Mr President, heed the silent voices of protest

There was once a king in the ancient Asante Kingdom who came up with a new taxation and census system. Because salt was readily available, the King decided to impose a token tax on it and the kingdom prospered. All you needed was to take a portion of salt to a designated point.  He decreed that each year, his subjects would go to a chosen point with pebble to place in a sack. He would then compare the size of past pebble deposits with those of the current year and effectively tell the degree by which the adult population had grown. That would help him in the planning for his people, including security.

Back here at home we have a President struggling with the same two issues – census and tax – but at a period of greater enlightenment in society where the password for all public policies is ‘public participation’.

Population census and the roll out of Huduma Namba are intertwined both in execution and objective. Population census is a ritual that takes place every decade. To provide better for your people, you must know the vital statistics such as a growth rate and the distribution. Security, food, housing and provision of basic services such as power, health and education have to be patterned alongside the population growth.

Kenya’s burden today is no different from what the Asantehene (King) was battling with except the time warp and the level of enlightenment and technological innovations. In Kenya today, there is a controversial bid by the Jubilee administration to start off a housing programme with a 1.5 per cent salary levy on each adult Kenyan and their employer.

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A very good idea indeed, but coming against the backdrop of increase in deductions for National Social Security Fund, National Hospital Insurance Fund, the myriad of oil and electricity taxes, and the usual Value Added Tax among many others, it is easy to understand the ambivalance. True, no country can run without taxing its people but again the tax levels must be balanced out to ensure that there is sufficient funds left for individuals to plough back into the effort to change the quality of their lives. Indeed in countries like Sweden with the highest tax rates in the world, people enjoy paying because almost every service is free including medical and education up to university level.

There is a lot to learn from three recent public protestations: First Lady Margaret Kenyatta’s Beyond Zero Marathon was clouded by protests from the public; that she was physically punishing herself, running all those miles to supplement a medical programme milked dry by corruption cartels. Remember not long ago there was the multi-billion scandal at Afya House? All that was needed, many argued then, was for President Kenyatta to deal with corruption.

‘Punda amechoka’

Then on the drought ravaging parts of arid Kenya where there have been reports of death, the Kenya Red Cross tried to rally the country to contribute food and cash. Those cries were not heeded unlike before.

Does it mean Kenyans are now meaner than they were under President Kibaki and the largely popular and resourceful “Kenyans for Kenya” initiative? Of course not, their bitterness is that their generosity is being used to ‘subsidize’ or cover-up for yawning gaps left by corruption in the national kitty. To make it worse, Deputy President William Ruto was again fast with his mouth. Just as he had said a “miserly” Sh7 billion and not Sh20 billion was lost in the non-starter Kimwarer and Arror dams (where some Cabinet members are under probe for receiving massive kickbacks) he categorically said no Kenyan had died of hunger.

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Then there is the housing tax that President Kenyatta proposed under his Big 4 agenda which has flown against the grain of public opinion. Kenyans are questioning if the focus was not more on the market for new homes for certain investors. Others even saw the Huduma Namba programme as another well-choreographed “kickbacks” project for a few to mint billions through tenders. Still some wondered why delivery for homes was a priority for a government that had failed on laptops, stadiums and other big promises.

For now, the court has stopped the housing levy but the message must have reached Mr Kenyatta and his Cabinet; the trust they commanded among Kenyans has been severely eroded by corruption and the borrowing binge.

That is what happens when the tax Kenyans give is not well utilised, accounted for or protected. It is no wonder Kenyans are saying: “Punda amechoka’. And when the donkey goes down in fatigue, no amount of whipping will get it on its feet. It would rather die than carry another burden.

Mr Tanui is Deputy Editorial Director and Managing Editor, The Standard

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