The shame that’s Kenya’s social ill: Wealth inequality
Saturday January 28 2023
A new Oxfam report has confirmed the unsustainable wealth inequality in Kenya. Oxfam’s Kenya country director has termed this inequality a “social ill and a shame.” This characterization is an unwitting understatement. A social ill and a shame is when an individual’s behaviour causes embarrassment to society.
However, the inequality is an existential threat to Kenya’s nationhood. The solution is not, as the Oxfam chief’s characterisation suggests, some kind of censure of government policies. The situation demands a review of, not only of policies, but the foundational organisation of the Kenyan nation-state.
According to the report, the four wealthiest Kenyans have more wealth than 22 million poor Kenyans. A past Oxfam report showed that 8, 300 individuals had more wealth than 44 million Kenyans. Both the past and recent reports indicated that this tiny group of the super wealthy is increasing their wealth and number even as the poorest Kenyans sink ever deeper into poverty. For example, these individuals doubled their wealth even during the economic downturn brought about by Covid and drought.
This boom for the rich was due to tax incentives, tax evasion and corruption. Meanwhile for the poor, heavy taxation, rising fuel and power costs, and rising basic commodity prices sank them ever deeper into poverty. If the government removes school fees subsidy, millions of Kenyan children will drop out of school. And as poor families increasingly are unable to put food on the table, the population of street children will grow exponentially. And as a stagnant economy fails to create jobs, increasing numbers of youth will join the already huge population of criminals wreaking havoc in our mismanaged and disorderly towns.
The Oxfam reports do not name the super-rich individuals but we know from various investigative reports and wealth declaration forms of state officials that most of the super-rich are politicians.
It is a documented fact that most of the super-rich career politicians made their wealth through fraudulent means, including outright thievery, kickbacks and doing business with government. Do these politicians have the incentive to reform the system at their own expense? Can they pass laws to increase taxation for the wealthy?
The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have increasingly become window-dressers for failing states. If the growth rates they have been spewing over the past decade were true, then why do we have economies which increase wealth for the rich and poverty for the poor? For decades, they told us Mozambique was growing exponentially. Why then is that country falling apart under thievery, extreme poverty and, as a consequence, some provinces being taken over by jihadists? The Bretton Woods institutions are now part of the problem. If they are to be relevant, they should help to expose and fix the foundational flaws of our countries.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator