Monday, March 04, 2013

The Wabenzi Election

According to the World Bank, almost half of Kenya's 41.6 million people live below the poverty line of $1.25 a day. 20 percent of Kenyans suffered from food poverty, such that their entire income is not even enough for purchasing food. Between independence in the 1960s and the 2007 election, Kenya's constitution was amended around 30 times, each time bolstering the power of the presidency at the expense of the judicial and legislative branches of government, and, ultimately, at the expense of the Kenyan people.

"Wabenzi" is Swahili  slang for those who own a Mercedes Benz. 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. 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. 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.

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 speed. Kenya's political elite cling to their pay and to their allowances. For the lesser Kenyans it is austerity, but not the Wabenzi. Kibera is one of Africa's poorest slums. 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. 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 the poor that  become pawns in a political chess match when the 10 percent return every five years in search of political power and might in the general elections. The country's leaders line their pockets while Nairobi's slums swell with the desperately impoverished.

 Kenya's capital streets are awash with red and orange. Red: The colour of TNA candidates Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto. Orange: The CORD coalition of Prime Minister Raila Odinga and his allies. A small fortune is being spent to buy votes. "We have never seen a campaign like this," a taxi driver said. "There is so much money being wasted."

After the 2007 electtion as many as 1,400 people died in the span of 59 days, while 600,000 people were displaced from their homes. Kenya slipped dangerously close to outright civil war. Gangs of youths roamed through many of Kenya's slums, torching homes, as riots spread across the country. Adding fuel to the fire of unrest, news reports emerged showing police officers shooting unarmed protesters amid the chaos. a church in the northern Eldoret district was burned to the ground. It was packed with women and children. 17 were burned alive.

 "By this time, there was a great resentment and dissatisfaction among the people about having a leadership underwritten by corruption and corrupt networks," Kiama Kaara, a political analyst with Kenya's Debt Relief Network, told Al Jazeera. "There was a realisation among people that the leaders were not any different [from one another] and wanted to control, and to benefit from controlling the nation's resources for their personal benefit and their personal gratification. This built frustration for Kenyans across the board."


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