The Nation (Nairobi)

Kenya: Taxes Are for Growth; Why Should MPs Be Exempted?

Nairobi — What is it that makes Kenyan MPs have a continuous fascination with ridiculous ideas? We all know that besides elections, what they fear most is taxation. No wonder, they refuse to think before the Budget is read, probably in the misconception that the Finance minister will slap a thinking tax on them.

And they are not alone in this fear of taxes. When you raise the subject of taxation, you are likely to get a very strong reaction from most people. Taxes are a great problem to everyone.

It is not surprising, therefore, that taxes and taxation problems date back to the earliest recorded history. Prostitution may be the oldest profession, but tax collection is not far behind.

The irony of it is that our MPs will stop at nothing in selling their nation-building ideas and visions. But conventional wisdom has it that the way to build a prosperous nation is to persuade people to change their selfish habits for the common good.

Such a change must come from the top, with MPs joining hands with all Kenyans in paying taxes. But in response to the proposal to have their allowances taxed, a legislator argued the other day that the move was punitive on the ground that they spend colossal amounts of their allowances on public activities in the constituencies.

Justification

If it is a question of justification, any Kenyan will come up with a million reasons why he or she should not pay any tax. But our MPs will not join us in paying taxes, probably fascinated by the ridiculous idea that they walk tall over everyone.

One is inclined to think that the developers of tall buildings such as Taipei 101 in Taiwan and Petronas Tower 1 in Malaysia have trained our politicians to grow extremely tall. Bestowed with the title, Mheshimiwa, they cannot understand why they should be subjected to the same grime as the common mwananchi, or why they should share anything.

It reminds me of my grandfather. He was one of those people who looked up lost relations, drawing up family trees and seeking the whereabouts of those in the family tree. During one such endeavour, he found himself hundreds of miles away from home tracking down his first cousins who had disappeared in Rift Valley Province. And in this effort, he recruited my father.

After exchanging niceties for digging up a lost relative and the confirmation that they were not imposters or after any inheritance, it was decided that a cockerel be slaughtered for them. The chicken was identified and some youngsters assigned the task of catching it so that it could be food for the visitors.

But two hours later, the youngsters were still running after the cockerel and with so much noise. It slowly dawned on my grandfather that there were express orders not to catch it, there having been no intention whatsoever of making a meal for the visitors. Hurriedly and hungry, they left.

The point I am making is that our politicians will keep running after that cockerel called tax, a task they are supposed to share with other Kenyans, but they will never catch it. They never intended to pay tax and they won't. Why? Because we do not vote for individuals, but for the parties to which they subscribe.

This erodes the concept of service making personal advancement the prime motivator in political life. It does not matter what ideals the individual holds, but we still vote for him. Our problem is that we practise psychopathic mass politics once described by Cabinet minister J.J. Kamotho thus: "Even a dog donning the right T-shirt (political party) would win."

But why do we exempt MPs from taxation yet everyone else is taxed? When one examines the origins and application of tax, it becomes clear that taxation in medieval times was progressive, with virtually no exemptions.

Civilisation

In the ancient civilisations of Palestine, Egypt, Assyria and Babylonia, individuals did not own any property, sole ownership of everything, including the bodies of his subjects, was vested in the king.

Thus, instead of taxing individuals, the king had the option of forcing them to work for him, and if the income was insufficient, he could attack neighbouring countries and confiscate their property. As a last resort the king resorted to taxing his own people.

In ancient Egypt, there were tax collectors known as scribes. During one period the scribes imposed a tax on cooking oil. Athenians also imposed a monthly poll tax on foreigners, referred to as metoikio, and in Rome, the earliest taxes were customs duties on imports and exports - called portoria.

In the early years of the Roman republic all the citizens paid a poll tax. However, successful military conquests generated much wealth that in the 2nd Century BC all of them were exempted from the poll tax.

Throughout history, taxes and wars seem inextricably linked, taxation being a convenient way to pay for the high cost of going to war. In times of war, for instance, the Athenians imposed a tax referred to as eisphora. No one was exempt from the tax which was used to pay for special wartime expenditures.

However, the origins of modern taxation can be traced to wealthy subjects paying money to their king in lieu of military service. The first tax assessed in England was during the occupation by the Roman Empire.

There is a legend that Leofric, the Earl of Mercia and husband of Lady Godiva, an Anglo-Saxon woman who lived in England in the 11th century, promised to reduce the high taxes he levied on the residents of Coventry, when she agreed to ride naked through the streets of the town.

In the earliest schemes an income tax was imposed on wealthy office holders and the clergy. A tax on movable property was imposed on merchants, while the poor paid little or no taxes at all. For instance, the 1377 poll tax noted that the tax on the Duke of Lancaster was 520 times that on the common peasant.

Exempting MPs from paying tax on their allowances is reminiscent of feudalism that dominated Western Europe, beginning about the 11th century. For the most part, church officials and nobles were granted exemption from royal taxes, so the burden of taxation fell heavily on the peasantry.

When King John of England attempted to raise his income through more payments by knights in lieu of military service, they refused to pay up. In 1215, they managed to limit the king's power to tax when they forced him to sign the Magna Carta, a document in which he agreed to collect the tax only with the "common consent" of his barons.

This is precisely what our MPs did last year by shooting down a similar proposal. And based on the utterances in Parliament this week, there is every indication that they will once again scuttle the effort for the second year running.

At least three assistant ministers have voiced their disapproval, and it is expected that the necessary amendment will not be passed by the MPs.

What are you supposed to make of a government that conspires within itself and the opposition to outmanoeuvre and humiliate a proposal by the Finance minister that MPs pay taxes on their allowance? How low Kenyan politics has gone!

This sad decline is epitomised in the moral fibre of many of the parliamentary new-comers. They are nothing but an egocentric political cohort in which individual gain and personal conscience come first.

Injustices

A few months ago, we had the opportunity to rise against injustices visited upon the peasant, the worker and the taxpayer. But we squandered it and we now have to sit and watch as a few people, who work the least and earn the most, continue accumulating material affluence at our expense.

English writer G.K. Chesterton once commented: "The average man votes below himself; he votes with half a mind or a hundredth part of one. A man ought to vote with the whole of himself, as he worships or gets married.

"A man ought to vote with his head and heart, his soul and stomach, his eye for faces and his ear for music; also (when sufficiently provoked) with his hands and feet.

If he has ever seen a fine sunset, the crimson colour of it should creep into his vote... The question is not so much whether only a minority of the electorate votes. The point is that only a minority of the voter votes."

Considering that our MPs' quest for individual fulfilment has become a holy grail, one wonders if we will ever be able to return politics to its original functions, and transform it into a search for societal integrity, moral self-improvement and the universal good.

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