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How African leaders spend our money

Bob Geldof has urged us not to dwell on ‘the corruption thing’ — but, says Aidan Hartley, corrupt African leaders are using Western aid to buy fleets of Mercedes Benz cars

25 June 2005

12:00 AM

25 June 2005

12:00 AM

Bob Geldof has urged us not to dwell on ‘the corruption thing’ — but, says Aidan Hartley, corrupt African leaders are using Western aid to buy fleets of Mercedes Benz cars

‘Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz,’ prayed Janis Joplin, and the Lord obliged. With or without divine intervention, the late Pope had one. So does the Queen. Erich Honecker hunted at night by dazzling the deer in his Mercedes jeep’s headlights until he got close enough to blow them away. Mao Tse-tung had 23 Mercs. Today Kim Jong Il owns dozens, all filled to the gunwales with imported Hennessy’s cognac. Hitler, Franco, Hirohito, Tito, the Shah, Ceausescu, Pinochet, Somoza — they all swore by Mercedes. Saddam Hussein liked them so much he probably had shares in the company.

Today, though, there is one man who is doing more than the Lord himself to buy a Mercedes-Benz for the leading creeps of the world. That man is of course Bob Geldof, the spur to our global conscience. Africa’s leaders cannot wait for the G8 leaders — hectored by Bob and Live 8 into bracelet-wearing submission — to double aid and forgive the continent’s debts. They know that such acts of generosity will finance their future purchases of very swish, customised Mercedes-Benz cars, while 315 million poor Africans stay without shoes and Western taxpayers get by with Hondas. This is the way it goes with the WaBenzi, a Swahili term for the Big Men of Africa.

The legacy of colonialism is a continent carved up by arbitrary frontiers into 50-odd states. But the WaBenzi are a transcontinental tribe who have been committing grand theft auto on the dusty, potholed roads of Africa ever since they hijacked freedom in the 1960s. After joyriding their way through six Marshall Plans’ worth of aid Africa is poorer today than 25 years ago; and now the WaBenzi want more.

Let us take Zimbabwe, where millions of people are starving, 3,000 die weekly of Aids and life expectancy has fallen to 35 years. In 2005 Britain will give Zimbabwe £30 million in aid, making it one of the three biggest donors. The government will say this money funds emergency relief. Try telling that to the hordes of people whose homes have been burned down and bulldozed in recent weeks. Giving corrupt governments money frees up budgets to squander on cars.

As an example of hypocrisy, it is hard to beat the call for ‘clean leadership’ in Comrade Robert Mugabe’s recent address to Zanu-PF’s Central Committee. The old dictator condemns:

‘Arrogant flamboyance and wastefulness: a dozen Mercedes-Benz cars to one life, hideously huge residences, strange appetites that can only be appeased by foreign dishes; runaway taste for foreign lifestyles, including sporting fixtures, add to it high immorality and lust.’

He is clearly talking about the WaBenzi, and their preferred version of the marque, the S600L, a long-wheelbase limo with a monstrous 7.3-litre V12 twin-turbo-charged engine. It’s as powerful as a Ferrari and 21 feet long. Basic price £93,090, but extras could be £250,000 more.

And who is the most notorious Zimbabwean owner of an S600L? Robert Mugabe, of course. Mugabe’s was custom-built in Germany and armoured to a ‘B7 Dragunov standard’ so that it can withstand AK-47 bullets, grenades and landmines. It is fitted with CD player, movies, internet and anti-bugging devices. At five tons it does about two kilometres per litre of fuel. It has to be followed by a tanker of petrol in a country running on empty. Mugabe has purchased a carpool of dozens of lesser Mercedes S320s and E240s for his wife, vice-presidents and ministers.

You may wonder why men like Mugabe did not go for Rolls-Royce, Bentley or Jaguar. The answer should be obvious: whatever their other disadvantages, British cars were associated with imperialism. Look at history and you see that up to the 1960s Mercedes-Benz was ticking along, doing nothing special. Then at about the same time as the ‘Wind of Change’ swept Africa, Mercedes produced the stretch 600 Pullman, a six-door behemoth with a 6.3-litre V8 engine. For Africa’s new top dogs, it was love at first sight. The WaBenzi were born. Idi Amin snapped up three, Bokassa more when he crowned himself emperor in central Africa. Zaire’s Sese Seko Mobutu bought so many that he kept six for his summerhouse on Lake Kivu alone. Liberia’s Sergeant Samuel Doe splurged on 60.

Since those days Africa has been through 186 coups, 26 wars and seven million dead, and the Mercedes has been ideal — both for conveying dignity and for getting out of trouble. I wondered what it was like to drive the old Pullman, so I asked veteran trans-Africa rally driver Anthony Cazalet. ‘You don’t drive it, your chauffeur does,’ he said. ‘Look, it’s a Queen Mum of a car: gentle, smooth, quiet; growls when necessary. Huge amounts of legroom and enormous seats for very big bottoms.’ Cazalet recalls taking a friend’s Pullman for a spin in Nairobi. ‘I floored the throttle and the old girl pulled up her skirt and let rip. Everybody in the car was screaming.’


Of course, not all Africans who own Mercedes cars are WaBenzi and nor am I suggesting DaimlerChrysler are at fault in any way. Thanks in large part to anti-state corruption drives by the World Bank, a middle class of hard-working, talented entrepreneurs has emerged in Africa in the last two decades. Africa’s future depends on these young entrepreneurs, and they want to buy quality cars for the same reason successful Westerners do. As one Kampala businessman says, ‘I am a serious person and I want that to be portrayed even through the car I drive.’ Free trade for Africa would certainly create more Mercedes-Benz owners. The WaBenzi, by the way, loathe free trade. Reduced bureaucracy means less opportunity for graft, and the traditional way of getting someone else to buy your German-built machine.

Take, for example, Malawi’s ‘Benz Aid’ scandal. In the year 2000 Bakili Muluzi was hailed as a paragon of African ‘good governance’ following the demise of Life President Hastings Kamuzu Banda. The Economist rated Blantyre as the best city to live in in the world. Britain promised to increase its aid from £30.8 million to £52.4 million in a single year specifically to help the 65 per cent of Malawians existing on less than 50 pence a day. Malawi’s government celebrated by purchasing 39 top-of-the-range S-class Mercedes at a cost of £1.7 million. In the furore that followed, Clare Short, then international development secretary, ruled out a ban on aid to Malawi, explaining that the money used for the car purchases had not been skimmed off British aid but some other donor’s.

Last year King Mswati III of Swaziland went against the grain. He passed over Mercedes and went for a £264,000 Maybach 62 for himself plus a fleet of BMWs for each of his 10 wives and three virginal fiancées selected annually at the football stadium ‘dance of the impalas’. Imagine if he continues buying BMW for his wives; his dad collected 50 spouses and 350 kids. In May southern Africa’s Mr Toad changed his mind about Mercedes and roared up to his rubber-stamp parliament in a new S600L limo. The total bill for his car purchases alone will be about £750,000, or three quarters of the annual figure for British assistance. Of the £14 million Swaziland gets in foreign aid, £9 million goes on the king’s balls, picnics and parties — and cars. Yet 70 per cent of Swazis languish in absolute poverty and four out of ten have HIV/Aids, the highest rate in the world.

No corner of Africa escapes the WaBenzi effect, including South Africa. Mercedes gifted Nelson Mandela one, and he accepted it. In 2001 the ANC chief whip Tony Yengeni was charged and later jailed for accepting a Mercedes ML320 at a
48 per cent discount in return for lobbying on behalf of DaimlerChrysler companies in the European Aeronautic Defence and Space consortium (Eads). At the time Eads was bidding for huge defence contracts, and Mercedes-Benz unilaterally admitted making dozens of cars available at discount prices. Some 32 officials, including the national defence chief General Siphiwe Nyanda, benefited. Most shocking of all, according to local press reports, President Thabo Mbeki himself had been given an S600L armoured limousine for a ‘test drive’. He kept it for a full six months, only handing it back in March 2001, just as the Yengeni scandal broke.

‘Why target Yengeni alone?’ the opposition’s Bantu Holomisa said at the time. ‘The President himself test-drove a similar one for six months.’ The following year Muammar Gaddafi gave Mbeki an S600L as a present. ANC officials claimed the President was ‘truly embarrassed’, but did he refuse the gift?

One of the most flagrant abuses of ‘good governance’ in Africa today is occurring in Kenya — original home of the WaBenzi. After decades of dictatorship voters in December 2002 swept Mwai Kibaki to power at the head of his NARC rainbow coalition on an anti-corruption ticket. ‘Corruption will now cease to be a way of life in Kenya,’ Kibaki promised. The very first law Kibaki’s parliament passed rewarded politicians with a 172 per cent salary increase. MPs’ take-home pay is now about £65,000 per annum (compared with a British MP’s £57,485 gross) and the Kenyan MPs’ fat package of allowances includes a £23,600 grant to buy a duty-free car, together with a monthly £535 fuel and maintenance allowance.

These grants fall way short of what many politicians actually spend on their official and private cars, Kibaki’s ministers especially. Soon after taking power the government spurned its ‘corrupt’ predecessors’ Mercedes E220 models and upgraded with the purchase of 32 new vehicles for top officials, including seven for the Office of the President. Most of these were new E240s, while the minister in charge of Kenya’s dilapidated roads, Raila Odinga, went for a customised S500 at a probable cost of £100,000. Not to be outdone, Kibaki got himself — you guessed it — the S600L limousine.

How can Kibaki spend up to £350,000 on a car when Kenyans’ average annual per capita income is £210 — less than the cost of a box of decent cigars? His purchase is legal because parliament approved it, but does that make it acceptable when Kenya is on the bones of its arse and demanding more aid?

Ministers say they should be paid so well because it stops them taking bribes. But the British High Commissioner to Nairobi, Sir Edward Clay, last year denounced the ruling ‘Mount Kenya Mafia’ as gluttons who were so overfed they left the signs of their theft in their trail as clearly as if they had puked up. He said, ‘The evidence of corruption in Kenya [amounts to] vomit, not just on the shoes of donors but also all over the shoes of Kenyans …and the feet of those who can’t afford shoes.’

In February this year Clay boldly produced another set of accusations, alluding to the fact that about £550 million has been stolen since Kibaki’s government assumed power two years ago. Kenyan ministers responded by accusing the British envoy of being a white colonialist whom nobody need listen to. Britain is the nasty former colonial power that has just increased aid massively in 2005–06, from £30.5 million to £50 million. Despite the corruption alarm bells going off in Kenya, Blair’s government has ruled out suspending aid.

Does any of this sound familiar? That’s right: by deploying the WaBenzi co-efficient you can see that more aid equals more Mercedes-Benzes. Take a look at Kenya’s 2005–06 budget, read out by finance minister David Mwiraria to a cheering parliament in Nairobi on 8 June. According to the local Daily Nation, the government has allocated £3 million for the purchase of a fleet of new vehicles for the Office of the President. A further £2.9 million has been set aside for the maintenance of the existing car-pool of vehicles. One has to wonder if this expenditure of nearly £6 million, no doubt a lot of it on Mercedes-Benzes and far in excess of the sums involved in Malawi’s ‘Benz Aid’ scandal, has anything to do with the increased aid supply.

Here’s how the WaBenzi get around. Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi have motorcades that can extend a mile long. At the very minimum an African president needs at least 30 cars: the S600L for himself, perhaps a couple more identical vehicles to confuse assassins, outriders, ministers, yes-men and chase cars bristling with guns. Snarling police in advance vehicles force you off the road up to an hour before the big man zooms past. In Kenya, I often wonder how much it all costs, to make the capital city, Nairobi, grind to a halt. When almost the entire city police force is ordered to line the roads from State House to the airport, how many rapes, murders and robberies are perpetrated in the slums?

When you hear Him coming, the back of your neck tingles as the tension mounts. Zimbabweans call Mugabe’s motorcade ‘Bob and the Wailers’ on account of the blaring sirens and flashing lights. Woe betide you if you get in the way. Early this year the Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa visited Mugabe, who picked him up in the five-ton Mercedes and was heading back to the palace when a lowly motorist stopped too close to the motorcade’s path. In Zimbabwe it is an imprisonable offence to make rude comments or gestures in ‘view or hearing of the state motorcade’. This man had done neither, but police surrounded him, viciously beat him and then dragged him away.

Apart from shielding his friend Mugabe from all criticism, Mkapa is one of Blair’s Commissioners for Africa. Mkapa, you might recall, was the president whose police killed a lot of people around the rigged elections in Zanzibar. Mkapa’s sidekick politician Salmin Amour allegedly spent £160,000 on — yup — a Mercedes S600L.

When he’s at home Mkapa has his own motorcade, which in the last five years has been involved in three separate road accidents in which 22 people have died (including a child of three) and 47 others have been seriously injured. Most were pedestrians. Mkapa escaped this road slaughter without a scratch to himself, but no wonder he often chooses to fly in the £15-million presidential jet he used state coffers to buy in 2002. A jet? Not even Blair has his own jet, but Mkapa is just about to have his entire misruled country’s debt forgiven.

Who benefits from aid? Germany gives the East African Union E8 million for the regional organisation’s secretariat in Arusha — and the car park is filled with Mercedes-Benzes. Is Germany giving the money just so that it can get it back while giving a bunch of WaBenzi in suits their sets of wheels?

Aid has not worked. A Merrill Lynch report estimates there are 100,000 Africans today who own £380 billion in wealth. At the same time more than 300 million other Africans live on 50 pence a day. Forget about the gap between north and south. The wealth gap within countries like Kenya is far, far worse than in any other part of the globe.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Africans themselves have always seen the WaBenzi as the symbol of Africa’s ills. The first martyr for the cause was Thomas Sankara, the Burkina Faso president who forced his ministers to swap their Mercedes for Renault 5s. He also made them go on runs. Sankara was overthrown and executed in 1987 by Blaise Campaore, who remains in power today. In 2001 Sam Nujoma of Namibia traded in his Mercedes for a Volvo. He
said if all ministers did likewise it would save £550,000 annually. ‘We are servants of the Namibian people,’ he said. ‘It is high time that we start behaving as such.’ What a party-pooper — at least he was until this year, when as part of his huge retirement package he got a S500 worth £80,000 plus two other cars. In 2002 Zambia’s President Levy Mwanawasa went to the airport in a public bus and urged his ministers to do the same. Last year the opposition Ghanaian politician Dr Edward Nasigre Mahama proposed selling President John Kufuor’s Mercedes to pay for children’s education.

‘Get off the corruption thing,’ says Bob Geldof. The point is that nobody has got on to it properly yet. Aid-giving nations pretend to be tough on corruption, while African leaders pretend to change. Aid bureaucrats care less about financial probity than the press releases claiming that an economy is on a positive reform track. They are not helping Africa’s young entrepreneurs. By throwing fiscal discipline to the wind and shovelling aid at Africa, the international bureaucrats will fuel a new renaissance in corruption.

Meanwhile, NGOs refuse to focus on corruption because it’s simply not a priority for them. They blame corruption on Western multinationals. Charities are ideological museums stuffed with socialists and anti-globalisation activists. They loathe private enterprise. I sometimes wonder if they would prefer to see Africans stay poor so that aid workers could carry on doing good works for them.

Western pundits say the WaBenzi still exist because African culture is inherently sick, that black Africans can’t help but admire the Big Men. This does ordinary Africans an injustice. The West needs to help them get better leaders before it increases aid. Make the WaBenzi declare their wealth to their electorates and donors. Name and shame those who drive expensive cars while their people starve. Encourage policies that will create wealth so that the only Africans buying Mercedes-Benzes are honest men and women. Unless this happens Africa’s new aid package will not alleviate poverty, disease and ignorance. What it will definitely mean is more flashy limousines.

Aidan Hartley is author of The Zanzibar Chest, Harper Perennial, £8.99.


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