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Spare the poor taxpayer all this wasteful spending

I am not a fan of TV soap operas. They are poorly written, with wildly unbelievable plots. They focus almost exclusively on adultery and sexual intrigue. The characters are overheated and very far removed from common reality.

Or are they? Kenyans have found themselves fascinated in recent weeks by the real-life soap opera that is State House. High drama at a glamorous New Year soirée; public threats and recriminations; high-profile sackings; and the unfolding mystery of a not-so-secret wedding. The writers of Days of Our Lives must be pulling their hair out for not making their programme sensational enough. Add to that a colourful central cast of characters – The Hen That Pecked, The Hen That Shopped, and The Cock That Didn’t Crow – and you can understand why soap-mad Kenyans have talked of little else since the new year began.

Yet we do not have the luxury of being distracted by these theatrical events. We have other things to worry about. When the attention of the nation was focused on the First Lady’s famous snubbing of the State House Comptroller at JKIA, I was worrying about something rather different: why was there such a long line-up of cabinet ministers and assorted bigwigs waiting at the airport? To greet the president as he returned from what turned out to be a holiday in Mombasa? Rather than laughing at the one who missed the handshake, we should be worrying about the multitude that received it. Do these ‘dignitaries’ (is there really any dignity in waiting for hours at an airport merely to shake someone’s hand?) have nothing more productive to do? Why is standing in line on the tarmac still part of the job description for provincial commissioners and police bosses?

When all eyes were glued to the Other Woman as she went on her famous shopping expedition on TV, I was looking at something else: the posse of official bodyguards, the luxury limousine, the armed guards at the imposing mansion. The bodyguards demonstrated very impressive skills in carrying vegetables, pushing trolleys etc. Just how many people enjoy these privileges at public expense?

When the beleaguered Comptroller was given a letter authorising his trip to the United Kingdom on ‘official business’, I found myself focusing on a rather alarming sentence: “Your expenses will be covered by the Government of Kenya”. What exactly is covered? First-class travel? Five-star accommodation? Spouse(s) and children included? Shopping on Savile Row? Does the taxpayer foot everything, or does the individual contribute? Are there any policies governing the trips of the high and mighty, and can we see them? How many such trips take place every month? And just how exactly do they help the people of Kenya?

When the president is ferried around in Nairobi, I find myself studying the motorcade. Early in his tenure, the current president’s convoy consisted of a modest five vehicles. As the sycophants and idlers have accreted around him, at my last count the motorcade had fifteen vehicles. All sparkling new. Each costing at least 100 times the average Kenyan’s annual income. Each containing at least 4 people who apparently just follow the president around all day long.

Away from State House, we have the never-ending saga of Nairobi City Council. Here we have an even uglier storyline: that of cheap tricksters euphemistically known as ‘councillors’ who engorge themselves on handsome ‘allowances’ to attend funerals, games and retreats, while workers are not paid and city services crumble. In the past, when challenged to explain themselves, these characters used to run and hide behind the minister for local government. Now that the minister has made it clear that being associated with them is an embarrassment to him, a group of them was last Sunday seen trying to hide behind an even bigger entity: the Lord Jesus. This has in turn led to an Anglican bishop being sucked into the unseemly row. The shamelessness of public officials really knows no bounds in Kenya.

You will often be told, by way of explanation, that all this lavish expenditure is ‘within budget’, and therefore indisputably necessary. Last time I checked, doing things ‘on a budget’ meant making do with a restricted amount of money. Do any restrictions apply in Kenya? From what I can see, here is what the budgeting process looks like in Kenyan officialdom: Step 1 – inhale, imbibe or otherwise ingest an intoxicating substance; Step 2 – whilst in a narcotic daze, make up your wildest and most fantastic estimates of expenditures that will end up in your own pocket; Step 3 – keep all other costs such as staff salaries, essential maintenance, cleaning etc, at rock bottom on the grounds of ‘lack of funds’; Step 4 – approve budget and start advancing funds to yourself and cronies immediately; Step 5 – continue until collapse of institution and await bail-out from Treasury and donors.

Can I state what should be obvious, but isn’t? All of this public money does not come from treasure chests sent to us by the Almighty. It comes from the sweat and labour of the common taxpayer. This noble personage, while struggling to keep a roof over his or her family’s head and managing a basic standard of living, gives a portion of a modest income to the government every month. The taxpayer does this under the delusion that the money will be put to productive use for the benefit of all. If our public servants had any decency in them, they would treat money taken from the toiling workers of this country with honour, not with disdain and pomposity. It is placed in their care to manage with prudence, not fritter away on personal enjoyment.

We simply cannot afford all this extravagance. To extend the football analogy so beloved of some politicians, we are a fourth-division team that lavishes premier-league pay and perks on one or two privileged players. All our other players wear rags and play barefoot. The clubhouse is ramshackle and close to toppling over. The pitch is a desolate stretch of wasteland, maintained by goats. The star players, however, enjoy the bounteous lifestyle of Beckham. Do you expect such a team to survive, let alone achieve promotion to a higher division?

If Kenya were a corporation, it would recognise that it is within sniffing distance of insolvency. It would be trimming all costs, cutting out all fat, eliminating all excess. The management team would be taking voluntary pay-cuts. It would be selling vehicles and unnecessary assets. All non-essential business travel would be suspended. Staff parties and corporate jamborees would be unthinkable. The company would undergo a period of strict austerity until prospects improved.

Where, in our national turnaround strategy, is our plan for cost control? The only people required to tighten their belts are those poor wretches at the bottom of the pile, whose belts have been at the final notch for years anyway. Those at the top will be eyeing brand-new belts – hand-stitched, gold-buckled and bought personally in London on ‘official business’.

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