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Kenya's 'Wabenzi' tribe threatened

Opinion: Austerity measures to curb Benz-driving government officials

Mercedes Benz luxury automobiles have become so popular among Kenya's elite that they have earned their own Swahili slang term "Wabenzi," which means "people of the Benz," and is now widely used across Africa. (Michael Dalder/Reuters)

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.