Yam today for Kenya's MPs

Kenya's parliament has an inexhaustible capacity to debate on an issue for days without reaching an agreement. But when it comes to an issue touching on their welfare, they can expedite it in an amazingly short time.

This week, they voted to award themselves a massive pay hike – at a time when everyone is feeling the pain of inflation and the weight of heavy tax burden. Currently, an MP takes home 851,000 Kenyan shillings (approximately £8,510) per month. The new salary will see them take home Sh 1.1m.

The issue of MPs' salaries has been controversial for a long time. Quite apart from the fact that it has become a tradition for MPs to award themselves huge perks, the legislators have not been paying taxes on the huge allowances they get. When the minister for finance proposed in 2008 that MPs should be taxed, they all rose against the proposal arguing that they needed every penny of their money in order to serve their constituents well.

Even as other Kenyans, most of whom live on a dollar a day, were gasping under the yoke of heavy taxation, their well-paid legislators sat pretty with their untaxed perks.

Their new attractive pay package is, however, subject to taxation this time round. But even then, the increased pay cushions them against the effects of taxation and actually leaves them Sh 12,000 richer.

Kenyan MPs are the highest paid in east Africa. Their counterparts in Uganda earn an equivalent of Sh 333,000, while in Tanzania, MPs take home a total package equivalent to Sh 235,000. The Kenyan MP is the envy of many in this region.

Apart from this, the Kenyan prime minister will have a gross salary of Sh 3.2m plus other hefty allowances. The British prime minister, who takes home the equivalent of Sh 1.9m, can only perhaps dream of this figure. The vice president will take home Sh 2.4m.

Many Kenyans argue that the new salaries hinge on selfishness and a tinge of greed. But the legislators argue that they have every right to earn this much and more if they have to serve their people better. They say that it is Kenyans themselves who have created a culture of dependence, in which many depend on their MP for school fees and small handouts. In fact, many MPs themselves argue that to retain their seat in an election, they have to sacrifice all their salary to the needs of their people. You cannot become an MP if you are poor, they say, and if you are not careful, you can get poor after becoming an MP.

Whether this is true or not still does not explain why, in an economic recession, the MPs should award themselves such hefty perks. Other workers like teachers have to keep threatening to strike before they can get even a 10% rise. And doctors and nurses are running away to greener pastures because their salaries are still too low.

But then, MPs are the ones who make the law. It seems a classic case of the one who has the knife determining what share of the yam should be given out – and eating the better part of the whole thing.

Waithaka Waihenya, the editor-in-chief of Kenya Broadcasting Corporation.