Kenya's 'Wabenzi' tribe threatened

NAIROBI, Kenya — The impending extinction of a tribe of people is usually a cause for
concern. Pressure groups and NGOs, advocates and well-meaning foreigners line up to ensure the survival of a threatened society whose traditions and culture may vanish forever.

One tribe threatened with extinction in Africa is the "Wabenzi," but no one is speaking up for their protection.

Well-known across the continent — though perhaps unfamiliar to outsiders — the Wabenzi are to be found feasting in upmarket restaurants, boarding planes bound for intercontinental shopping sprees or jetting off in search of the high-class medical care that is unavailable in their own lands.

A good place to spot the Wabenzi is on the continent’s many snaking, potholed highways. They travel in armed convoys, cocooned inside their favorite vehicles, ample bottoms cushioned from the bone-shaking bumps by the smooth suspension of the Mercedes Benzes that are their first love.

For "Wabenzi" is Swahili slang for those who own Mercedes Benz cars — literally it means the "Benz people." Of course not every African in a Mercedes is a Wabenzi. There are many legitimate businesspeople in Africa who love the Mercedes for the same reason anyone else does: it is a quality automobile, a status symbol par excellence and it screams ‘success.’ The well-off line up to spend their hard-earned cash on the cars here as they do elsewhere.

But the real Wabenzi are the government ministers who have their classy cars paid for by the state.

Last month U.S. President Barack Obama made his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa, making a speech in Ghana about the need for “strong institutions” not “strong men” and called for good governance above all.

The Wabenzi are everything Obama — and many ordinary Africans — want rid of. Current chief of the Wabenzi is probably Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, the proud owner of a bomb-proof Mercedes S600L, a five-ton, 21-foot limousine powered by a 5.5-liter V12 engine. Extras can push the price to around $500,000 and the fuel to drive this monster just a couple of miles down the road costs much more than most of his people earn in a day.

Zaire’s President Mobutu Sese Seko, Uganda’s Field Marshall Idi Amin and Liberia’s Sergeant Samuel Doe all spent state funds on fleets of Mercs for themselves and their buddies as their impoverished people starved. ‘Emperor’ Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic had a train of 80 Mercedes at his coronation in 1977.

If you know Africa you will know the scene. There you are bumping along a crumbling road when the sirens wail and flashing lights appear. As you veer off the road to make way, motorcycle outriders hurtle by followed by pick-up trucks packed with menacing storm troopers in ski goggles. Then come the ministerial Mercs, a speed-blurred chain of them one after another. That’s the Wabenzi passing by.

The word was coined in Kenya and it is here that recent events may spell the beginning of the end for the local Wabenzi. In June, Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, after pointedly arriving at Parliament in a relatively modest Volkswagen Passat, announced an austerity budget designed to help this East African nation weather the global financial storm.

Kenyatta declared that ministers and government officials had until September to hand over the keys to their state-funded cars and instead would be limited to just one each, with an engine smaller than 1,800cc. In other words, no grand Mercedes Benzes.

The problem is that Kenya’s political elite don’t do austerity. Ninety-four ministers and deputies each earn around $15,000 a month. Meanwhile around a third of Kenya’s 37.5 million people live in poverty on less than $1.25 a day. In 2006 Transparency International and the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights published a report revealing that the new government of President Mwai Kibaki — elected on a platform of fighting corruption and poverty — had spent $12 million on new luxury cars in its first 20 months alone. This included $5.2 million to buy 57 Mercs. “Kenya is truly the home of the Wabenzi,” the report said.

Soon after, Kenyatta announced his austerity measures, President Kibaki rejected a delivery of eight new luxury cars (half of which were Mercedes limousines) and he sacked a handful of officials for making what he said were unauthorized purchases.

And then came the real death knell for Kenya’s Wabenzi as another senior official hinted that the Mercedes might be off the menu altogether for government ministers.

“It is a question of attitude and perception,” said Joseph Kinyua, permanent secretary in Kenya’s finance ministry. “To the majority of Kenyans … a Mercedes is a Mercedes and it is expensive. As a government, that is not the kind of image we want to pass on to Kenyans.”

It is a start, but the Kenyan government must show a strong commitment to jettison the Wabenzi culture and get the country onto a track of austerity. The political elite will have to do more than hide their state-paid Mercs in the garage if they want to change what people really think.