NAIROBI Hundreds of demonstrators torched 221 coffins outside Kenya's parliament on Wednesday in protest at legislators who voted last week to triple their end-of-term bonuses and award themselves state funerals.
President Mwai Kibaki, aware of popular resentment over lawmakers' perks and with an eye on a March 4 general election, subsequently refused to sign the benefit increase into law.
But Kenyans went ahead with the protest march anyway to highlight their anger over a political class in East Africa's largest economy widely regarded as greedy and corrupt.
They staged a macabre procession through central Nairobi, wailing and singing as they hoisted coffins made of plywood and tarred in black paint, representing Kenyan lawmakers.
Dressed in black T-shirts, protesters waved placards with hand-written slogans including "bury the vulture with your vote" and "vacancy for honest leaders".
"In this symbolic burial, we are laying to rest some 221 caskets, we torch these caskets to signify the end of one era and the birth of another," said Boniface Mwangi, head of the Kenya ni Kwetu (Kenya is Ours) group, which organized the march.
In their last act before parliament shut for the election, lawmakers passed a bill to increase their end-term bonus to 9.3 million shillings ($107,200) each. Kibaki had rejected a similar attempt to raise their send-off pay in October.
This time, the legislators also wanted diplomatic passports for themselves and their spouses, armed bodyguards for life paid for by taxpayers and the right to be given state funerals, now the preserve of presidents and notable achievers.
The government would have incurred an extra cost of 2 billion shillings to pay the higher bonuses to people considered by many Kenyans to be already overpaid, lazy and venal.
The bill was even criticized by some of the lawmakers.
"It's unfortunate the lobby group condemned the whole legislature while some MPs were against the move to hike their pay package," outgoing legislator Bonny Khalwale told Reuters.
Kenyan lawmakers earn about $13,000 a month, the bulk in tax-free allowances - a huge sum in a country where an unskilled urban laborer may earn as little as $60 a month, and with a per capita GDP of $800.
In 2011 they refused to pay back taxes demanded by the government, then bought new seats, worth $2,400 each, at taxpayer expense for members of the chamber.
"I support the protest, the legislators have been in parliament for the last five years. They are greedy with one aim - to hike their hefty salaries," said Sarah Mohamed, a student who watched the demonstrators.
"Ordinary wananchi (Kenyan citizens) are struggling to keep food on the table," said Dennis Ngeno, 27, a security guard.
($1 = 86.7500 Kenyan shillings)
(Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Mark Heinrich)