The Teachers' Strike in Kenya: The Consequences of Budgetary Priorities and Choices

Back in May 2014 when Kenya was under attack by al-Shabaab extremists, I wrote a piece titled Insecurity in Kenya: The New Normal that spoke to some of the budgetary choices President Uhuru Kenyatta's government was making at the time. My article was partly based on an article in the Kenyan daily -- Standard. The Standard article titled Kenya allocates Sh28m only to fight terrorism against retired presidents' Sh150m revealed that Jubilee had allocated KShs.28million ($267,000 at the current exchange rate of $1 = 105/=) to the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) which "is supposed to spearhead the fight against terrorism". The Sh.28Million contrasted with the Sh.150Million ($1.4million) allocated towards the retirement of some of the country's wealthiest persons - former presidents Moi and Kibaki. The amount allocated to the ATPU was also 43% less than the KSh.40Million ($381,000) for the First Lady's "hospitality supplies and services". It was also around the same time that I spoke out against Mr. Kenyatta's authorization of KSh.1.4Billion to unnamed persons for yet-to-be-delivered national security goods and services -- part of the Anglo-Leasing scandal.

Kenya's Supreme Court has now upheld a lower court ruling that awarded the country's public school teachers a 50%-60% pay raise and President Kenyatta's initial knee-jerk of a response followed by his two thousand worded obfuscation and platitudinous near-soliloquy to Kenyans brings home Johnnie Carson's warning:

Choices have consequences!

I have been ridiculed repeatedly for revisiting Mr. Carson's pre-2012 election warning but events of the last three years -- after Kenya's Supreme Court ruled the digital duo into office -- have vindicated President Obama's former top envoy to Africa.

The country's euphoria over the suspension of President Kenyatta's trial at The Hague and its co-hosting of the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) with US President Barack Obama aside, Kenyans continue to suffer the consequences of their choice (of leadership) as illustrated by the president's inept handling of the teacher's strike; itself a metaphor for Jubilee's first term in office - in several areas.

In an article titled Uhuru must act on excesses before he can justify his stance on teachers' pay, Macharia Gaitho wrote that President Kenyatta "...presents...valid arguments (that).....Kenya does not have the cash" (to give the teachers the raise)". Mr. Gaitho then points out that "the President does not sound sincere....(because) since ascending to the presidency in 2013, he has presided over a spendthrift regime that is obsessed with grandiose showcase projects....while giving little thought to the fact that the projects being pushed to project the success of the Jubilee coalition manifesto are financed by public money that must come out of the same pool that supplies many more pressing needs....." such as a raise for the teachers!

The fact is and as illustrated at the beginning of this article, Jubilee has repeatedly shown Kenyans its priorities by the budgetary choices it has made OR allowed to pass through the legislature it controls. President Kenyatta's churlish and meandering responses to the court's decision to award teachers a pay raise is in stark contrast to his clear, vigorous and unwavering support of the same Supreme Court's decision to award him the presidency!

In his September 20 address to the nation, Mr. Kenyatta offered a lengthy comparative analysis and listing of continental "best practices" to support his position re: the teachers' strike. Curiously, he was loathe to do the same when the MPs awarded themselves some of the highest compensation packages in the world or when faced with corruption and malfeasance, not only within his government, but right inside his own office (OP)! Finally and not surprising, the same man who was articulate and straightforward in interpreting the Supreme Court's decision after the contentious 2013 election was deliberately ponderous and obfuscatory in his interpretation of the same court's decision regarding the teachers' salary!

So what next?

To paraphrase current Chicago Mayor and former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, President Kenyatta and his handlers should not allow this crisis (strike) to go to waste. It is moments such as this that define a leader. Somewhere between the extreme positions of President Kenyatta and the opposition (teachers) is a happy medium. Both sides, led by the president should compromise in order to get the students back into the classrooms. Mr. Kenyatta and the teachers have several options they can choose from to (a) fund the court's ruling and (b) illustrate their willingness to put the interest of children first. These include:

  • Rolling back the raises the MPs awarded themselves last year,
  • Delaying or scrapping the laptop project,
  • Delaying some sections of the standard gage railway (SGR) project,
  • Reviewing the defense budget for waste and "nice-to-have/non-essential" items,
  • Asking the teachers to accept an incremental increase over a mutually acceptable time frame,
  • Asking Kenyans to put their money where their mouth is: Raise taxes for a specific period to fund the court's decision,
  • Implementing a "needs-based" retirement package for former presidents - retroactively.

If I had my way, taking punitive and draconian action against individuals involved or implicated in corruption and waste would be at the top of the list. The sad reality is that Kenya is a country so steeped in unchecked avarice, impunity and entitlement that there is absolutely no way any positive results would be realized in this area; definitely not in the now-idle students' lifetime!

In response to President Kenyatta's aborted trip to the US this past summer and the ensuing comedy of errors that was State House's handling of the mid-flight u-turn, I wrote a piece whose take-away was "when in a hole, stop digging".

The symbolism of the children of Kenya's elite being dropped off at Riara, Brookfield or one of the other expensive private schools (OWNED by these very elites), seemingly unaffected by the teachers' strike, while their less affluent peers are stuck at home because of the intransigence of -- you guessed it -- the elites -- is absolutely unacceptable and does not portend well for the country. Kenya may not feel the impact of the school shutdown right away but the longer the students are away from class, the further behind their privileged peers they will fall AND the wider the gap between Kenya's elite and non-elites will grow. The foregoing set of circumstances will negatively affect Kenya's global competitiveness while adding to its social instability.

President Kenyatta and his handlers should "stop digging themselves into a deeper hole" and strike a compromise with the educators so the "other" students can return to class.