone. And Kenya’s decision this week to bow out of the Rome statute, which has everyone interested. It shows politicians are vulnerable too. Though Uhuru Kenyatta has received some praise- some say he plans to decentralise the economy- the tax increases and the refusal to meet striking teachers, doctors and civil servants, who all demand a better pay, are causing tensions.
But Kenyan hospitality, from all ethnicities and regardless of politics, will continue to bring tourism and investment. “Where are you from?” someone with a broad smile will ask you. And then inevitably, “when will you come back?”.
Kenya Quick Facts
Size- 581,309 km (roughly twice the size of New Zealand)
President- Uhuru Kenyatta (Kenyan African National Union)
Though the official languages are English and Swahili, a total of 69 are spoken across the territory.
Tourism dominates the economy, generating over a billion dollars a year to the economy.