Teachers Strike Set to Hit Kenya State Schools’ Final Exams

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Nairobi: The 1.4 million pupils at Kenya’s state schools scheduled to sit their final exams this week have no idea whether there will be anyone to invigilate (supervise) the tests, let alone mark them, Kenya Nation Times has reported.

The public sector teachers needed for the work are in the fifth week of a strike that is pitting President Uhuru Kenyatta against the judiciary, exposing the fragility of government finances and sparking popular discontent over perceived inequality.

The walkout began after the government refused to obey a court ruling that ordered a pay rise of 50-60 percent for teachers, who make up some 40 percent of public sector employees. The order came after the government failed to pay several promised salary increases in recent years.

An appeal court upheld the original decision, but said an interim payment should be made while a formal solution was finalized.

Last Friday a labor court ordered the teachers back to work, but ruled that the strike was legal, which the unions have used as justification to continue their action.

Observers say they cannot remember the last time the government defied the judiciary — although some argue that the stand-off is a sign of progress in a nation where judges have regularly been accused of acting at the behest of the executive.

Part of Kenyatta’s argument for defying the courts is that the pay rise was not allocated in the 2015 budget. In a punchy speech earlier this month, he said the government could not afford “one more penny” for the teachers.

This financial year, the pay rise — totaling Kenya shilling 17 billion (Dh582.68 million, £106m) — would account for less than 1 per cent of government spending, according to Kwame Owino, chief executive of the country’s Institute of Economic Affairs.

In some respects, Kenya’s economy, the largest in east Africa, is relatively healthy. Economic growth was 4.9 per cent in the three months to June on an annualized basis.

But performance is thought to have slowed in recent months, and public sector debt has risen to about 50 per cent of gross domestic product. It is likely to increase further if, as expected, the shilling continues to weaken against the dollar. The currency has already fallen 14 per cent this year.

The balance of payments, meanwhile, fell from a surplus of 8.8 billion shilling in the first quarter of 2014 to a deficit of 14.3 billion shilling in the three months to June 2015, although some of this can be attributed to imports of heavy equipment for major infrastructure projects.

“The president is probably 60 to 70 per cent correct when he says the government cannot afford the pay rise,” Owino said.

Against that has to be balanced what Owino calls “wastage” — a euphemism for corruption.

In July the independent auditor-general fully approved only 26 per cent of the government’s spending and revenue collection. And in the 2014 Transparency International global corruption perception index, Kenya came 143rd out of 174 nations, with its score deteriorating slightly compared to the previous year.

As the strike grinds on, there are signs of nascent social discontent. Public transport businesses have warned their earnings have taken a significant hit as a result of 300,000 teachers and millions of children staying at home. Meanwhile, the media are highlighting the 20-fold disparity between the salaries of junior teachers and the country’s MPs.

Some MPs and analysts believe legislators’ pay should be cut to help fund the teachers’ pay rise and damp broader public sector demands for higher salaries.

As the strike continues, the fallout is becoming increasingly political, with the opposition launching impeachment proceedings against Kenyatta and holding their largest rally in the capital for more than a year.

None the less, few analysts believe the threat to the president is serious, considering his commanding majority in parliament, the fractious nature of the opposition and Kenyatta’s soaring popularity since the successful visit of Barack Obama, US president, in July. It is also still two years till the next election.

“The strike is definitely serious for the government, but I don’t think it is sufficiently serious to pull the opposition together,” Professor Munene said. The economic fallout would be more significant, he warned, adding: “I think there probably will be a compromise, but it depends on how the government plays its hand.”

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