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Corruption

Africa's high-earning politicians under criticism

Africa may struggle with grinding poverty, but the continent's politicians are among the best paid in the world. And they still want more money and benefits. So voters are calling for more accountability.

Kenyans are heading to the streets a month before the country's elections. But most of them aren't there to show their support for candidates - they are denouncing the privileges and salaries of their elected representatives.

Kenya's more than 200 plus members of parliament (MPs) are among some of the best paid in the world. Apart from a tax-free monthly salary of 9,000 euros (around $12,000), they also receive other benefits, including 6,000 euros in maintenance costs, free accommodation, a free telephone and much more. These same politicians were responsible for approving those generous benefits, in parliament.

And before the end of the legislative period last January, Kenya's MPs drafted a bill in which they sought to reward themselves with a bonus of around 80,000 euros. In addition, they also wanted the right to a state burial, an armed body guard, diplomatic passports and many other benefits.

This largesse went too far for many Kenyans, and so they took to the streets in protest.

Kenya's civil activists hold signs as they demonstrate in Nairobi

Kenyans took to the streets to protest against their representatives' privileges

Top salary for the president

Antonie Tosh was one of the organizers of the demonstrations in Kenya's capital, Nairobi. He says that the voters are partially responsible for the self-serving mentality of the MPs.

"We vote for the leaders, who pay us to vote for them," Tosh said. "The leader who gives you money is the one you vote for. [And] their first agenda is to recoup the money that they spent on you."

The bill that would have rewarded MPs a bonus failed due to a veto by President Mwai Kibaki. But he still approved a severance package of more than 200,000 euros for himself. Kibaki is one of the best paid leaders in the world relative to his country's average income. His salary exceeds 600,000 euros, more than double what the German chancellor or even the US president earns.

Filling up their pockets

Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, speaking after protests against a bonus for MPs (Sayyid Azim/AP)

Kenyan President Kibaki vetoed the proposed bonus, and then gave himself a severance package

But Kenya isn't unique in Africa, according to Heinrich Bergstresser, a journalist and expert on Nigeria. Much like in Kenya, salaries in Nigeria are also closely linked to political clientelism. Elected officials use their high salaries to fund a life of privilege and support their extended families and people in their constituencies, Bergstresser said. They also put money aside in case they are not re-elected.

"This means that the entire political elite can continue to live independently," Bergstresser told DW. "With the abundant money from the gas and oil industry, they can live in their own world largely separated from democratic accountability to the voters."

But a functioning democracy isn't possible without voters having the power to influence MPs, he added. The Nigerian MPs are not any more advanced in questions of democracy compared to other African countries, although they are well-equipped to do their work.

Criticism sharpens

As a result, voters in many African countries are asking how politicians can justify their high salaries and privileges. And most of them are making their discontent known through public protests - like in Ghana, for example - and also on the Internet through blogs and social networking sites such as Facebook.

A picture shows the newly refurbished seats of Kenya's parliament (SIMON MAINA/AFP/GettyImages)

These new seats in Kenya's parliament costed more than $11 million

In response to the criticism, a state commission was set up in South Africa. The commission suggested the idea of introducing a performance bonus for MPs. South Africa's President Jacob Zuma earns more than 14,000 euros a month – a regular MP earns 6,000 euros. But more than half of South Africans earn 40 euros a month.

Yet Watty Watson, the leader of the Democratic Alliance party block in South Africa's parliament, doesn't believe that politicians are overpaid.

"We could actually use more work resources and administrative support," Watson told DW. He said that in comparison to Taiwan - where every parliamentarian employees 26 secretaries, experts and administrative personnel - the wages in South Africa are not especially high.

Along with Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and Namibia, South Africa is one of the top five best countries for politicians in Africa in terms of wages. Liberia, Angola and Mozambique - among others - are in the middle. West Africa's Benin comes out bottom, below Zimbabwe. Even the president of Benin earns only 2,000 euros a month.

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