During the fight for independence, the maxim ‘‘no taxation without representation’’ became a clarion call for the inclusion of Africans in the legislative assembly. The rationale was simple. One could not pay taxes when they were being denied the chance to have their views heard and considered in the deliberative body of the country.
Over 50 years after independence, the linkage between taxation and governance is well accepted. Citizens pay taxes to fund government services and operations. It is part of their responsibility to those they have delegated sovereign authority to.
In return, they expect the government to deliver on the electoral mandate and ensure that basic public services are provided. This would range from provision of education, health, infrastructure, transport and security, amongst others.
Despite citizens paying taxes, they have become accustomed to either poor or no services from government. Many a times public education will not be fully functional, leading to people taking their children to private institutions.
Health facilities will have no drugs. Instead of complaining, citizens will take out private health insurance or go to private hospitals and pay for health care. Roads will have potholes and insecurity will be rampant. In all these cases people will make do with private arrangements to compensate for the lack of these basic services.
This past week I was in the Netherlands. What struck me was their state of public services. While we are used to homes that are heavily fenced, I was amazed that all one could see was landscaping not fences.
People walked freely at night without fear of being robbed on the streets. Travelling across a good part of the country, we were struck by the efficient railway transport, good condition of roads, excellent planning and the adherence to time.
It was amazing, for example, that every university was situated a few hundred metres from a train station, making access for students extremely easy.
In a discussion with one of our hosts in the country, he indicated that they are hugely taxed, as much as 52 percent of their earnings go to taxes. In return, they are guaranteed the basic and high-quality public services that we witnessed.
In this kind of environment, the debate about the level of taxation is directly linked to the public services that citizens deserve and get.
Unfortunately, this is not the situation in Kenya. Since the start of the year, there has been debate about the newly introduced turnover tax for small businesses with income of less than Sh5 million per year.
In addition to failure to understand how it works, businesses are up in arms on why they should pay this tax. A jua kali trader in Nairobi, does not see the rationale in an environment where the government cannot even guarantee toilet services or water. It took a judge of the High Court to order that the government ensures that there are toilets along public highways. In this environment, any additional taxation sparks uproar.
More fundamentally, Kenyans need to ask the government what their taxes do. When essential services are largely unavailable or insufficient, yet citizens continue to be taxed, there is need to ask the question whether we are back to the era of taxation and no representation.
Along the same lines, delivery of public services must be the basis on which the government proposes revenue generation measures every year to the National Assembly. By approving these measures, the people’s representatives are confirming that they are happy with the use to which those funds will be put to once collected.
Consequently, citizens should not be contented with poor service delivery and subsidising government by paying for such services that are from private sources. This amounts to both double taxation and abdication by government of their representative mandate.
Proposals made by the draft report on Building Bridges Initiative Advisory Task Force to both deal with runway corruption and forces public servants to use public services for which they have responsibility are a step in the right direction in dealing with this problem.