NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Kenyans expressed outrage Tuesday over what has become a common move by the country's members of parliament — awarding themselves hefty perks far above what the typical Kenyan family lives on.
The legislators last week quietly awarded themselves a bonus and a majority of the parliamentarians who have served the full five-year term which ends in January will get $110,000.
At least 100 people, including a popular Kenyan musician, protested outside parliament shouting "thieves" and urging the president not to approve the pay bill.
Kenya's 222 legislators currently make about $120,000 a year. The minimum wage in Nairobi, the capital, is about $1,500 a year. Nearly half of Kenyans live below the poverty line.
Parliamentarians are fast earning a reputation for trying to give themselves expensive perks. Last year parliament attempted to raise their annual pay to $175,000 but the idea was met with such fierce public resistance that they shelved the plan. Earlier this year parliament inaugurated a new 350-seat chamber, where each of the seats cost about $3,000.
Human rights and anti-corruption activists say the motion to increase the parliament's bonus to $110,000 — a vote that passed Thursday night with only about 30 legislators present — violates the country's 2011 constitution, which does not allow parliament to set its own pay.
At Tuesday's protests, musician Eric Wainaina, whose most popular songs speak about the effect of endemic corruption and greed of politicians, said it was wrong for the legislators to increase their perks while teachers and doctors recently staged strikes over pay. Over 200,000 high school and primary school teachers held a strike last month over pay. The government bowed to the demands after three weeks of arguing there was no more money to raise the salaries.
Doctors called off their strike last week after walking out for 18 days to protest the poor state of public hospitals where some of the doctors have had to use their lights from their mobile phones in emergency situations to conduct procedures.
Robert Alai, a blogger, said the protests were an expression of the widespread anger by Kenyans on social media over their leader's greed.
"We are coming together as Kenyans to show solidarity with those who cannot march with us and to voice our concern and outrage at the level of arrogance that parliament has acted in," said Eric Gitari, a gay and lesbian rights activist who took part in Tuesday's protest.
"At the height of such economic hardships we have, what right do they have? What justification do they have to send themselves home with such huge bonuses? And we can't have enough money to pay teachers, doctors, feed our own kids and sink boreholes in the arid regions... so this (protest) is an act of civil responsibility," Gitari said.
The backlash of protests may have forced some Kenyan leaders to distance themselves from the bonus.
"I would like to make it clear as I did this past weekend that I am against the MP's gratuity bonus," Kenya's Prime Minister Raila Odinga said on Twitter.
Adan Keynan, the member of parliament who brought forward the pay bonus motion, did not answer calls seeking comment. Neither did other parliamentarians who supported the motion.
Anti-corruption activist Mwalimu Mati said a common argument from legislators that they deserve pay increases because they have passed more bills is without merit. Mati said that although many laws have been crafted during the current parliamentary term, most of the legislation was passed without scrutiny due to low attendance at parliament.
He said parliament has watered down sections of a leadership and integrity law that had stringent vetting process to keep out unscrupulous people in government. Mati said twice members of the current parliament have accused fellow legislators of taking bribes to vote for or against investigatory reports against government ministers.
"Unfortunately, the speaker of parliament formed a probe team to look at whether action should be taken against those who made the allegations instead of parliament investigating the truth behind the allegations," Mati said.