Paradox of well-paid Kenyan workers rushing to join public service

Public Service Commission chairperson Margaret Kobia.

Public Service Commission chairperson Margaret Kobia.

Cases of senior police officers wielding immense power and earning peanuts may provide a window on how the government unwittingly sanctions large-scale corruption in the public sector.

This state of affairs has been exposed during various vetting sessions of senior police officers, including recent deliberations in Mombasa.

Some officers earning less than Sh30,000 a month were hard-pressed to explain huge deposits in their bank accounts, some as high as Sh500,000 every day.

Riddled with many flaws, the system that senior and junior officers are subjected to when going about their duties could be compared to the description of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) under Mobutu Sese Seko.

In Michela Wrong’s In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz, soldiers and civil servants were told to stop complaining of low or no pay and instead “eat” off the land.

That was a signal to plunder resources where they were posted or to engage in corruption.

The police service is not alone in this. There are many in public service who have big titles yet their remuneration is not commensurate with the positions, forcing them to “bridge the gap”.

And it starts right from the grassroots where chiefs and their assistants, for example, wield a lot of power but are poorly paid, making some rogue officials turn on the residents they are meant to serve.

In the past some would go as far taking chicken and grain in the guise of collecting harambee.


Experts say the situation has made the public sector so attractive that many people have opted to leave fatter salaries in the corporate world for the nominally “low-paying” jobs in government.

One such officer confided in the Sunday Nation that taking a 66 per cent cut in his previous salary was no big deal as, “after all, I am presiding over a multi-billion-shilling budget”.

Prof Margaret Kobia, chairperson of the Public Service Commission, said an increasing number of people, especially lawyers, choose to work for the government than ever before.

“In the past 10 years, many people have left better-paying jobs in the private sector to join the public service. This has had the effect of putting a lot of pressure on us. It is not the best situation because the government is not supposed to be the major employer in any country,” she said.

Chairman of the Commission on Administrative Justice (Ombudsman) Otiende Amollo said some of those joining public service are driven by the need to serve the people while others go there to make money.

“We choose to take up these jobs because we think we can make a difference. I have also noticed that one of the tendencies is for government officials to find ways of topping up their pay through seminars, trips — either locally or internationally — and also innovative ways of manipulating procurement processes,” Mr Amollo said.

But he emphasised that low pay cannot be an excuse to engage in corruption.

“My view of the matter is that public officers should be paid as well as we possibly can to enable them do their job. You cannot, however, say that you may have lacked integrity and engaged in corruption because your pay is low,” he said.

Human resource expert Alex Musau said there was a clear correlation between pay and the temptation to engage in corruption among workers.

“People who are well paid are less likely to engage in corruption. The case of police may, however, not be an ideal illustration because they never rely on their salaries,” he said.


Prof Kobia explained that the general improvement in terms of service was responsible for the trend where more people were attracted to government.

“The work pressure is not as high as in the private sector, plus there is security of tenure and better pay compared with the case 10 years ago,” she said.

But she admitted that there could be other hidden factors that attracted people to work for government and suggested that a study should be undertaken for a better understanding.

“One of the universities should take it up and give us answers,” she said.

Salaries and Remunerations (SRC) chairperson Sarah Serem was not available for comment, but a senior member of the commission, who asked not to be named for fear of pre-empting the outcome of the talks on pay review, said pay and integrity should be looked at separately.

“This is an issue of integrity and not about pay. For instance, how much would you pay one officer to stop him from depositing Sh440,000 or Sh10 million — money whose source is questionable — into his account?” the commissioner said.

A number of traffic police officers serving in different posts whom we spoke to told of many occasions when they were given motorcycles with little fuel and were told to be “creative enough” to get them moving.

Statistics provided by some officers indicated that it took close to Sh1.5 million monthly to run an average police station in rural Kenya. But from the allocation, it was estimated that some of the police stations got as little as Sh300,000 to run their affairs.

A police division with four stations in one of the major towns had an estimated budget of Sh12 million but got Sh1.2 million monthly.

“With such a budget, the Officer Commanding Station (OCS) has to grapple with whether he will feed the suspects or fuel the cars to do rounds. These are difficult choices they have to make daily. Naturally he would feed the suspects, meaning fuel must come from ‘somewhere’,” said one of the officers.

The Sunday Nation also established that the dream work stations in the service are usually the KRA, the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC), Kenya Ports Authority and arms of the traffic department like the highway patrol, weighbridges and the National Transport and Safety Authority.

Many officers were willing to part with a fortune to be deployed to any of these places. Other than additional allowances, there were many “opportunities to make money” in the preferred stations.

But police spokeswoman Zipporah Mboroki believes this narrative is a fabrication.

“When you are employed in the police service, you do not choose where you want to work. Only overall best recruits are given an opportunity to choose where they want to be deployed once they are through with the training,” she said.



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