Friday, June 24, 2005

Mercedes Benz-the car of choice for corrupt African dictators

Cover Story
How African leaders spend our money
Aidan Hartley

‘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.

There's more. Read the whole thing. And weep.

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