Members of Kenya's parliament settled into a new work environment Tuesday, following a major renovation of the parliamentary chambers in the capital city of Nairobi.
The new digs are nice. Underfoot, a plush carpet is patterned in red, green and black -- the colors of Kenya's flag. Soft-toned lighting fixtures ring the chamber. There is stadium seating, with a single track light to mark each step.
But one feature in particular has lately become a subject of national outrage. Where basic straight-backed chairs once stood in tidy rows, there is now a set of cushy seats. They are outfitted with new gadgets that will enable their occupants to vote and communicate with greater ease. Each chair is bright red, fireproof, and weighs more than a hundred pounds
But at $3,000 a pop, were these thrones really necessary?
Politicians in Kenya are among the highest paid on earth, despite the fact that many of their constituents are poor, unemployed and undernourished. Corruption is one of the country's most serious problems, with both taxes and international aid often lining private pockets instead of filling public coffers.
In this context, the recent installation of 350 fancy chairs calls Kenyan politicians' integrity into question.
The Seat of Power
In Kenya, a lack of accountability at the highest levels of government is nothing new.
On Monday, Central Bank Governor Njuguna Ndung'u and Trade Minister Amos Limunya were both indicted by an investigative parliamentary committee. The two are charged with losing more than $21 million in public funds, according to East African Business Week.
Another recent investigation found that the country's education funding has been badly compromised. The Ministry of Education has failed to account for about $46 million, according to the results of an internal investigation released in June. This is especially worrisome since the country's free primary education policy is one of Kenya's most significant recent achievements.
Reports like these do not surprise most Kenyans -- graft has long been one of the country's most pressing issues. One Gallup poll in August found the corruption was the second most important concern -- just after unemployment -- for Kenyan voters in the run-up to 2013 elections.
Those elections will be watched carefully the international community. The last time the general public cast its votes in a presidential election, chaos and violence erupted across the country.
Tribalism played a major part in this unrest. It began when President Mwai Kibaki, running for re-election in 2007, was challenged by opposition leader Raila Odinga. Kibaki belongs to the Kikuyu tribe, which has long been accused of exploiting political power. Odinga, of the Luo tribe, used ethnic rivalries to rally popular opinion against Kibaki.
But in the end, Kibaki was declared the winner. He was quietly sworn into a new term at twilight on Dec. 30, 2007, an hour after the results were announced.
In response, many Kenyans rioted, and the post-election unrest quickly turned violent. About 1,500 people died in the countrywide conflict, and hundreds of thousands more were displaced. Many protesters claimed electoral fraud, and ethnic tensions were at an all-time high.
To ease the violence, it was soon announced that Odinga would serve as prime minister in a coalition with Kibaki. That uneasy arrangement persists to the present day. The two men both stood behind a new version of the constitution, which passed a referendum in 2010.
It is according to this new constitution that Kenya's parliament will gain 130 new MPs after the March 2013 national elections -- and those politicians now have some fancy red seats to sit on.
The problem: Kenya's politicians already lead rather luxurious lives. And in a country where about half the population is below the poverty line, any new spending on MPs' accoutrements is cause for intense scrutiny.
Exactly how much do Kenyan MPs get paid per year? That depends on how you tally it.
Basic annual recompense amounts to a relatively modest $44,000, but that figure balloons when you tack on all the extra allowances. These include a reward for showing up on the parliament floor -- $370 a day, according to the BBC -- and numerous entertainment and transportation write-offs.
Payment has only increased over the years. At least three times during the last decade, parliamentarians have passed laws that included pay raises for themselves. The last such vote was in 2010, and that raise will be implemented after the next elections.
The Christian Science Monitor reports that de facto salaries for MPs could reach $175,000 per year, which exceeds the base amount earned by U.S. legislators.
Prime Minister Raila Odinga is the main beneficiary of these policies. He makes far more than ordinary MPs, and global comparisons put him ahead of nearly every other head of government on earth. One 2010 report from Investopedia ranked Odinga the third most well-paid political leader in the world, just behind the head of state in Singapore and the administrative leader of Hong Kong. U.S. President Barack Obama came in fourth.
On this list, Kenya is the odd one out. The other nine countries in the top 10 have strong GDPs -- they all rank among the top 40 biggest economies worldwide, except for Ireland, which comes close. Kenya is much poorer than the rest, with the 89th largest GDP on earth.
Things look even worse when you compare Odinga's salary with GDP per capita, or the approximate wealth of the average citizen -- especially as compared to other countries' ratios.
Obama makes about eight times as much as the average U.S. citizen. UK Prime Minister David Cameron rakes in about six times the average Brit's salary. That's not bad compared to one of the worst offenders -- Singapore's prime minster makes more than 40 times the GDP per capita.
But Odinga tops this list -- and nobody else even comes close. His salary, estimated by The Economist to reach about $427,886 per annum, is 240 times the average GDP per capita in Kenya.
The Old La-Z-Boy
Some argue that high salaries are necessary to prevent corruption. The supposed benefits are two-fold: Good pay could attract more citizens to try their hand at politics, and it also makes the MPs more difficult to bribe.
But the fact remains that high salaries have been in effect for years, and it seems to have done nothing to curtail Kenya's endemic problem with corruption.
That's why the incredible cost of parliament's brand new chairs is especially egregious. But proponents of the renovation argue this is just an effort to improve Kenya's governance. Because of the new technologies built into each chair, says National Assembly Speaker Kenneth Marende, assembly meetings will progress more efficiently than ever.
Each seat has a computer monitor, as well as a buzzer in case an MP wants to call attention to himself in order to make a point. There is also an electric voting system, which means that politicians can vote bills up or down in silence.
"Now the member will be completely in his own," said Marende. "He will be independent; he will make up his mind and just press a button."
But for most Kenyans -- and even some MPs -- that's not nearly enough to justify the extravagant purchase, which is part of a $12.5 million plan to renovate the entire Parliament building.
Kenyan MP John Mbadi expressed the outrage of his constituents during an interview with the BBC.
"We couldn't understand how members of parliament would sit on a seat ... that by any standards could put up some small house for someone," he said.
"It was just completely ridiculous."