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Kenya's 'Wabenzi' tribe threatened

Opinion: Austerity measures to curb Benz-driving government officials

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.