Recent reports from the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) show that some 40,000 aspirants are eyeing the Member of County Assembly (MCA) position in the August 8 elections.
With a total of 1,450 wards in the country represented by the MCAs, this works out to an average of nearly 28 aspirants per ward.
The MCA position has widely, and accurately, been described as “lucrative”. On average, MCAs earn Sh250,000 a month, without counting sitting allowances, foreign trips and other resultant benefits in which case the take home is in the region of Sh500,000.
In a country where the average income per capita is about Sh23,000 a month, being elected as an MCA would earn you at least ten times that figure.
When the various allowances and perks are thrown in, we are looking at an income almost twenty times that of the average citizen.
It is no wonder, then, that many are scrambling for the position – but even that doesn’t begin to explain the ferocious interest in the MCA position.
To do so, we must contrast it with the position of Senator which “lacks clout” and is being abandoned in droves — despite senators earning a basic salary that is three times that of the MCA, at Sh740,000. Of the 67 senators, both elected and nominated, 34 have reportedly announced they are running for other positions or retiring from active politics.
That’s a 50 per cent attrition rate – all the more remarkable because it is a voluntary abandonment of the positions; they have not been pushed out by the ballot box.
This carries all the signs of institutional failure. If you were a headmaster in a brand new, swanky school and half your students did not return the next term, you would know there is a big problem somewhere.
Most intriguingly is that already, even two senators (both nominated) have announced they will vie for the position of MCA — Hosea Ochwang’i is running for MCA seat in Kisii County and Godliver Omondi for MCA in Kakamega County.
Granted, because they are nominated, they may know they lack the political bargaining power to be nominated again.
The two might see the MCA position as their first rung in electoral politics, hoping to use their experience in the Upper House as leverage among voters.
Still, even if Ochwang’i and Omondi are outliers, there is something about how the Constitution has structured the position of MCA that gives it its shine – and dims that of Senator.
It has to do with the interplay between economic and political opportunities in Kenya.
At first glance, it may seem that the Constitution gave us a bloated political class, with “too many” elective posts – the argument that Kenya is “overrepresented” has been made many times.
If we include all the nominated positions, there are 2,526 MCAs, 349 MPs and 67 senators and 47 governors and 47 deputy governors.
This may certainly be the case – maintaining a single MP plus their allowances, staff and benefits costs Sh2 million a month, Sh7 million more than before the current Constitution came into force.
A recent audit report from the Office of the Auditor-General found that the percentage growth of the public wage bill has been rising dramatically — by 15.42 per cent in 2012 and by 16.75 per cent in 2013.
“Between 2012 and 2014, the economy grew by an average of 5.2 per cent. The public wage bill, therefore, grew at a faster rate than the economy,” the report says.
Still, there is something more at play here. Political office is attractive because there are too few economic opportunities elsewhere in the country.
Despite having the skills to do better, the vast majority of working Kenyans are in the informal sector. Out of a workforce of 15.1 million, about 84 per cent are in some kind of informal employment — often in a low productivity and low value job that does not square with their education and potential.
Of the 16 per cent in formal employment, just 3 per cent earn more than Sh100,000 per month.
Even for these, the threat of seizure or financial ruin is never far away. The most common risk for middle-class families is medical emergencies: private insurance typically runs out in a matter of weeks. Families then turn to chamas and harambees to raise money for treatment — which, in themselves serve as a financial cushion, but only exist because of the government’s disinvesting in public health, public education and social security.
Uganda takes over-representation to a whole other level — according to an internal estimate by the Independent Election Commission of Uganda, the total number of elective offices being contested in the 2016 election was an astonishing 1,747,664.
That includes everything from administrative posts at the village level to seats in Parliament — and it means that the political class is over five times the size of the Ugandan civil service, including the army.
“Such is the allure of a job in politics... that it’s easy for young Ugandans to see the election as the biggest legal lottery on offer,” writes journalist Angelo Izama in Foreign Policy magazine.
In that sense, when a country has more political than economic opportunities, then people use power to create wealth, such as in Kenya and Uganda’s case.
But when a country has more economic than political opportunities, the converse is true: people use wealth to seek power.
The US is a good example — there are many ways to be reasonably successful. With a relatively modest income, one can get a mortgage, put your children through school, get treatment when you need it, and have a cushy pension in your old age that comes on time every month. There is no need for Americans to have things like chamas and fundraisers.
Wealthy people in countries like that use their money to lobby and influence legislators to make laws that favour them — implying that even in their “corruption”, they respect laws and institutions enough to want to shape them, knowing they will actually be implemented.
So it makes sense that in countries like the US, corruption is controlled by having limits on campaign finances from donors and the like.
But that would be meaningless in the Kenyan context because the wealthiest people have made, and continue to make their fortune through politics itself, both through salaries and personal perks, but more so through access to favours, tenders and public funds.
In autocracies and countries with weak institutions, “it is unwise to be rich unless it is the government that made you rich,” say Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith in their book The Dictator’s Handbook.
The two give the example of Russia and China. In the early 2000s, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was the wealthiest man in Russia and the 16th wealthiest in the world.
He had made his fortune building up the private oil company Yukos, which accounted for 20 per cent of Russia’s oil production.
As his fortune grew, Khodorkovsky, who was initially close to the government, began to speak out against President Vladmir Putin’s authoritarian streak, and he funded several opposition parties.
In 2003, he was arrested on tax evasion charges, but the tax levied on Yukos was substantially higher than other oil companies, and in some years, exceeded gross revenue. These huge tax burdens forced Yukos into bankruptcy and Khodorkovsky into jail.
A similar thing happened in China, where Huang Guangyu had become the richest man in the country through his company GOME, the largest electronics retailer in China. But it was only a matter of time before he was sentenced to 14 years in prison for bribery.
“It is likely he was guilty since bribery is common in Chinese business dealings,” de Mesquita and Smith write. “It is also likely that he and others who have been prosecuted for corruption in China were chosen for political reasons...many others were surely guilty of the same crimes yet walk free today. What singled them out was that they did not support the government and they had enormous wealth.”
This is why in Kenya and many other African countries, politics itself is over-represented as a path to financial security, both to create and defend wealth — only because there is a structural failure of other avenues, and institutions are weak.
A weak rule of law creates a high implicit tax on the whole economy — that fear of losing what you have burdens your mind and keeps your ambitions small.
If you extrapolate these worries on the entire class of Kenyans that could be in more productive work, it explains why Kenya has been chronically been under-performing for a country of its skill and resources.
It also explains why the position of MCA is more attractive than Senator — in a country with few real economic opportunities, power is meaningless if it is not tied directly to an opportunity to “eat” (especially if eating is possible over and above your salary and allowances).
The position of MCA is particularly lucrative because they directly control billions of shillings in county budgets, and have a living, breathing person — the Governor — they can harass to get whatever they want.
The Governor, therefore, is accountable to MCAs, but the MCAs are accountable only to themselves — it would take too much time, resources and groundwork logistics from house to house to recall a bad MCA, but it only takes a night meeting of scheming MCAs to get a Governor sweating.
Senators don’t have a kitty, or anyone to threaten directly and extract money and favours from, and MPs can only threaten the inanimate, abstract entity called “the Central Government”, fragmented into various ministries and Cabinet Secretaries (who, even so, are in practical terms accountable to the appointing authority, the President).
All things considered, the 28 MCA aspirants per ward is arguably an under-expression of interest. If an election is the biggest legal lottery on offer, the figure should be double or even triple that.
—Christine Mungai is a writer, journalist and executive editor of Africa data visualiser and explainer site Africapedia.com