Daniel Howden: Time for a sacrifice, Mercedes drivers
Nairobi Notebook: This was a small piece of populist political genius
Monday 22 June 2009
There are few symbols of conspicuous consumption more beloved of Kenya's political class than a recent model Mercedes. Thirsty, low off the ground and engineered to cruise silently, they are everything you don't need on Nairobi's scarred and rutted roads. And yet they are everywhere.
Among the hordes of matatu minibus taxis, hand-carts and the cab drivers' battered Toyota saloons, glide fleets of S-Class Mercedes. The Wa-Benzi, as they've been christened in Swahili, are only matched in number by the four-wheel drive monsters with their distinctive UN plates.
But the credulous are asked to believe that this is all set to change in September. Among the highlights of a bumper budget spread this month was a small piece of populist political genius. Kenya's bloated ranks of ministers would have the keys to their Mercs taken from them before September and the luxury saloons would be auctioned off, with the proceeds spent on re-housing the tens of thousands displaced by post-election violence last year.
Any official driving – or rather being driven – in a vehicle with more than an 1800cc engine capacity would be switched to a smaller, more fuel-efficient model. "No official vehicle is exempt," insisted the Finance Minister, Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Kenya's first independence leader Jomo Kenyatta.
In a country where the Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, boasted about importing the first Hummer, most Kenyans responded with a knowing smile to the idea that the Wa-Benzi were about to surrender their status. According to independent auditors, the government of President Mwai Kibaki, elected on an anti-corruption ticket in 2002, has spent between $3m and $4m (£1.8m-£2.4m) on luxury cars in every subsequent year, with the majority going to the coffers of Mercedes Benz.
Is Hey the final straw?
Politics and sport don't mix but this has never stopped politicians from trying. When Kenya's warring football authorities responded to the team's surprise progress to the second qualifying round for the World Cup by firing the local coach, the Prime Minister couldn't reisist riding to the rescue.
Mr Odinga announced the appointment of the German coach Antoine Hey, whose primary qualification was utter failure in two similar posts elsewhere in Africa. The salary to be paid him – many multiples of that given to Kenyan predecessor Francis Kimanzi – would come initially from the government and then from the German embassy. Only the embassy had never agreed to this novel form of overseas aid. Mr Hey is unlikely to need a second phase to his contract as with two matches played and both lost Kenya's poorly served footballers will be watching the World Cup on television, something that both Germans and Kenyan authorities can provide.
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