Public participation is a charade but give your opinion on this Bill

Aerial view of the National Assembly and Senate, September 11, 2018. [Edward Kiplimo, Standard]

The Finance Bill 2024 has been a priority in the minds of Kenyans since it was released recently.

Unsurprisingly, the Bill seeks to increase taxes over a wide range of income-earning sectors, and is significantly more severe on the pocket of Kenyans than the 2023 one.

When the 2023 Bill was released to the public, it attracted as much attention, if not more, as the new Bill, and Kenyans came out in droves to provide their sentiments on the Bill.

This massive act of public participation was unprecedented, showing that Kenyans were truly concerned about the impact of the Bill on their lives. However, the public participation effort yielded little results, and the Bill was passed with only some minor changes to it.

The same was the case when the Housing Bill was released to the public. Kenyans came out once again to voice their displeasure with the Bill, with many saying they felt it was unnecessary, and that the addition of a new tax would put a great strain on them.

Media houses also held numerous forums where the Bill was discussed and analysed extensively by Kenyans from all walks of life, and the overwhelming sentiment was that it was more of a net negative than a positive. As we now know, not much was changed in the Bill, and it was passed much to the discontent of the people whom the Act purports to represent.

Now, with the release of the 2024 Finance Bill for public comments, one has no choice but to question whether public participation in Kenya is an exercise in futility. Will Parliament read the numerous comments it receives on the Bill and work to amend it so that it may harm their constituents less, or is the invitation of comments from the public a veneer to show some sort of democracy?

Already, MPs are pushing back on the comments that they are receiving, arguing, for instance, that there will be no increase in the price of bread, when in fact the taxes increased on the side of the manufacturer will no doubt raise costs significantly. When Kenyans point out that they have read the Bill and bring up their significant and valid concerns, they are shot down as having misunderstood the Bill.

Aside from the fact that the cost of bread will definitely rise should the Bill pass, there are several other examples of taxes being increased on the back-end, leading to severe price hikes on commodities that Kenyans rely on daily. Manufacturers of edible cooking oil have warned that the price of oil, an already expensive commodity, would rise by up to 80 per cent should the Bill pass as it is due to the increase of taxes on manufacturing by 25 per cent.

Battery manufacturing company Chloride Exide has also warned that it might be forced to take its business out of the country should the Bill pass due to an increase in manufacturing costs through taxation. Not only will this Bill increase the cost of living beyond what Kenyans can afford, it could also lead to an increase in the already high rate of unemployment as businesses across the board shut down due to a reduction of ease of doing business.

What little positives there are in the Bill are not going to be of benefit to the ordinary mwananchi. The Bill proposes, for instance, an increase in non-taxable benefits such as travel, entertainment and car allowances.

Whilst millions of Kenyans remain unemployed, those who are employed seldom fall into the category of work that would guarantee them any non-taxable allowances. Helicopters and aeroplanes will also be taxed less. It is clear whom the Bill seeks to help, and whom it seeks to harm.

Regardless of the potential of public participation being futile, Kenyans must nevertheless continue to publicly voice their displeasure for the sake of the historical record. Remaining silent on the effect that the Bill will have should it pass will not build a collective memory, which is important for when the time comes to decide which leaders to elect, and which ones to give the boot.

-Ms Gitahi is an international lawyer

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