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Robust debate on taxes shows Kenyans have become more civic-minded

 National Treasury Cabinet Secretary Prof Njuguna Ndung'u. [File, Standard]

In the lead-up to the last general election, William Ruto, the United Democratic Alliance presidential candidate, who is now the president, promised a conversational shift from ethnic coalitions as the basis for political mobilisation to economic questions like growth, inequality and development.

The other candidates too showed a deliberate and genuine effort to depart from the political script of yore and promote policy-based campaigns. Raila Odinga pitched for his health plan which he christened Babacare and a monthly stipend for unemployed Kenyans while George Wajackoya made the economics of Marijuana legalisation the cornerstone of his campaign.

When the new administration assumed the reins of power, it immediately rolled out its first phase of Hustler Fund disbursements and Kenyans debated whether or not the funds provided real relief to those in a precarious financial situation. A vigorous debate on subsidisation of production viz-a-viz consumption also ensued as fuel prices went up and fertiliser and other inputs were made available to farmers.

But the most robust debate yet has been on the Finance Bill, 2023. For the very first time in the country’s history, Kenyans from all walks of life – from teachers to farmers to content creators – are opining on the rightness or wrongness of the proposed taxes and levies. Politicians are using funeral podia and television talk shows, not to preach the gospel of ethnicity, but to explain the economic ramifications of the revenue-raising measures in the Bill.

Economists and development finance experts on punditry duty are educating Kenyans on the merits and demerits of debt and taxes in the theory of public finance. Suggestions, ranging from expenditure freezes to debt restructuring, have been offered to Dr Ruto’s government as avenues for addressing the economic sting bedeviling the country. The proposed Housing Levy which seeks to actualise the Housing and Settlement pillar of the Kenya Kwanza blueprint has elicited the most discussion. Kenyans have extensively debated both the home ownership and employment creation aspects of the scheme.

This sort of everyday discussion not only points to an elevation of our national discourse but is also an indicator of a civic-minded society. Kenyans are demonstrating their patriotism by contributing to policymaking and demanding that their tax shillings are put into good use. The level of awareness shining through in the discussion provides an extra tier of checks against government excesses and imprudence. It also improves the quality of our policies and promotes the values and principles of governance.

President Ruto and members of his government have a solemn obligation, not just to listen to the people, but also to respect their wishes and opinions. They should embrace this newfound vitality which is a hallmark of every progressive society. The president has repeatedly said that he welcomes criticism of his administration’s acts. He has famously made reference to counsel he reportedly received from lawyer Paul Muite that “the best way to support the government is to criticise it when it goes wrong”. That is why he should ask members of his team to resist the temptation to impute improper and malicious motives to those with divergent viewpoints in the taxation debate.

The political opposition, on the other hand, has been presented with an opportunity to showcase the alternative agenda. If they want Kenyans to believe that their policies (tax or otherwise) would have been superior to Kenya Kwanza’s, they should seize this moment and advance that alternative proposition. It cannot be enough to just find fault and point fingers. The way to grow this democracy is to offer the voter an ideology that is both distinct and antithetical to the one being promoted by the government in power. The media should strive to promote this objective debate and act as fact-checkers and neutral arbiters.

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