President Uhuru has a point in rejecting teachers pay rise

tired: Teachers protest in the ongoing strike that has crippled learning in schools for two weeks now.
tired: Teachers protest in the ongoing strike that has crippled learning in schools for two weeks now.

I was sitting in a meeting when the newsflash went out, that President Uhuru had stated categorically that much as he understood the teachers’ plight, he simply was not going to honour the wage increase. I gasped. I couldn’t believe he had said it. Let’s be honest, a lot of us know the increment is truly well deserved and well overdue but we also know it can’t be implemented. The reason we haven’t spoken up - me included, is because we don’t want to be trolled. In fact, I remarked to the people I was with that “Uhuru is either very bold or he just committed political suicide.”

The problem with those of us yelling obscenities at Uhuru is that we’re pretending that we are hearing this for the first time. This issue of the teachers’ pay has been going on since 1997 if my personal journey in media serves me right. Now, what each occupant of State House has done is kick it down the line to the next political term and in the case of both President Moi and President Kibaki, they simply kicked it to the next guy in office. Uhuru could have done the same, but strangely he took the bullet and said what we all have been too weak and yellow-bellied to say. We knew. I’m a Kenyan, we hear things, we read things then we ignore them and act surprised when they smack us in the face.

In July 2013, William Ruto penned an opinion piece in which he stated:

“As Kenya heaves a sigh of relief at the conclusion of the wasteful, disruptive and ill-timed teachers’ strike, I find it necessary to contribute to the debate over public sector wage expectations and the general macro-economic and fiscal circumstances affecting it.

First of all, a high wage bill can undermine economic growth and job creation by causing high aggregate demand, which results in inflation.

Secondly, increased demand leads to higher imports, and reduced competitiveness. These dire economic straits will attract an undesirable outcome: higher interest rates. In short, a higher wage bill is a perfect recipe for economic implosion on a macro-economic scale”.

To further bring the point home, the Public Finance Management Act, 2012, requires a provision of 30 per cent of the total national budget for development expenditure. Currently, recurrent budget gobbles up 74 per cent, leaving 26 per cent for development (please underline that – 26 per cent)

The proposed wage bill would push recurrent expenditure to 79 per cent. This leaves only 21 per cent for development which contravenes the law. Equally it is incompatible with the national economic development roadmap. A huge wage bill will lead to a surge in recurrent spending with a commensurate plunge in development spending, reversing a trend that had been sustained between 2006 and 2011. It is clear that we are in the throes of a colossal wage bill crisis and our development priorities are threatened. We cannot stay the course if we are not on top of wage bill management”.

That was July 2013 and of course nobody listened to the man or bothered to interrogate what he was saying. What do we care?

The only reason I went back to what he said then is because we need to pay attention to what happening in Ghana as the public wage bill went out of control. Three maybe four years ago, Ghana was in an amazing economic upswing.

The growth for that country was on a level that put Ghana on the map. Ghana was never really on anyone’s lips in West Africa, it was like they didn’t really exist. The IMF warned in April 2013 that the soaring wage bill would cripple Ghana. The IMF warning came at a time when trade unions were lobbying for better conditions and market-related incomes.

Just like in Kenya - 2013 in Ghana was marked with doctors, teachers, lecturers and pharmacists going on strike to demand better incomes, but experts warned that this could throw the country into economic turmoil. Fast forward to 2015 and no-one really hears anything about Ghana. Everything they had been warned about had come to pass. Today there are no jokes about public wages in Ghana. They got hit so hard they still don’t know what happened.

In March 2014, Treasury Secretary Rotich stated that “The huge wage bill will cripple operations in other sectors of the economy if it is not immediately checked.” Speaking during the National Debate on the Public Wage Bill at the KICC, Rotich said wages in the public sector were higher than those in the private sector, which was not the case a few years ago.

“The wage bill is growing at a higher rate than the population. It should be commensurate with population growth and economy. This is very dangerous for the economy as it will eat into resources meant for other projects. If we do not check this wage bill, appropriate distribution of available resources between recurrent and capital expenditure will be hindered. We must get an appropriate wage policy to stem out this wage bill. This debate is important we need to find a sustainable wage bill.”

Rotich left KICC and was promptly forgotten - until now. Until his President asked him if we could afford the new wages for teachers and he promptly told his boss no.

I don’t have all the answers. What I do know is that we need to start being less emotional about the demands we are making and more logical and rational. Nutcases in private sector who fill social media with mad hashtags know very well that the organisations they work for don’t joke with wages. The lay-offs kick-in the minute revenue targets aren’t met. Ask your friends in the tourism/hospitality sector. Empty rooms, empty restaurants mean people are going home. Period. Government is the only place where you don’t get fired (you get transferred), you don’t have to meet any targets and best of all you can go to court if the whiff of a performance appraisal or a head-count is smelt. What a life!

The other thing we are not willing to face squarely is that we can’t afford more taxes. We just can’t. Uhuru knows it and he said it. What I can’t understand is why the same people asking for higher wages don’t understand that the higher taxes will hit them too. The increment will be cosmetic. Who do they think these “other” people who pay taxes are? Let me lay it on the line for you. Best case scenario - wage goes up, taxes go up, your net salary remains the same or less, while your gross looks bigger. Please note this is the best case scenario. Worst case? That’s easy - we pay you more, we send your husband home and we make you work more hours and more days. Simple.

What you and I need to do is stop boot licking politicians when they increase their pay and their perks and ask for more bodyguards and pay wheelbarrows for silly money. We need to take time not just get mad, but get Boniface Mwangi crazy. We need the guys we pay to be shitting bricks every-time they think they want to give themselves more cash. They need to break out in a cold sweat just thinking of what we might do to them if we see our money being spend on wheelbarrows.

But we are so complacent when these things happen. We are as thick as two short planks that we make something that hits our wallets about political parties and tribes while politicians one and all laugh all the way to the bank. Like seriously?

Incidentally, can we afford to pay teachers in the next financial year? Yes. All Rotich and Uhuru need to do and go though the budget and cut out the unnecessary frivolity and there’s plenty of that. However, Uhuru once tried it when he was at Treasury and he was bullied almost to oblivion as we watched. We laughed as politicians talked about not driving a car that “small boys” drive. We thought it was funny that some clown who wasted his growing years, decided it was his right to be chauffeured around in a luxury vehicle. But then again, we are the same idiots who raise funds in church for mami and dadi to buy a Mercedes while we walk home. That’s us.

Uhuru is not the enemy- he’s just the guy who was either crazy enough or bold enough to state the truth. Teachers have a legitimate case, but their demands are unattainable and unaffordable for now and no amount of trolling or name calling can change that.