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The madness of expanding the cabinet

Apr 06, 2008 Leadership, Sunday Nation

It is utterly amazing that we were even discussing 44 cabinet positions. Not even a superpower needs that many ministers in government, let alone a tin-pot country like ours.

What do all these ministries cost us to have? Quite a bit, by all accounts. There are around 16 ‘super-ministries’: those with huge staff complements; complex, nationwide operations; ‘mission-critical’ mandates. These ministries are vital. They include Education, Health, Finance, Roads, Foreign Affairs etc. These are arguably the 16 ministries that we ACTUALLY need, and they account for the bulk of the money we spend – some Shs. 400-billion-plus every year.

What has become fashionable since 2003 is to have lots of ‘other’ ministries: small, largely inconsequential ministries with unimportant mandates – all in the name of building a ‘big tent’ government. This is, by the way, a recent phenomenon. Research by my friend Karuti Kanyinga reveals that there were just 21 ministries (on average) in the Kenyatta years; and 26 in the Moi era.

These extra ministries have been growing in numbers, and look set to grow further. They may be small, but they still consume plenty: they need top-level pay-and-perks for the boss class; salaries for at least 100-200 people doing non-jobs; lots of lavish offices; and, of course, the familiar quotient of top-end vehicles for the high and mighty.

There are 18 of these smaller ministries at the moment, and they cost approximately Sh 50 billion per annum. So adding another ten might add something like Sh 30 billion to the taxpayer’s bill.

What does that mean? Well, 30 billion is almost exactly the amount that the President and the Prime Minister Designate were begging the donors for the other day, in order to resettle and rehabilitate all our newly displaced refugees. So, wananchi, which would you rather have – 10 more waziri doing nothing important, or an immediate end to the refugee crisis?

Which would you rather have – 10 more ministries, or 150,000 more classrooms in the country? Which do you think is better for the country: 10 more self-aggrandizers swanning around giving speeches written by others, or one million computers to give to all the public schools in the country? What will stimulate the economy more: another 2,000 civil servants pushing files around (and losing them), or a proper 6-lane highway from Nairobi to Mombasa?

But hang on: some are saying we actually NEED 44 ministers: not because they will do anything meaningful, but because without them we cannot have peace in the country. All ethnic groups must be represented in government; all must feel they have a stake and a say.

Hmmm. OK, you answer that one, wananchi. Which would you rather have: a couple more ministers from your tribe named in the cabinet, or several billion more shillings coming to your province in development funds? What say you: without more ministers are you going to reach for your panga and head for your neighbour’s house again?

This argument is entirely wrong-headed. We are not risking peace by having a smaller government; we are risking peace by not having more equitable distribution of resources and opportunity. Expanding the cabinet does nothing for the latter goal. Indeed it retards the process.

And if we are really convinced that we must give money and importance to our tribal chieftains, let’s do this: give them each a swanky title, an office with some staff and bodyguards; and a couple of sleek cars. They will feel happy, and hopefully will not lead their people astray. But for God’s sake, let us not create joke ministries and ask them to pretend that they are doing anything useful for the nation!

To cap it all, we saw the ultimate folly earlier this week. A group of civil society activists went to Uhuru Park to protest against the plans to expand the cabinet that Kenyans pay for. They were led by the indefatigable Wangari Maathai. Our boneheaded policemen refused to let them carry on with their peaceful protest, and finally gassed and dispersed them.

Which brainless people in government come up with these ideas? What purpose was served by firing tear gas at our only Nobel laureate – what harm was she about to do? How did it help us to have images of elderly people flattened by the security forces flying around the world? Our economy was just about picking up the pieces again; tourists were just about thinking of coming back to Kenya. Thanks a lot.

More importantly, are we now officially a state in which no form of peaceful protest is permitted? Is it no longer acceptable for taxpayers to ask questions about how their money is spent? Many right-minded, business-minded people would have wanted to join that procession, because many believe that expanding the cabinet is madness: should they always stay at home, because this country no longer allows anyone to question anything?

Let us come to our senses. That way lies dictatorship.

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