Forgotten lot? No word on cost of living as talks enter the last lap

National Dialogue Committee co-chairs Kalonzo Musyoka and Kimani Ichungwah at Bomas of Kenya in Nairobi. [Samson Wire, Standard]

This past week has been good for President William Ruto and Azimio leader Raila Odinga, who had their way in the ongoing talks at the Bomas of Kenya. Not so much for mwananchi as the National Dialogue Committee is yet to thrash out the agenda item that mostly affects them - the biting cost of living.

On Thursday, the dialogue team agreed to establish the office of the leader of the official opposition, entrench the office of prime cabinet secretary in the Constitution and legitimise affirmative action and oversight funds. President William Ruto listed the items in a memorandum to Parliament late last year and the committee’s nod promises a smooth sailing in the House.

That same day, Raila, would also score with the committee’s endorsement of measures to ensure fidelity to political parties.

Friday was equally major for the former prime minister, following an agreement by the 10-member team to audit last year’s election and restructure the electoral commission’s selection panel.

The stated agreements cover much of the talks’ agenda items, which were majorly sold as secondary to rising living costs when the talks began.

Raila’s Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya has always insisted that addressing the cost of living was their top priority.

When the opposition outfit rallied the masses in demonstrations that resulted in the talks, it adopted a sufuria as its symbol. Opposition supporters would show up to protests with sufurias, banging them to signify their hunger, occasioned by skyrocketing food prices.

Raila also decried the burden imposed on Kenyans by higher taxation, courtesy of the Finance Act 2023, which Azimio previously said it wanted to be repealed.

The president reacted by touting food production measures his government had put in place that he said would soon lead to lower unga prices. Other interventions, Ruto said, would see a drop in commodity prices. 

The Head of State would add that his intention to lower living costs was driven by his commitment to ensure “hustlers” have it easier. Before the opposition adopted the sufuria to endear itself to the society’s vulnerable, Ruto had done the same with the wheelbarrow, a symbol that is prominently emblazoned on his presidential standard (flag). 

Less than two weeks until the committee’s 60-day mandate runs out, food and commodity prices are still high and promise to go higher with the soaring of fuel prices that went further up in EPRA’s October review. 

The prices of petrol were up yet again, reaching an all-time high of Sh217 per litre in Nairobi, a development that will see transport costs, including in the PSV sector, increase, further piling more misery on the suffering Kenyans.

“Once the big boys are satisfied, nothing else matters. They don’t care about the people,” said University lecturer Herman Manyora.

“If they were serious, they would have started with a gesture of good faith to Kenyans who demonstrated because the cost of living was hurting them. Governments make big moves when their people are suffering. They have made small ones, like removing VAT on fuel.”

Many stakeholders who submitted their views to the committee, led jointly by Wiper Leader Kalonzo Musyoka and National Assembly Majority Leader Kimani Ichung’wah, wanted the government  to offer some respite from the choking living costs.

They include the Federation of Kenya Employers, which noted that the government’s interventions were doing little to help.

“Taxes are being levied on consolidated pay, away from the tradition of basing statutory deductions on the employee’s payroll on basic pay. That has had a major impact on the take-home pay,” said FKE CEO Jacqueline Mugo.

The Public Service Commission would plead on behalf of public servants, who the PSC said were grappling with mental health issues as a result of the unaffordable living costs.

PSC Chairperson Anthony Muchiri called for higher wages and a review of the taxation regime, even as he urged that the housing tax deductions be staggered.

“The commission, therefore proposes either the tax regime be reviewed, a considered wage increase be mooted or public officers who are servicing mortgages be exempted from additional taxes,” he said when he appeared before the committee.

The committee will be seeking 30 more days to finalise the pending issues, including the cost of living. However, the silence over the subject has discouraged many. 

Embakasi East MP Babu Owino sees mwananchi ending up with nothing after the talks.

“I don’t think so,” he responded to a question on whether he thought the talks would benefit the common person.

“These people promised us bottom-up and that is exactly what they are giving Kenyans. Hiking prices of food, petrol, diesel and kerosene from bottom to up. They don’t have the interest of Kenyans at heart.”

Nandi Senator Samson Cherargei argued that Azimio’s priorities during the talks have proven that “they were never interested in the welfare of Kenyans”.

“Azimio just wanted positions and perks and the cost of living was just ‘story ya jaba’... Raila wanted an exit strategy and a way to manage his supporters during the protests and we agreed,” said Cherargei.