Wabenzi: In the land of poverty and opulence
The politically powerful in Kenya do not share their opulence in a country where nearly half are in poverty.
At the back of Nairobi’s City Hall is an old black Vanden Plas Princess limousine – a symbol of status during the 1960s and 70s. The Mayor of Nairobi purchased it shortly after Kenya’s independence from Britain in 1963.
In fact, most aldermen at the time thought it was a Rolls Royce, and perpetuated this misperception to those who observed it sibilantly cruising along the streets of Nairobi. As a village boy, I admired the car when I saw it in mid 80s. So controversial was this purchase in the 1960s that the matter ended up in Parliament on whether the country could afford such opulence. Of course it couldn’t. But the “Wabenzi” – a Swahili language slang for those who own a Mercedes Benz – along with the approval of Kenya’s first President Jomo Kenyatta, still went ahead and bought the vehicle at a cost of £50,000.
Kenyatta had his own white Lincoln Continental, a fleet of Mercedes Benzes and two Rolls Royce. And that is how the name Wabenzi came: to snub the political and connected business honchos who had an insatiable love for Mercedes Benz and other excesses.
One characteristic of the Wabenzis in Kenya was – and is – that they use taxpayers’ money to live large. They love the thrill that accompanies this power status – motorcycle outriders, menacing soldiers, and ministerial Mercedes hurtling at kill-me-quick speeds.
Overnight, shortly after independence in a swift and seamless transformation, the new public servants became flashy tycoons. They had the money and political power. Some of them had just arrived from the world’s top universities or had managed to enter into the boards of blue-chip companies as a thank-you note for being loyal to the colonial regime. They loved to smoke pipes, drink expensive wine, attend garden parties and wear Savile Row suits.
Fifty years after independence, the Wabenzis in Kenya are still in a class of their own. They can afford a decent meal in the upmarket restaurants in Nairobi’s leafy suburbs; take their kids to schools abroad or in the local exclusive £20,000 term academies. When sick, they can jet out to Europe and the US for treatment and skip the crowded Kenyatta National Hospital. Although it is Kenya’s largest referral hospital, it is under-funded and sees queues for hours on end of patients seeking medical attention. For the last three months, nurses in public hospitals have been on strike, and nobody seems to care.
It was the late Mwalimu Julius Nyerere of Tanzania who once called Kenya a “man-eat-man” society in reference to the Wabenzi, for even when they know that the country is in financial doldrums, Kenya’s political elite cling to their pay and to their allowances. Other Kenyans can absorb the austerity, but not them. They would rather increase their pay to $15,000 a month when almost half of Kenya’s 41.6 million people live on less than $1.25 a day.
Before Kenyans passed a new constitution that gave a new Salaries and Remuneration Commission powers to check on these excesses, the members of parliament had powers to award themselves golden-handshakes, cars, medical allowances and gratuity – and recently, they still wanted a state funeral!
Now, President Kibaki’s successor will earn a gross pay of $14,000 per month, down from the current $23,000 while that of MPs has been slashed to $6,000 gross monthly salary from the current $9,500. That is but a small victory.
While Kenya is arguably one of the most developed and economically robust nations in Africa, beneath is a veneer of deceit. Forget the middle class in coffee shops tapping their iPads and listening to classic music. They could be a valley away from one of Africa’s largest slums where people relieve themselves in plastic bags and throw them into alleys. Kibera is one of Africa’s poorest slums and its “flying toilets” have become a shocking phenomenon. And yet last year, the country could afford to refurbish parliament with 350 seats, each costing about $3,000. That is the kind of opulence that the Wabenzi love.
This comes at a time when World Bank estimates show us that the country’s poverty level has been hovering between 44 to 46 percent for the last six years. The last household budget survey done in 2005/6 by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics showed that 20 percent of Kenyans suffered from food poverty, such that their entire income was not even enough for purchasing food.
And the data showed that only 10 percent of Kenyans lived in opulence, 33 percent barely eked a living while 57 percent live below the poverty line and in squalid conditions.
It is these people that every year become pawns in a political chess match where the 10 percent return every five years in search of political power and might.
In this year’s general elections, they outdid each other with fixed wings, helicopters, SUVs and brazen branding never seen before. The corrupt can build their mansions and pay themselves kickbacks from mega deals. Some have been caught – and none are in jail. Somehow they manage to slip away. The integrity checks that were agreed to in the new constitution were watered down, so any crook with a case can get into power.
On health, poor families are today the greatest source of maternal and infant mortality, which became a campaign issue with promises of free maternity care. This deprivation of proper reproductive health care continues to nurture unsafe and illegal abortions among the poor. And every year, the poor population booms amid the incapacity of government to even attend to the people’s basic needs of food, water and shelter.
Elsewhere, the Wabenzi and their children are party animals. In their parking yards, one can spot a wide assortmant of vehicles, such as Jaguars, Range Rover Sport, Land Rovers, Escalades, Mercedes Benz, BMWs and Hummers. These are the signature status symbols of Kenya’s nouvelle generation.
Some even own private helicopters, vintage vehicles, and real estate. And that is besides the thousands of acres of plantations that are cultivating either tea, coffee – or even simply lying fallow. Some are into the stock market and own major shares in leading companies.
And when you go below Nairobi River, you will find families of street children boiling bones they have collected from the restaurant dustbins to make some soup. In the land of Wabenzi there is an irritating inequity, and it is the pain of Kenya.
John Kamau is a journalist and historian. He is Associate Editor of the Business Daily and is the author of Mwai Kibaki: 50 years of National Service and Mwai Kibaki in Parliament: 1963-2013.