Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Public servants have every right to demand more. Much more.

Ng'ang'a Mbugua, an Associate Editor with the Daily Nation, believes that Kenya will move forward by keeping one eye firmly on a nostalgic past that never was (Public servants have adopted a culture of unrealistic expectations over salaries, Daily Nation 17/06/13). Mr Mbugua asserts with a certain incredible measure of certainty that there was a time when those who joined the government were driven by the urge to serve “pure and simple,” conveniently ignoring the discomfitting truth about Jomo Kenyatta's and Daniel Toroitich arap Moi's civil services which were not "public service" but the amassing and retention of wealth and political power at the expense of the long-suffering peoples of Kenya. The law was not changed to allow civil servants to engage n business in order to supplement their incomes; it was changed as a fig leaf to hide the massive flight of capital from the coffers of The Treasury and into those of well-connected associates of the man at the top.

Mr Mbugua would have you believe that public service, almost like spiritual leadership, is a calling. One becomes a public servant because of their desire to serve their fellowman. He refuses to acknowledge that public service is just like any other kind of employment and that young men and women join the public service because the private sector is not generating enough jobs to fulfill all our needs. It is a little known secret that the private sector in Kenya is among the most exploitative worldwide where the successful elite forms a very small minority; the vast majority of men and women in the private sector make do with a pittance in wages, uncertainty over their career prospects, and out-of-control costs of living, whether it is security, healthcare or housing. The only people who see public service as a calling, or who would even think of calling it that, are the ones who, for one reason or another, managed to finagle fat wads of cash out of the National Treasury for their own private benefit at very little financial cost.

That is not to say that there aren't any dedicated public servants in Kenya; it just does not mean much in the broader context.Whether it is the private or public sector, there will always be men and women who go above and beyond their call of duty to perform with grace and dedication in the face of overwhelming odds. This makes them unique in any setting, but it does not make them especially so in the public service. An examination of the working conditions of the rank-and-file public servants will quickly disabuse the likes of Mr Mbugua of the concept of public service as a calling.

Because of the many changes the public service has undergone since the colonial government ceased to exist, especially the changes made by Mr Moi in the mid- to late-1990s, there exists two broad tiers in the public service: the rank-and-file and the upper echelons comprising of favoured Permanent (now, Principal) Secretaries and Cabinet Secretaries (formerly, Ministers and Assistant Ministers.) For the moment, we will ignore the parasites we have come to know as waheshimiwa. Previously, in order to attract applicants for to the rank and file of the public service, many incentives were offered to make their lives bearable and, crucially, respectable. Housing, medical care, transport and security we de rigueur. In the early years of post-colonial self-government, the rank-and-file and the elite upper echelons of the public service were treated more or less in the same manner. But everything changed when it became apparent that the State could not pay for the public service it had and began to make cut backs.

The cut backs affected the rank and file but left the elite untouched. The elite saw the writing on the wall and took pre-emptive steps to forestall their inevitable inclusion in the cost-sharing that was soon to come. Some had seen the possibilities in this area in the late 1960s and took steps to set themselves up for future private sector success.It is how many senior public servants in Kenyatta's and Moi's regimes ended up with acres of prime real estate in Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu; cushy directorships in blue-chip soon-to-be-privatised public companies; and billions upon billions of shillings in low-interest, long-term loans from State-sponsored financial institutions such as the Agricultural Financial Corporation and the National Bank of Kenya. Meanwhile the rank and file continued to be the red-headed step-children of the public service. In the new constitutional dispensation, where the elite continues to enjoy ever fatter wallets, why shouldn't the rank-and-file demand better terms and conditions?

If Mr Mbugua only opened his eyes and looked at the men and women who continue to serve him and his fellow citizens, he would realise that far from being unrealistic, they are well within their rights to make the demands they have. The teachers called upon to offer education and safety to your children cannot afford three square meals in a day; many must supplement their incomes with "private coaching" denying them even more time with their loved ones. It is humiliating for a doctor who spent the better part of his adulthood in training to rub shoulders with the patients he is going to treat simply because the State will provide him with a car (no driver required.) And what about the policeman who lives in squalor, considered vermin by the majority of Kenyans, and asked to lay his life down for the selfsame citizens who would spit on him? Mr Mbugua, if you wish for the public servant to offer you better services, you had best dig deeper in your pockets and pay them what they demand.

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