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  1. Long reads
1 October 2009

Hard times for the wabenzi

By Tristan McConnell

Are the days numbered for Kenya’s wabenzi, the Big Men who cruise the potholed roads, cushioned from the bone-shaking bumps by the smooth suspension of their favourite car, the Mercedes Benz?

There are plenty of legitimate African business people who love the Mercedes. But the real wabenzi – a Swahili word meaning “the Benz people” –
are the ones who have their sleek cars paid for by the government. In fact, they are the government.

But the writing may be on the wall for them. In June, the finance minister, Uhuru Kenyatta, announced a much-needed austerity budget. Growth of
7.1 per cent in 2007 crashed to 1.7 per cent in 2008; tourism has gone through the floor thanks to the violence that tore through Kenya after 2007’s disputed elections, and exports of cash crops such as tea, coffee and flowers are down. With the rains failing consistently, famine looms for millions. Kenyatta told ministers and officials to hand over their fleets of state-funded vehicles by the end of September and instead drive just one car each, with an engine smaller than 1,800cc.

But Kenya’s political elite don’t do austerity. Ninety-four senior politicians each earn more than £9,000 a month, putting them among the world’s highest-paid parliamentarians. In 2006 a report revealed President Mwai Kibaki’s government spent £7.5m on luxury cars in its first 20 months, including £3.5m for 57 Mercs. Meanwhile a third of Kenyans live on less than 80p a day.

Two years ago, the then finance minister demanded that officials reduce their fleets. The order was ignored, but this time things may be different. Kibaki has already rejected a delivery of eight cars and sacked officials for unauthorised purchases.

Another senior official has also signalled that Mercs may be off the menu for government ministers. “It is a question of attitude and perception,” said Joseph Kinyua, permanent secretary in Kenya’s ministry of finance. “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.” Some might say it’s a little late to start worrying what ordinary Kenyans think.

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