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Kenya: well paid MPs vs. starving population…
by Renaud Vivien
31 August 2007

As we get closer to the December 2007 general elections, the regime of the Kenyan President, Mr Kibaki, gets tougher and tougher, resorting to police forces to repress peaceful demonstrations.

The latest evidence of this hardening was given on July 31 and August 2 when fifteen people were violently arrested by the police as they were demonstrating against a bill whereby the Kenyan Members of Parliament (MPs) would grant themselves a payoff for the end of their term. It has to be recalled that in this country 60% of the population lives with less than one dollar a day and that the Kenyan MPs are already among the better paid in the world with a monthly €10,000, which is equivalent to ten years of a Kenyan civil servant’s basic salary.

Repression of social movements

On July 31 a first demonstration took place in front of the Parliament to ask for the withdrawal of the bill. Although the demonstration went smoothly, the police intervened and arrested five people, among whom the former director of Transparency International, an NGO that campaigns against corruption. After the police car that transported them had an accident, four of them were taken to hospital under police surveillance, while the fifth person, a woman, was driven directly to the central police station. The MP Charity Ngilu, who is also the Minister of Health, then decided to go to the police station to obtain the demonstrator’s transfer to hospital. They were manhandled by the police and finally fled in the Minister’s official car. On August 2, the Minister was summoned to the police station, and a demonstration in her support was organized. Then again, ten other demonstrators were arrested for “illegal gathering” and “hindrance to the functioning of a police station”. Seven of them are from the People’s Parliament, an alterglobalist organisation which organized alternative conferences during the January 2007 World Social Forum in Nairobi. They were directly brought to a tribunal and were bailed out for 20,000 shillings per person (i.e. approximately €190). They are now awaiting trial and could be condemned to four years emprisonment (one year for “illegal gathering” and three years for “hindrance to the functioning of a police station”) and to pay a fine whose amount is left at the discretion of the judges. The next hearing is to take place on October 17, 2007. As for the four people arrested during the first demonstration, they were all released for their constitutional rights had not been respected (they had not been brought before a court at the end of the 24-hour custody).

Despite the arbitrary arrests and financial pressures to prevent any expression of social contest, the members of the People’s Parliament will not give up the fight for social justice. They already organized two other demonstrations against the controversial bill on August 8 and 9. In view of the popular mobilisation, the MPs were forced to suspend discussions. Now it is time for the populations and the governments in the North to show their solidarity with the people of Kenya, by putting pressure on President Kibaki so that he does not sign this law. Indeed the very likely adoption of the law by the MPs does not alone make it applicable: the President’s signing is required for it to come into force. So what can we do? We can for example send letters of protest to President Kibabi and bring the case to media attention in order to denounce the regime’s authoritarian methods and the MPs’ self-granted pay raise, which is an insult to the Kenyan population, whose fundamental needs are not met.

Extreme poverty

As in other sub-Saharan African countries, the population in Kenya is affected by extreme poverty, resulting in the drop in life expectancy from 57 years in 1986 to 48 years in 2004. However, all the international financial institutions and the rich creditor countries forming the Paris Club [1] are still asking for the payment of a seven-billion-dollar external debt. In order to service the debt, which drains up to 40% of the annual budget, the Kenyan leaders have chosen to sacrifice the human basic needs of the population (education, health, housing…). And yet according to the World Bank and the IMF’s criteria the Kenyan debt is not considered “unsustainable.” [2] That is why Kenya is not even entitled to the modest debt relief of the HIPC initiative (Heavily Indebted Poor Countries).
But for all that, the Kenyan authorities keep on meekly applying the neo-liberal policies dictated by the World Bank and the IMF, serving the interest of TransNational Companies. On July 2007, when the 2007/2008 budget was presented, the objective presented by the Minister of Finances, Amos Kimunya, was clear enough: “the budget aims at reducing the administration red tape that impedes access to property and services and replace it by a red carpet for private investors.” [3] The minister then explained that the budget deficit of 1.6 billion dollars would be funded the privatisation of public companies, especially in the banking and telecom sectors. As for the outrageous salaries of the Kenyan MPs, they are not even questioned!

To no one’s surprise the World Bank congratulated the Kenyan government for this budget in keeping with the privatisation policies it has forced upon the indebted countries since the famous Structural Adjustment Programs (SAP) of 1981. Colin Bruce, the World Bank country director in Kenya, said that the World Bank would support Kenya and help it achieve its “vision which seeks to transform the economy from low to middle income status” by 2030. This statement raises fear of a long lasting and harmful role of the World Bank. Before 2030 comes, there is no doubt that the people in Kenya will have to make huge sacrifices, and bear the very high price of unfair measures such as VAT increase, so that Kenya can pay its debt. The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics already noted a 0.7% increase in the consumer price index between June and July 2007, due to the rising prices of cabbage, sugar and bread.

An odious debt

The repayment of the debt, for which such anti-social measures are said to be implemented, must now be questioned, since the major part of the debt was incurred during the dictatorship of Arap Moi from 1978 to 2002. Although the dictatorial nature of the regime was in no way doubtful, the external creditors did not hesitate to support it by granting numerous loans. For the period between 1986 and 1995 alone, the international creditors granted 8 billion dollars to Kenya. According to the anti-corruption commission appointed by the Kenyan government in 2002, 10 billion dollars would have ended up in the bank accounts of the dictator’s clan. Thus a great part of this debt is “odious” and can be legally repudiated by the present government. Indeed, according to the theory of the odious debt set out by Alexander Sack in 1927, “if a despotic power incurs a debt not for the needs or in the interest of the State, but to strengthen its despotic regime, to repress the population that fights against it, etc., this debt is odious for the population of all the State. This debt is not an obligation for the nation; it is a regime’s debt, a personal debt of the power that has incurred it, consequently it falls with the fall of this power.”

Unfortunately, without a strong pressure coming from the Kenyan civil society, it is very unlikely that the authorities will have the political courage to repudiate this debt, which impedes the human development of the population and mortgages the political and economic sovereignty of Kenya. The Kenyan people must then make use of the civic tool of the audit in order to identify the illegitimate and odious debts and legally claim their repudiation. The audit is every citizen’s right under the article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 [4] and the article 19 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights of 1966. [5] Both texts were ratified by Kenya. Nevertheless, cooperation between Kenyans and citizens in the North is needed since many documents such as the loan contracts may be scattered. Furthermore, the Kenyan authorities make the access to these documents difficult.

Finally, the audit will make it possible to establish the responsibilities of the creditors from the North in Kenya’s present level of debt. It will highlight the relationship between the increasing debt and the human rights violations under Arap Moi’s dictatorship, and especially the active support of the World Bank. Unfortunately, Kenya is only one case among many others where the World Bank played a decisive role, [6] including the Iranian Shah’s dictatorship after the Prime Minister Mossadegh was overthrown in 1953, the military dictatorship put in place by the US in Guatemala after the democratic president Jacobo Arbenz was overthrown in 1954, the dictatorship under the Duvaliers from 1957 in Haiti, the one under General Park Chung Hee in South Korea from 1961, the Brazilian generals’ dictatorships from 1964, Suharto’s in Indonesia and Mobutu’s in the Congo from 1965, the militaries’ in Thailand from 1966, Idi Amin Dada’s in Uganda and General Hugo Banzer’s in Bolivia in 1971, the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines from 1972, the ones under Augusto Pinochet in Chile, the Uruguayan generals and Habyarimana in Rwanda from 1973, the military junta in Argentina from 1976, the dictatorship in Pakistan from 1978, Saddam Hussein’s coup in 1979, and the Turkish military dictatorship from 1980.
On the basis of these audits, legal actions shall be taken against the authorities of the countries in the South and the World Bank, accessory to the embezzlement of public funds and human rights violations, so that an end is put to their impunity. Finally, in response to the Declaration of the World Social Forum of Nairobi, the complete and unconditional cancellation of the Third World debt is the necessary step that must be taken to be freed from the International Financial Institutions’ diktat which impedes the satisfaction of basic human needs.

Footnotes :

[1It is the group composed of 19 creditor countries: Germany, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Spain, United States, Finland, France, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Norway, Netherlands, United Kingdom, Russia, Sweden and Switzerland. For 50 years, is has been in charge of the renegotiation of the bilateral public debt of the developing countries facing payment difficulties.

[2The criterion used to determine whether a country’s debt is “sustainable” or not is the ratio between the current value of its debt and the value of its exports. If the ratio is superior to 150%, the debt is considered as “unsustainable”. The country then reaches the “decision point” and is eligible for the HIPC initiative.

[3Translated from the French, see

[4The article 21 of the UDHR says: “Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives”. The UDHR was signed by all countries.

[5The article 19 of the ICESCR sets out the freedom of expression (the right to search, receive and spread information and ideas of any kind).

[6Read “The world Bank : a never-ending coup d’Etat” by Eric Toussaint

Renaud Vivien

member of CADTM Belgium, member of the Truth Commission on Public Debt.