Not unexpectedly, President William Ruto dwelled heavily on controversial proposals around the Finance Bill 2023 on his first Madaraka Day address to an expectant nation.
This implies that he is adequately informed or aware of the growing resistance to his proposals, contrary to some views that he is receiving wrong advice from close allies.
That notwithstanding, it is not difficult to see the fact that he has chosen the path of war over his position as opposed to the voice of reason. To him, those asking the difficult questions lack a sense of patriotism and foresight over the fate of the poor masses.
With an analytical mind, it is easy to hear a distinctive message from his passionate voice that: ‘trust me, for me and only me knows where we are heading with this’. Unfortunately, the deficiency of trust capital is the biggest liability of his administration. While he is truly a gifted orator, there is no historical context under his 30-year public life legacy to take him by his word.
More so, the way he has handled the critical questions on the cost of living; economic renewal; decisions on public appointments; willingness to listen to alternative views; and opaqueness on this housing levy inspires no confidence over his 10 months old administration. Thus, the appeal for John F. Kennedy’s most famous quote for Kenyans to ‘ask not what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country collapses in this context.
A leader cannot demand trust from those he leads, but can only earn it based on his/her actions and decisions where it matters most. A willingness to listen to the ideas of the led, alternative views and often taking criticism in stride are proven means to earn trust even from those opposed to one leadership. It would be great for the president to read the biographies of great Pan-African political icons that he obviously seeks to emulate.
To this end, the silent majority with opposing views to his socio-economic proposals must be given a chance to ask fair questions on how they are being governed. It cannot be that the Kenya Kwanza leaders appeal to the tenets of a Constitutional democracy, that we are, in public foras while manifesting autocratic and oppressive tendencies on official policy proposals.
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For instance, why the Finance Bill 2023 must be bulldozed through parliament and continually stroke public emotion over it makes the whole thing sound suspect.
It is not that Kenyans are refusing to fulfil their most solemn civic responsibility of paying taxes. They have done so even when there is overwhelming evidence a significant proportion of taxes funds official waste and budgeted corruption.
The speech correctly identifies the central issues that were at the heart of the 2022 election. The economy, and specifically the cost of living, the business environment coupled with impacts of COVID-19, the burden of public debt on taxpayers, and official deafness to the plight of hustlers was on the ballot. More fundamentally, the tax burden of the few folks in formal employment has been a bane for the middle class –the key driver on consumption in any functional economy.
Ironically, the revenue-raising proposals by the government that the speech sought to sell to the public are enhancing the very measures. An increase in VAT on petroleum products will at best robe folks of more disposable income and push prices of basic commodities across the board. Digital taxes will kill the very industry the hustler government suggests is our path to economic renewal and means of enhancing accountability on public resources.
The housing levy is not only toxic and a disincentive for formal employment, but also a classic making of a sovereign pyramid scheme as one of the contributors observed on the Tuesday Standard newspaper. It beats any logic why the president imagines this can sell when almost all the unionisable employees and employer caucuses are openly against it, including the public officers of the government he heads. Cracks have emerged in his political camp over the same matter.
Personally, am yet to meet any formally employed person who is supporting or undecided over it. I wish to submit my unsolicited opinion to the KK leadership that the more they bulldoze this levy, the more they crystalize the voice of the silent majority who voted for the opposition; those who boycotted the elections; and many others who only voted for them simply to fulfil their Constitutional duty over the two evils that were on offer in the ballot.
Sooner rather than later, the ones your taxes oppress and refuse to listen to will find a leader. Throughout history, no government has ever survived an uprising driven by the middle class. Think about that!
While the call to patriotism is the noble thing to do in an auspicious moment like Madaraka Day, this cannot be based on empty rhetoric. Such calls must be supported by demonstrable evidence that the government means well for its people, and that it is conducting its affairs mindful of the socio-economic welfare of those who finance it through taxes.
For instance, a sustained cry for empty coffers cannot co-exist in the same sentence with a bloated government. The insistence on 50 Chief Administrative Secretaries that we clearly rejected during the Constitution making in 2010 to serve political ends is the ultimate show of the middle figure to the suffering taxpayers. As a close friend observed on a post over the housing levy on social media, if the government has no money, what makes it think the citizens who fund it have it to begin with? Don’t they co-exist in the same economy?
While the government chooses the painful and politically suicidal path, there are potentially less invasive means to increase government revenues. One, the government can utilise the digital power it keeps on talking about to enhance compliance with existing taxes.
As a good student and champion of Business Process Re-engineering, the government can undertake an effective single identifier registration of all persons.
This was the intent of the huduma number that was tragically overtaken by tender barons. With an economy that is hugely informal and corruption second to nature, only a centralised database with a single identification can bring everyone into the tax net.
Nobody can hide properties like rentals, land transactions, business registrations, and lifestyle changes. This will also deal a deadly blow to criminal activities, academic fraud, and illegal transactions.
Two, basic common sense dictates that when your income side of the equation is low, you prioritise painful but necessary cuts on the expenditure side. That is precisely what households are going through in these hard economic times. Yet, their government wants them to sacrifice more to fund its untamed wasteful, and corrupt habits.
Finally, rather than peddling lies that they are going to create a million jobs for hustlers through the phoney affordable housing scheme, how about the construction of formal specialised markets across the country? If this is not an innovative way to bring more people into the tax net and correct the anomaly of a hugely informal economy, then I do not know what policy innovation is.