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Kenya: Coffins set on fire to protest outgoing MPs

Updated at: 01/16/2013 12:07 PM
By TOM ODULA

(AP) NAIROBI, Kenya - Hundreds of demonstrators angered at the conduct of outgoing Kenyan legislators doused 221 coffins with gasoline and set them on fire Wednesday, causing an inferno outside parliament’s main entrance.

Organizers of the protest said the coffins represented the end of an era of parliament’s 221 legislators and burning the coffins symbolized the start of a new era away from the dishonorable acts that parliament was known for in the last five years. The legislators’ term ended earlier this week. Police looked on as the caskets made of thin wood burned to ashes as protesters shouted and screamed in exhilaration.

"Bye bye parasites," shouted Sheldon Ochieng, 23, a college student studying community development. "MP’s do not know their work; they are just stashing money in their pockets. It is time to have new leaders who serve the people."

Kenyans say their legislators are seen as lazy, greedy and self-centered for often improving their welfare lavishly at the cost of tax payers. A Kenya legislator earns about $175,000 a year in a country where the average annual income is $1,700. Last week Kenyan legislators attempted to award themselves a $ 110,000 bonus, but the president vetoed the legislation.

The package would also provide legislators with an armed guard, a diplomatic passport, and access to the VIP lounge at Kenyan airports and state funerals.

It was the second time the President Mwai Kibaki had refused to sign the bill adding the legislators’ bonuses into law. In October members of parliament quietly awarded themselves the bonuses.

However, civil society activists say Kibaki, who is the 222nd legislator, is no different from other parliamentarian’s because while he vetoed the hefty raises, he has approved hefty increments to a send-off package for when he retires after two terms in office following the country’s March 4 elections.

The organizers of the protests Wednesday said they did not make a coffin for the president because of the veto, and the decision to give himself more money came after the coffins had been ordered.

"It was unsurprising that President Kibaki, while rejecting the MPs’ pay deal, retained his own hefty retirement package. Moreover, the failure of his administration to rein in grand corruption remains a blot on what many see as credible efforts to grow the country’s economy," said Boniface Mwangi, an official of a lobby group called Kenya Ni Kwetu, or Kenya is Our Home.

Atsango Chesoni, the executive director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission, said Monday that the president had contravened the constitution by approving the law that awards him hefty pension increments.

Chesoni said under the constitution Kenya adopted in 2010, the Salaries and Remuneration Commission is the authority charged with rationalizing and deciding the pay for public servants.

Mwalimu Mati, an anti-corruption activist, said the common argument from legislators is that they deserve pay increases because they have passed more bills. Mati said that argument is without merit. He 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.

Mati said the legislators spent a lot of time voting on bills for their own benefit, "like watering down sections of the integrity laws which would have required them to declare wealth." The legislators reduced academic qualifications required for one to be elected that were set out after country adopted the constitution in 2010, Mati said.

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)