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Media/Is it ever their money?

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New Statesman: Is it ever their money?

Voters want proof their leader is living it up. If he can't secure a glamorous car for himself, how can he deliver on his promises to them?
Link
http://www.newstatesman.com/200709060022
Country
United Kingdom
Date
September 6, 2007
By
Michela Wong

"Hummer is here," the billboards looming over Nairobi's dusty streets ominously announce. "Maybe you felt the tremors." Indeed we did. Long before General Motors East Africa officially launched its Hummer H3 on the local market last week - a mere snip at six million Kenyan shillings (£45,000) - the brashest of off-road vehicles had caused a stir here in Kenya. Demonstrating his clear superiority over those who are only now getting their chance to place orders with GM's local branch, the opposition leader Raila Odinga has been driving an imported red Hummer - said to be a gift from an admirer - for months. A showman to his fingertips, he is depending on the Hummer to lend added glamour to an already polished campaign as the country heads towards elections in December.

Raila is a Luo, and many of his supporters live in Kibera, a sprawling maze of rusty corrugated-iron roofs, narrow alleyways and open sewers with only a few dirt tracks wide enough for a Su zuki jeep, let alone the extra-wide Hummer. No matter: theatricality triumphs over pragmatism. And Odinga, who enjoys a reputation as the poor man's champion, knows exactly what he is doing. Disapproving expatriates may wistfully recall the likes of Julius Nyerere, the Tanzanian president who walked to work, but most Kenyans savour the macho flamboyance. "No need to guess who's driving this," commented one TV journalist admiringly as the red monster roared up to parliament. "A big car for the Big One." Voters want proof their leader is living it up. If he can't secure a glamorous car for himself, how can he deliver on his promises to them?

My own driver runs a 30-year-old Volvo, now in its death throes. On my first day in Nairobi, we juddered into a nearby petrol station, the clutch control gone. The second day, a tyre exploded, shattering a sidelight and leaving me crouched in my seat, wondering who had opened fire. When I asked my driver whether he thought it was appropriate for the main opposition contender in a country as poor as this to be running the least fuel-efficient 4x4 on the market, he shrugged. "Why not, if it is his own money?"

Which, of course, begs the question. Whether opposition candidates or incumbents, is it ever their own money? Kenyans are still digesting the implications of a report compiled by Kroll, the asset recovery and risk advisory firm, into the fortune of the former president Daniel arap Moi, now a powerful opposition éminence grise. A devastating catalogue of top-level looting, the leaked report estimates that Moi and his sons acquired nearly £1bn in trusts, company shares, real estate and bank accounts during his 24-year rule.

The timing of the leak was mischievous in the extreme. In one of the most cynical pacts in Kenyan history, Moi had just given the presidential incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, his endorsement, indicating he would instruct his Rift Valley supporters to vote for a former enemy - one whose own administration stands accused of breathtaking levels of sleaze. The leak leaves one president looking like a crook, another like a crook's new best friend. No wonder the Kenyan government has slammed the leaked document as "inaccurate and incomplete".

It all serves to underscore the sheer incestuousness of the political scene, characteristic of so many African states. Across the spectrum, it's hard to spot a player who has not at one point jumped into bed with his erstwhile enemies, only to fall out again, and then to re-embrace. Kibaki served as vice-president and finance minister under Moi. Raila Odinga served in the cabinets of both men, walking out on one and being sacked by the other. If everyone has wolfed down the goodies that access to supreme power gives, it is hard later to claim purity. These politicians might rebaptise their parties, but it's always the same old dirty water swilling around.

How eagerly can a voter go to the polls, when he knows that those denouncing today's graft are the looters of yesteryear? When I asked him how he would vote, my local newsagent sighed. "People in this country are like meat for hyenas. The only question is which hyena do you want to be eaten by - Hyena Raila, Hyena Musyoka or Hyena Kibaki? Whichever way, it's a hyena coming to eat us."

An anti-corruption campaigner tells me a recent survey established that between independence and today Kenya has seen only 1,100 MPs come and go. No wonder the faces look so familiar. No wonder everyone has something on everyone else. Renewal is desperately needed, but it's not due any time soon.

One can only hope, as the rallies, leafleting and wooing of the public get seriously under way, that the electorate remembers the link between the Hummers of today - whoever they are driven by - and the Kroll reports of tomorrow. Reward those who see conspicuous consumption as the main objective of winning power, and you know what to expect in 24 years' time.

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