African parliaments are trimmed back to size
Kenya takes aim at some of the highest-paid legislators on Earth
The end of military rule 18 years ago in Nigeria heralded a bonanza for an unexpected profession: furniture making. As newly elected senators and members of the house of assembly gathered in the capital, Abuja, furniture salesmen flocked in to tap the lavish living allowances that legislators had been awarded. The national assembly became an impromptu showroom for sofas and chairs. It was a sign of trouble to come – and not only in Africa’s leading oil producer.
As Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta put it in his state of the nation address last week, the “ staggering” cost of public sector wages – including some of the world’s highest remuneration packages for legislators – is destroying the east African nation’s development agenda. Kenya’s auditor-general found recently that the annual cost of the two-chamber body was equivalent to 2 per cent of the national budget. By way of comparison, a 2012 UN study found the global average for countries with populations of a similar size was 0.57 per cent.
Nor does that figure take into account the provincial assemblies that have been created as Kenya has devolved power to its regions. Overall, around half the government’s budget is spent on the salaries of the roughly 2 per cent of the population employed by the state. Mr Kenyatta argues that the sums left over for much-needed investment in social and physical infrastructure are totally inadequate.
In Nigeria, the problem is even more acute. In some recent years, the national assembly has consumed more than the combined budgets for health and education. Meanwhile, the expansion in the number of states over the years has multiplied the problem at that level, as many were bankrupt even before the collapse in the world price of oil, which typically accounts for two-thirds of federal revenue. In Nigeria as in Kenya, it is not only the exorbitant salaries of legislators that are of concern but the perks that come with them too. Ghana has a similar problem.
Only Senegal has taken drastic measures to reverse this increasingly disproportionate allocation of scarce resources. In 2012, the Senegalese senate was scrapped to make way for spending on developing defences against recurrent floods. “The relief of the suffering of the people is more important than the senate,” the president, Macky Sall, said at the time.
Political representation is central, of course, to any functioning democracy. Moreover, elected office in developing nations often comes with financial pressures without equivalent in the developed world. Rewarding legislators handsomely should be one way to prevent them succumbing to corruption. Yet neither in Nigeria nor Kenya, two countries with patronage systems extravagant by African standards, is there much evidence to show this spending is having the desired effect.
Ethiopia’s authoritarian state is imperfect in many ways. But the investment it has made in infrastructure and health over the past 20 years has been possible partly because government has succeeded in keeping the cost of politics down.
In his bid to trim back the conspicuous consumption of elected politicians, Mr Kenyatta has a powerful lobby set against him, as does his counterpart in Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari. After all, legislators all too rarely vote against their own self-interest.
Thankfully Kenya’s president has the weight of popular opinion on his side. There is a delicate balance to be struck. But in many African states the case for a structural adjustment of the polity is becoming overwhelming.
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