Kenya’s Filthy Rich Civil Servants

A slum outside Nairobi
A Country of Contrasts: Residents of Kibera, a slum outside of Nairobi, buy water, Dec. 10, 2003. Kenyans were horrified to hear what their senior civil servants are making (Photo: Marco Longari/AFP-Getty Images).

When revelations of the incredibly high salary paid to the former director of Kenya’s National AIDS Control Council (NACC), Dr. Margaret Gachara, were splashed in our sister paper, the Daily Nation, Kenya was justifiably horrified.

After all, the funds used to pay the unusually high salary, which topped even the president’s paycheck, came from donor sources and were meant to help fight the killer disease, not to create one or two millionaires on the foundation of death and desperation.

According to the Daily Nation’s exclusive, by the time Dr. Gachara was suspended in September for allegedly attaching a forged testimony to her application for the NACC job two years earlier, she was earning a whopping 2 million Kenyan shillings (US$26,000) a month.

As Kenyans this year launch a concerted war against corruption, which in governance is taken basically to mean the privatization of public funds through illegal means, they will also have to fight extremely hard to stop the looting of public coffers in legal ways. And not a day should be lost in joining the fight.

This must be so because, in what looks like a conspiracy by the top echelons of the political leadership and the civil service, the salaries of top public servants are being pushed to obscene levels, even as lower cadres are perennially told that the exchequer does not have enough tax shillings to throw them a lifeline of
single-digit percentage wage increase.

The latest and perhaps the most objectionable example of this legalized looting to reach the public view is the salary envisaged for the head of the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission (KACC), who is reportedly expected to have a monthly compensation package exceeding 2.5 million Kenyan shillings ($32,000).

According to press reports, the KACC’s package will include a $2,500 monthly entertainment allowance, a similar amount as a responsibility allowance, and $1,700 as an extraneous allowance. The basic pay alone is expected to stand at $15,400 a month.

If the remuneration package is implemented, then the KACC head will get in one month more than 500 times what a police constable earns. Another way to look at it is that the KACC monthly package will be equivalent to what a police constable expects to earn in a lifetime.

Kenyans perhaps also need to know that the KACC director’s salary will be higher than that of the British prime minister, Tony Blair, leader of the world’s fifth-largest economy.

Regrettably, this follows a pattern set four years ago when the Kenyan government, under pressure from the World Bank, agreed to appoint several private sector technocrats to top positions in the public sector.

What followed was a greedy scramble for bloated salaries by Kenya’s civil servants and political fat cats. Today, members of Parliament, senior judges, permanent secretaries, and Cabinet ministers all earn anywhere above $6,500 a month.

And the scramble, incredibly, has not ended. The country’s 20,000-odd civic leaders want to earn $2,500 each a month, and lecturers in public universities have given notice that they will go on strike later this month unless their remuneration is raised to $5,000 a month. Just last month, the mayor of Nairobi, Joe Aketch, received a 25-percent rise in his pay to more than $2,500 a month.

In a first for the world, senior civil servants in Kenya are now earning more than their counterparts in the private sector, where the best-paid middle-level managers in profitable enterprises generally earn salaries of around $2,000 a month.

The tragedy is that as this scramble continues, Kenya is going through the worst economic slump in living memory. Nearly 60 percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. Eighty percent of civil servants earn less than $200 a month. The country has no infrastructure to speak of.

There are ominous signs that the country cannot sustain the ongoing orgy of legalized looting for long; this year alone, the budget deficit has doubled to more than $770 million. As government bigwigs award themselves some of the heftiest pay packages in the world, the economy is pro-jected to grow at a paltry 1.3 percent.

Under these circumstances, even the private sector, where similarly obscene disparities in remuneration exist, may find little justification for paying a chief executive officer $30,000 a month. But can there be any good explanation why senior public-sector workers, who are after all supposed to be civil servants, are the ones driving these distortions?

Are there any economic or management paradigms that justify the disparities? Or perhaps some deep moral or ethical considerations?

If the answers to these questions are in the negative, then it is time Kenyans  put a stop to these shenanigans. If the truth be told, such disparities are rooted in the exploitation mentality that stained slavery, colonialism, and apart-heid. The only difference now is that instead of white bwanas there are dark-skinned leeches from our own villages.

A good beginning in the fight against this immorality would be for Kenyans to push, by hitting the streets à la 1992 if need be, for an unalterable law that prohibits the payment of any public-sector salary package that is more than 50 times greater than that of the lowest-paid public employee.

This way, if the lowest paid civil servant earns $100 a month, then no public worker, including the president, should earn more than $5,000 a month. This will not only have the automatic effect of freezing salary hikes for the fat cats for the next century or so, but when members of Parliament next want to raise their remuneration —as they are wont to do—they will have to raise that of the lowest-paid civil servant first!