Kenya’s Members of Parliament want a bigger salary. But the country is outraged by this demand. This week, protesters poured out into the streets of Nairobi to say No to the MPs’ greed
What an uncanny assault on the senses! An unfamiliar stench saturates the air around and if I weren’t looking I don’t think I could have quite told what it was. What smells like a fertilizer experiment gone bad – manure-ish-blood! All thick and dark, it is poured in a very determined fashion on the street. Then there is a call to bring out the swine. Nobody saw this coming.
Our attention is immediately drawn towards a truck pulling back and edging closer to the crowd of mainly seated protesters. This must be a first in Kenyan protest history. Right here next to the corridors of power are several piglets and a humongous boar feasting and wallowing in a pool of blood!
Journalists, local and foreign, click away at the speed of light, their monstrous cameras trained on the faces of swine and people alike. I suppose the scene makes for a good and sensational fodder for the media.
About an hour and half earlier, a crowd had gradually swelled at what at the hallowed shrine of Kenyan rights struggles – The Freedom Corner, right at the edge of Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. Throngs of people clad in white t-shirts and black pants. Angry placards screaming all manner of messages at the so-called Honourable Members of Parliament, whose first order of business upon being sworn in after the March 4 elections was to demand bigger salaries. ‘Bunge si Biashara, Bunge ni Utumishi! – Parliament is not an enterprise, Parliament is for Service.
This was the #OccupyParliament protest, which quickly became a trend on social media.
The MPs (now chsristened MPigs, for their greed) have brand new Kshs 200,000 ($2,500) seats. Their demand is a-kick-in-the-gonads of the taxpayer. The different factions in the House have been on each other’s necks on the operations but not on their pay. The harmony with which they sing for a pay rise is nothing short of a celestial choir – it is in one spirit.
At the Freedom Corner, a couple of police officers are standing next to a pulled over police vehicle. The critical mass has been achieved and in a short while the protest march kicks off. The noisy crowd steadily makes its way out of the park in chants, shouts, dances and other displays - placards galore, banners that lend weight to the cause, sit-downs in the middle of the cleared highway and even a mobile puppet show depicting the greed of the MPs as animalistic. There is a slow but spirited march down Kenyatta Avenue and then along Moi Avenue and up again on Harambee Avenue to the destination – Parliament Buildings.
In the middle of a seated crowd, Gacheke Gachihi, a young civil rights activist rises up. In his hands is a copy of the Constitution. Like a nurtured Baptist preacher man, he reads from the Bill of Rights : “Article 37 says that every person has the right, peaceably and unarmed, to assemble, to demonstrate, to picket and to present petitions to public authorities.” The crowd responds with cheers of affirmation. Gacheke turns to the officers on the curb and re-reads the same article to them.
‘We are not here illegally, we are not breaking the law...’ he continues. ‘It is our right, it is written here. You can even consult with [renowned Kenyan constitutional expert Yash Pal] Ghai; he is seated right next to me. He wrote the constitution...’
But later, police forgot what Gaheke preached and engaged the peaceful protesters in violent chases and beat-downs coupled with tear gas shots and water canon attacks. The crowd’s resilience appeared to be broken when the leaders were arrested, people like Boniface Mwangi and Gacheke. The battles continued for a while as the crowd seemed to diminish with every police attack.
But the protesters had made their point. The ‘MPigs’ do not deserve a cent more in country crippled by mass poverty, unemployment, hunger, disease and natural disasters.
But what followed was crass and misguided coverage of #OccupyParliament by the media. From radio talk show hosts who termed the protest as a show of hooliganism and abuse of animal rights, to prime time news on various networks sensationalising the pigs in the saga, to inaccurate newspaper articles that totally missed the point. The media portrayed the protesters as exclusively belonging to ‘Civil Society’ – essentially saying that the protest was the autonomous agenda of the cryptic ‘special’ class of activists.
This is far from the truth, ordinary Kenyans carried the placards, got sprayed with acid water, had tear gas shot at them and some even got a beating by the police. This was a Kenyan agenda, carried out by Kenyans. The #OccupyParliament protest echoed the sentiments of most if not all Kenyans across the country.
If an opinion poll released a day after is anything to go by, Kenyans are opposed to the greed exhibited by the ‘MPigs’. According to the survey ‘a massive 88 per cent of Kenyans oppose the bid to a salary rise for MPs, with more than half citing contrasting poverty levels in the wider population.’
Some MPs have attempted to justify the pay raise on grounds that they are pestered for hand outs by their constituents. But the new survey indicates that only about 9 per cent of those polled are in any way beneficiaries of the supposed hand outs. 22 per cent of those against a pay rise said the government could not afford it, 10 per cent argued that MPs were aware of the ‘pay cut’ before they contested for office while 4 per cent said a more modest salary would discourage greedy individuals from contesting in future.
The avalanche of tweets in support of the #OccupyParliament protest was simply phenomenal. By no means can these agenda be reduced to the interests of idle picketers and ‘foreign funded’ civil society as has been alleged by detractors from the comforts of their offices.
MPs were paid a gross sum of Ksh 851,000 ($10,600) a month in the previous parliament, which has been cut to the still attractive sum of Ksh 532,500 ($6,656). Following this the MPs have turned into a lynch mob crying for the blood of the independent Salaries and Remuneration Commission. Their audacity knows no bounds with their demands for car purchase allowances.
Some of the pigs at the protest bore the names of some of the most vocal MPs agitating for a pay rise, a powerful symbolism of the greed the ‘MPigs’. Kenya has an already inflated public sector wage bill, with over 50 per cent of the population living on a dollar a day or less. The MPs were voted in with the assumption that they work for the public interest. The protest was a demand for public morality and ethical leadership.
FIND MORE ON #OccupyParliament