Every election year, a sentiment arises that goes something like this: “Kenyans don’t know what’s good for them. They always vote for bad “leaders” who then proceed to loot and plunder our country. This is because many Kenyans don’t really have a stake in our economy because they don’t pay tax. They are not well educated, they don’t have jobs, they don’t pay income tax, and as a result, they don’t feel the pinch. If I had it my way, I’d make it such that only people who pay tax can vote.”
That this sentiment persists surprises me. First, it does not take into account the fact that Kenya’s formal sector only employs about 2.3 million people out of the over 43 million people in our population. 77.9% of our jobs are in the informal sector, which is the largest informal sector in Africa. Informal sectors are notoriously difficult to tax, which makes it difficult for them to contribute income taxes. The burden of solving this falls squarely on the shoulders of the state (not the non-payers of income tax), which should encourage and incentivize formalization. However, our state is far keener on oppressing its people and looting/plundering the country.
Second, it fails to acknowledge that income tax (both individual and corporate) is not the holy grail of taxes. Kenyans pay over 20 taxes, such as customs duty, excise duty, fuel levy, value added tax (VAT), withholding tax, advance tax among others. Most, if not all, people in the informal sector pay at least one of these taxes, so it is disingenuous to accuse them of “not paying tax” and “not having a stake” in the country.
Perhaps the most odious thing about this sentiment is the way it dehumanizes most Kenyans and seeks to deny them their right as citizens.
According to our constitution, every Kenyan citizen (whether by birth or registration) has the right to free, fair and regular elections based on universal suffrage and the free expression of the will of the electors for any elective public body or office established under this Constitution; or any office of any political party of which the citizen is a member. Every adult citizen also has the right, without unreasonable restrictions, to be registered as a voter; to vote by secret ballot in any election or referendum; and to be a candidate for public office, or office within a political party of which the citizen is a member and, if elected, to hold office. Seeking to deny people the right to vote based on their income tax status would be unconstitutional.
It is also dehumanizing because it basically translates to “poor people shouldn’t be allowed to vote.” After all, most people in the informal sector make barely enough to survive. In a country where youth unemployment stands at 67%, this assumes that people are poor because they want to be poor, not because they have been failed by the state and its institutions. This sentiment finds great company in its eugenicist counterpart: “poor people shouldn’t be allowed to have children.” It presumes that it is up to someone else to “allow” or grant poor people their rights, yet they are guaranteed by our constitution by virtue of one being Kenyan.
Which makes me wonder, how do we want to define citizenship in Kenya? Do we want to criminalize poverty and assume that wealthy people are automatically more reasonable and well intentioned than poor people? The evidence says otherwise – the reason Kenya is in a mess is because of its crony capitalist state in which businesspersons and politicians collude. We are here because of rich people – how does denying poor people their rights fix the situation? Do we want to build an exclusive state, in which anything (especially poverty, which people don’t chose for themselves) could be the basis of your rights being denied, or do we want to build an inclusive state in which all our lives matter?
Isn’t it hypocritical to complain about how we are divided along ethnic and class lines while wishing we had a unified national identity, and in the next breath, say poor people/people who don’t “pay tax” shouldn’t be allowed to vote?