The ongoing outcry about taxes is the clearest indication that there is still so much work to do in the journey of building a government for, by, and with the people. As Thomas Jefferson famously declared, we put the government in office to preserve the right to life, liberty, and the right to own property. To be able to attain this, the government must at all times use all the resources at its disposal to erect political and economic institutions that are inclusive. An inclusive state begins with a dispute resolution mechanism that is fair, predictable, and expeditious.
A cursory reading of the Finance Bill 2023 does not reflect this. Instead, you see a state that is eager to use the coercive instruments at its disposal to collect taxes. A case in point is the proviso that in the event of a tax dispute between the revenue authority and the taxpayer over tax arrears, the taxpayer should deposit at least 20 per cent of the amount in contention to the taxman before commencing any legal proceedings. This not only undermines the doctrine of presumption of innocence but also flies in the face of what would be deemed as an administrative action that is fair and reasonable.
The massive tax proposals are not any different from the extractive tendencies of the colonial era and after. If the government would bulldoze its way with reckless abandon and sheer arrogance, it is going to alienate a huge swathe of its core support base and would-be support base and for a moment it would be another, ‘Not yet Uhuru’.
In the eyes of a curious bystander, it appears the president has been taken hostage by the capitalistic forces that erected the enduring extractive system that we thought we would overthrow at independence but quickly mutated and has transitioned through the last four presidential handovers.
Let’s examine this system. After independence, the optimism and hope of Kenyans were quickly raised by the historic lowering of the Union Jack and the subsequent hoisting of the Kenyan flag before being dashed by the now infamous, “We will forgive but will not forget’’ made in Nakuru in 1965. After 60 years of economic exploitation, rape, and plunder, we were pleading with the settler community not to leave but if anyone chose to leave, the Kenyan government promptly secured a loan from the crown to buy from them what they had robbed our people.
We then had the colonial administrative superstructure resting solidly over our political institutions. We introduced detention without trial, we centralised decision-making about resources. We perfected the vicious hydra that the colonialists left us and made it lethal. We killed our own sons and called our presidents ‘mtukufu’.
Part of the reason everybody was anxious about the exit of the last administration was how it acquiesced to that system. The SGR, the MGR, the roads, and the expansion of the Kisumu Port were for all intents and purposes about expanding the existing bottom lines; efficiency of extraction by the owners of capital. Takes you back to the building of the Lunatic Line.
With President Ruto at the helm, the Kenyan poor were optimistic of a leadership that would prioritise their survival and dignity. Like Kibaki who came in and opened classroom doors for millions of poor children, we hoped that in spite of the global supply side shocks, we would see a creative deliberate effort to arrest the cost of living. What Kenyans have witnessed to date is neither creative nor deliberate in regard to lowering the cost of living.
It will be pointless to manage politics at the expense of the economy. As James Buchanan says in his ‘Politics Sans Romance’ theory, the voters acting in their self-interest would revolt so resolutely that the government would have nowhere to hide its face. To the people helping the president to govern, please fix ye first the issues of the economy and all else shall be added unto you.
We certainly cannot accumulate debt into bankruptcy, but we cannot certainly cannot tax ourselves into prosperity. Neither must we limit our choices to either of the two.
Mr Kidi is a governance and policy analyst. [email protected]