Concern in Kenya over cost of Somalia operation

November 18, 2011 - 5:00 AM
Kenya Somalia

Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, left, and Somalian President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, right, are seen during their meeting on the security situation in Somalia at Nairobi's State House, Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2011. The presidents of Kenya, Uganda and Somalia say the dual-fronted fight against Islamist al-Shabab militants presents a

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — As hundreds of Kenyan soldiers hunt al-Qaida-linked militants in Somalia, university students are growing angry that their government can afford a military operation but not raises for thousands of university lecturers.

Hundreds of University of Nairobi students began protesting after some 7,000 lecturers went on a week-long strike. Police fired into the air to disperse the students, some of whom had prepared for exams earlier this week only to be told they were being postponed.

Lecturers make around $800 a month in Kenya, and their salaries have not be raised in three years.

Kenya's Higher Education Minister Margaret Kamar said she sympathizes with the lecturers, who decided Thursday to postpone their strike for two weeks to allow for negotiations. But the financial resources simply aren't there, she says.

"We have sat down and discussed with the prime minister and finance minister, we cannot add anything because of our boys in Somalia," Kamar said.

Hundreds of Kenyan troops moved into Somalia last month to hunt down the al-Shabab militants, who have threatened to strike inside Kenya in retaliation. Military budgets in Kenya are not publicly released, and the government has not said how much the operation will last or how long it will take.

It couldn't come at a worse time for Kenyans: In October, inflation was nearly 19 percent because of skyrocketing food and energy costs, fueled by a depreciation in the Kenyan shilling against the dollar. Kenya's Central Bank raised interest rates recently to stem the shilling's decline, raising the costs of personal loans.

And the country's critical tourism industry is being threatened by a rash of kidnappings inside Kenya blamed on the Somali militants.

Stephen Mutoro, an official of the Consumer Federation of Kenya, says the country should brace itself for hard economic times.

"Locally we are going to borrow from the private sector which is going to make it very difficult for the economy because when government is borrowing from the banks, the banks find it very difficult to deal with individuals," Mutoro said.

Mutoro said there was little preparation for the military mission in Somalia and that's why the government is now sending officials to Israel, the Middle East and Europe to ask for financial support.

Maina Kiai, a Kenyan lawyer and human rights activist, said the government violated the constitution by choosing to bypass parliamentary approval for the military operation in Somalia. Such a move removes oversight of how the funds are being used.

"Parliament needs to approve (the military incursion), as war always cost more money than is in the budget," Kiai said. "It also helps transparency in these situations, where it is proven the world over to be an easy source of corruption and pilfering," he said.

Oburu Odinga, the deputy finance minister, told parliament this week that the government will relocate surplus money from different government ministries to fund the operation in Somalia. He said that the government will seek parliamentary approval later.

Muga K'Olale, the secretary general of the University Academic Staff Union that launched the lecturers strike, said they've been demanding a salary review for two years. The military operation in Somalia cannot be an excuse now not to raise salaries, he said.

On Thursday, the lecturers agreed to postpone their weeklong strike to allow for negotiations. Students just want them to get paid, so they can sit for exams, graduate and find jobs.

"This issue of al-Shabab is a security concern, so whatever the government did is good, said Babu Owino, the chairman of the Kenya Universities Students' Association. "But on other hand it should also pay the lecturers so that things can resume. ... It is really wasting the time of the students."