On a rare occasion, some incompetent person in his circles gives the president some speech to read, which is aimed at showing us that Kenyatta II is still running the country, but which ends up proving anything else but. One such event was in November 2014, a few days after the terror attack on a bus travelling from Garissa that claimed about 30 lives. When the president returned to the country shortly afterwards, he made a speech in which he passed his responsibility for security on to ordinary Kenyans, and in his off-the-cuff remarks, he trivialized sexual abuse of children, ironically at an event to mark the start of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence campaign.
Last Sunday night, this apparent cluelessness and lack of control emerged in his address to the nation on the anxiety following the closure of schools and the failure to resolve the teachers’ strike. The president cited figures to prove that Kenyan teachers’ salaries are comparatively the best in the region. By the time Kenyatta II closed his speech with a call for sobriety, the irony wasn’t lost on the many members of the formidable constituency called Kenyans on Twitter, otherwise known as #KOT.
Unfortunately for Kenyatta II, the salaries he quoted would soon be refuted by union leaders, and by copies of actual teachers’ pay slips. As if that was not enough, questions came up about the legitimacy of comparing the pay of teachers in Kenya with that of teachers in Burundi, two countries with very different demographics and economic profiles. Others said that even the numbers about the fiscal health of Kenya didn’t add up, while others questioned why we were comparing teachers’ salaries in the region and not using the statistics that put Kenya’s political leaders as some of the highest paid in the world.
No president worth his or her salt should have made such pedestrian mistakes or been vulnerable to such criticism. No president should have been engaged in a shouting match with union leaders and wananchi. By the time a president is intervening in a crisis like this, his or her job is to unite both sides of the divide, because even the striking teachers are Kenyans. His job would have been to speak to the broader principles of the nation, and tell us what direction we can take to end the crisis. Juggling numbers with the public and the union leaders is for the Education cabinet secretary and government officials to do. And the fact that his government officials can’t hold their ground is already an indictment of the competence of the president who appointed them.
And most of all, the argument that the government does not have enough money to pay teachers because the salaries will raise the percentage of expenditure of wages doesn’t wash. As most Kenyans who disagree with him have said, the country is already losing billions of shillings through corruption and mismanagement.
But for me, the red flag is the fact that the president and his government officials keep quoting this percentage threshold of expenditure that wages must not pass like it is the gospel truth. A week or so ago, the president even implied that a huge wage bill is what got Greece into a financial crisis. So by yesterday morning, my question was – who set that percentage, and why is it cited as if it is non-negotiable?
And what do you know, later the same morning, at Hotel Intercontinental – yes, that’s how taxpayers’ money is being spent – a commissioner of the Salaries and Remuneration Commission confirmed that Kenya is part of a consortium with the World Bank and that we needed to meet the stringent expenditure guidelines that it has set. I would be naïve to be dead set against partnership with the World Bank; however, the same government that is religiously ignoring its own teachers to please the World Bank is the same one that is campaigning for Kenya and the rest of Africa to withdraw from the ICC in the name of not being subject to imperialism. Surely, if Kenya has option to pull out of the ICC, why not renegotiate with the World Bank about the impossibility of these caps they put on wage bills?
And the comparison of Kenya with Greece doesn’t hold. Greece’s problems didn’t arise just from the wage bill but from a messy entry into the EU, occasioned by cooked up books. In any case, Greece does not have the same poverty and illiteracy levels as Kenya, and therefore does not require as much government investment in essential services. The Kenyan government could have tried to renegotiate with the World Bank, or better still, to sing the anti-imperial campaign song, on the grounds that our teachers must be paid, because this country’s future depends on the kids those teachers teach. But instead of dealing with these global issues like a president, Kenyatta II got bogged down in details.
But, at the same time, we Kenyan voters have also helped dig this hole we’re in by voting for politicians for reasons which have little to do with policy, and by accepting philanthropic interventions such as Sonko Rescue, First Lady’s marathon or even the CDF, as a poor substitute to public essential services. Right now, every politician is stealing our taxes and receiving high salaries for bursaries, boreholes, hospital bills and maternity clinics, because we Kenyan voters get so impressed by these interventions that we hardly ask the tough questions about public funding for those services or support for the professionals who provide them. Meanwhile, the public health sector is bleeding as many as 2000 doctors a year, while counties are refusing to pay medics whose home of birth or ethnic group is not in those counties. During the presidential debates, we did not ask the candidates what they would do to keep professionals in public service.
We cannot credibly claim to be a middle-income country without making explicit efforts to train and retain professionals. Bursaries are useless if there are no teachers to teach, and mobile clinics are useless without doctors, nurses and midwives. The biggest reason education in North Eastern Kenya is at a standstill is because there are no teachers, not because there are no bursaries. We Kenyans have to stop being impressed by philanthropy and insist on public services, with properly paid professionals, without needing the personal intervention of a politician-messiah.
So while the villain in this tragic saga is the president, the tragic victims are the Kenyan people, because we are the ones suffering most from the terrible political choices we make.
That said, the tragic hero in this saga remains the teachers.
The teachers are tragic because a strike was probably not the best option to obtain a pay rise. As I’ve said before, to the disagreement of some of my facebook friends, a strike is most effective when it is by workers who turn off machines or who cripple company profits. Unlike industrial workers, professionals like doctors, nurses and teachers make a living from serving people, and so when they put down their tools, it’s patients in hospitals and kids in school who suffer.
There are better, probably more effective options that the unions could have used. For example, they could have joined the Kenyans rallied by Boniface Mwangi and civil society against corruption and the increase in politicians’ pay, rather than wait till now to point at the same issues to argue that the government has the money to pay teachers. They could follow the example of professionals who brought about social change like Che Guevara and Frantz Fanon, who were doctors. If Kenyan artists can rally around causes through art, and if #KOT can do the same through social media, so can teachers and doctors through the classrooms and clinics. The resort to industrial action by professionals is playing copycat to the industrial workers who serve a different constituency. And even in the event that teachers get paid the salaries they are demanding, they will still have lost the larger war of getting this country to fundamentally support public essential services and the professionals who work in them.
All adult Kenyans have a part to play in this mess where our country has done the unforgivable – undermined its own future by shutting down its schools. The closed schools reveal that while Kenya’s economy may or may not have reached middle-income status, its national culture and mindset are definitely far from belonging to a middle-income country. And that contradiction will remain as long as the current president remains in office.