Rasna Warah: Politicians must avoid gaudy displays of wealth and might

I DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU, BUT I am getting rather fed up of seeing our politicians revert to the bad old days of showing off their power through symbols of wealth, such as armoured cars, golfing jaunts and corteges of security personnel (who have a tendency to fly out of moving cars in a show of bravado).

It is almost as if they are completely unaware that thousands of women and children are still living in deplorable camps around the country and that almost the entire country is in a state of depression.

Frankly, most Kenyans don’t care if their politicians drive the latest Mercedes 500S or an old, beaten-up Toyota pick-up.

In fact, given that inequality has been cited as one of the root causes of the recent violence, it appears odd that the leading proponents of equity and justice should now become such blatantly conspicuous consumers of luxury goods.

Perhaps this is not so surprising. As Kalundi Serumaga, a Ugandan film producer who lived as a refugee in Kenya in the 1980s, has said, Kenya has a unique capacity to “normalise the abnormal”.

How else can we explain the fact that a country where half the population cannot afford to eat more than one meal a day is one of the biggest client bases of the Daimler-Benz corporation?

Or that people with an acre of land are killed for their property while those holding on to thousands of acres are not only left alone, but elected to Parliament?

I have yet to hear a politician speak about passing a Bill to cut politicians’ salaries – a sore point with many Kenyans – or talking about the reforms that need to be accelerated now that we have a coalition government.

All we have heard since February 28 is speculation about who might get which ministerial post and whether each tribe will be represented.

Talk about de-ethnicising Kenya has already been forgotten: our politicians, from both sides of the divide, have ensured that ethnicity remains the main criterion for a Government post.

In other more developed countries, it is not unusual to see heads of state mingling with ordinary folk or even using public transport.( I was stunned recently to see a photo of Gordon Brown using the London Underground.)

This is not to say that politicians don’t deserve security or a relatively comfortable standard of living; the point is, these luxuries should be commensurate with a country’s GDP.

So instead of having 100 security officers following them around, why do these leaders not settle for say, 10? Why do they act as if they are running some kind of superpower?

AFRICAN LEADERS HAVE NO HANG-ups about hogging taxpayers’ money at the expense of their own populations, the majority of whom are poor.

They face no moral dilemmas as they squander their nations’ wealth to make their own lives more comfortable, or to build self-glorifying monuments.

This culture of self-aggrandisement has become an epidemic on the continent. Remember Mobutu Sese Seko who built himself eleven “palaces” while his people starved? Or how about the unforgettable Jean-Bedel Bokassa who declared himself “Emperor” of the Central African Republic, and then spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a coronation ceremony?

Is it not a shame that the poorest region in the world has produced some of the most extravagant leaders?

When a country goes through a revolution, one of the first things the revolution’s leaders do is to institute reforms immediately in order to capitalise on the changed mood in the country.

For instance, when Fidel Castro took over Cuba from the gluttonous General Fulgencio Batista in 1959, the first thing he did was to institute rural land reforms and to make access to health and education the birthright of every Cuban.

Whether or not his policies were the right ones is debatable, but through these reforms, Castro managed to gain the loyalty and support of millions of Cubans who were living in grinding poverty.

Apart from the implementation of free primary education, no significant reforms took place after Kenya’s 2002 revolution.

The moment and the goodwill of Kenyans were wasted as politicians jostled for power or consolidated their personal or political interests.

The 2008 revolution, if I may call it that, has also left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Kenyans, who expected to see genuine commitment among leaders to address historical injustices and to bring about greater equity.

This may still happen, but the momentum is probably already lost, as it was in 2002.

What Kenyans don’t want to see is the establishment of dozens of lengthy, money draining commissions of inquiry, as was done in 2003, which will serve only to gloss over – and bury – some of the more painful truths about how this country has been governed in the last 40 years.

Ms Warah is an editor with the UN.

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