Friday, January 18, 2013

In the footsteps of Mobutu

 

By CIUGU MWAGIRU ciugumwagiru@yahoo.co.uk

When President Kibaki recently rejected the Sh9.3 million send-off pay law by Kenya’s Parliament, the country reacted with a sigh of relief as praises for the incumbent president’s wisdom and sense of justice inundated the media.

The relief was, however, short-lived, coming as it did amidst concurrent reports of other instances of frittering away public funds, the latest — ironically from the same Parliament’s Committee on Defence and Foreign Relations — being that 13 Kenyan ambassadors, most of them appointed for political considerations, are in office illegally and have been receiving millions in monthly salaries and allowances long after their contracts expired.

By the time the Tenth Parliament was formally dissolved on Monday, January 14, 2013, some of its members were already tainted by the slew of scandals that dogged their tenure.

The upshot was that, after a suspicious nocturnal session characterised by practised sleight-of-hand tactics, the parliamentarians awarded themselves a package that would have given each one of them Sh9.3 million.

The MPs’ manoeuvres would also have given them the right to, among other things... hold tight... a state funeral, diplomatic passport and lifelong state security.

With a total of Sh2.1 billion for the Tenth Parliament’s 224 legislators, including the Speaker and the Attorney General, clearly the legislators did not see themselves facing the vicissitudes of ordinary life in Kenya.

In the meantime, the arguably equally controversial Presidential Retirement Benefits (Amendment) Bill 2012, touching on Kibaki’s own benefits, is still in place.

It provides that Mr Kibaki will, upon his imminent retirement, take home a Sh16.5 million lump sum for the two terms he will have served, as well as a lifetime Sh161,000 house allowance and a Sh200,000 entertainment allowance.

The incumbent president will, in addition, receive a monthly pension of Sh560,000 and a slew of other attractive perks.

For instance, his local travel will be covered by Kenyan taxpayers, while he will also be entitled to a diplomatic passport for himself and the First Lady.

Also provided for will be an international travel allowance covering four trips not exceeding two weeks each, while also having access to VIP lounges at all Kenyan airports.

For his convenience, the retired president will, for the rest of his life, also be assigned a pair each of housekeepers, gardeners and laundry persons and four house cleaners, in addition to office and vehicle maintenance allowances.

But while the presidential rebuffing of the Kenyan MPs’ greed might have put paid to their jittery, final looting spree just prior to their legal exit from the legislature, it has not been lost to many that their misuse of Parliament is a widespread feature of political classes elsewhere in Africa and beyond.

Recent examples of abuses of political positions include the spending of millions of dollars in public funds to refurbish South African President Jacob Zuma’s rural home.

Those examples may be nothing compared to the situation in Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe’s wife Grace is predisposed to regular shopping sprees in Europe and elsewhere during which she uses jets commandeered from the national carrier for astounding periods.

Another apt example of wanton looting involves Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, today recognised as Africa’s longest serving ruler.

In power since August 1979 when he overthrew his uncle Francisco Macías Nguema in a bloody coup d’état, Mbasogo has little to show in terms of economic advancement and general prosperity for his people.

Instead, the president of   one of Africa’s largest producers of oil, which also has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, has a tarnished reputation, alongside members of his family, for gross misuse of state resources.

For instance, Teodorin Obiang, the first son of the president and first in line to succeed his father in what has become one of Africa’s most stark family dynasties, is reputed to live on the fast lane.

According to www.forbes.com, he spends millions of dollars of state funds in financing an outrageously lavish lifestyle said to rival those of Hollywood stars and pop music icons. In the meantime, his country still ranks very poorly in the United Nations human development index.

Shockingly, the vast majority of Equatorial Guineans hardly have access to clean drinking water, while the country, despite its vast natural resources, also has one of the world’s highest under-five mortality rates, with an estimated 20 per cent of its children dying before the age of five.

Most of the 80 per cent of children who survive have no access to quality educational and healthcare facilities.

Yet another example is President José Eduardo dos Santos of Angola, which is extremely resource-rich and  the second-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa.

It also has massive diamond deposits and occupies an enviable position as the world’s fourth largest producer of rough diamonds.

Presiding over that massive national wealth, veteran President Dos Santos runs his country like it’s his personal, privately-owned investment holding company.

Recognised as Africa’s second longest serving president and easily re-elected last year, he today heads a vast family dynasty.

Revealingly, according to Forbes, his daughter, Isabel Dos Santos, is by many accounts the wealthiest woman in the country and among the richest people in Africa.

According to africandictor.org, the avant-garde Isabel has over the years amassed one of Angola’s largest personal fortunes by using proceeds from her father’s wealth.  

But the sterling Dos Santos family prosperity notwithstanding, for all its resource wealth, the vast majority of Angola’s citizens still reportedly live in the most horrid socio-economic conditions, with a stunning 68 per cent of the country’s total population subsisting below the poverty line of $1.7 per day, while 28 per cent live on less than 30 cents.

While education is free, it’s said to be practically worthless, with most of the schools housed in dilapidated structures, and facing a severe deficit of skilled and qualified teachers.

In the meantime, according to the UN Children’s Fund, 30 per cent of the country’s children are malnourished, with child and maternal death rates still extremely high, while the general life expectancy hovers at a miserable 41 years.

As for President Paul Biya of Cameroon, who has been in power since 1982, his lavish jetsetter lifestyle has attained legendary proportions.

Not surprising, recently there were media reports about some of his compatriots demanding his eviction from a Swiss hotel where the president and his accompanying delegation of hardcore sycophants has been cooped up in recent times.

Traditionally known to have a penchant for lengthy sojourns in exotic locations in Europe, Biya is said to stay away from his own country for months on end. 

In the meantime, he seems to revel in frittering away millions of dollars on endless vacations during which his entourage books entire lavish hotels at outrageous cost.

According to his critics, the latest jaunt continues, with Biya and his wife having flown to Switzerland for “a short private stay” during which they are reportedly installed at the posh Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva, where the cheapest suite reportedly costs $1,200 (Sh100, 000) per night.

Given that Biya routinely travels with a delegation of up to 40 people, his critics claim he could be spending  $48,000 (Sh4m) every night of his prolonged stay in the Geneva hotel.

As that profligacy continues, back home in Cameroon the average citizen reportedly subsists below the one-dollar-a-day threshold.

According to recent reports, half of the country’s 20 million population has no access to potable water, energy, proper health care and other pre-requisites of a dignified existence.

But however huge the misdeeds of current African rulers, they perhaps may not get anywhere near the excesses of past dictators and warlords like Liberia’s Charles Taylor, who was in May last year handed a 50-year jail term by The Hague-based International Criminal Court after being found guilty of a slew of offences.

Not surprisingly, Taylor was also accused by Amnesty International of having looted state coffers and used his troops to rape women and children as terror instruments.

As for former Nigerian military ruler Sani Abacha, who became a dollar billionaire many times over, corruption thrived during his years in power, as the strongman also recruited avid corrupt business partners from other countries and used them to siphon Nigerian money abroad.

Pointedly, after his death in 1998, over $3 billion worth of ill-acquired wealth linked to the eccentric and sadistic strongman was uncovered by the Nigerian government.

Consequently, Abacha was reported to have stolen millions of dollars from the country’s coffers and siphoned them to Western banks.

Almost unbelievably — but certainly under much sustained pressure — Abacha’s first son, Mohammed, eventually returned $1.2 billion to the Nigerian government in 2002 after a  series of negotiations between the Nigerian government and the Abacha family, according to saharareporters.com 

Another Nigerian former military ruler, Ibrahim Babangida, is said to have amassed a personal fortune running into billions of dollars, allegedly invested in a string of businesses managed by close proxies, most of them wealthy businessmen in their own right.
As for the state coffers of the relatively poor CAR, self-styled Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who is reputed to have had 17 wives and close to 50 children, proved to be one of the most rapacious African heads of state as he looted them with abandon, spending the money as if it came from a bottomless pit. He died in 1996.

As a pointer of his particular brand of profligacy, it was widely reported that his coronation alone cost $30 million (Sh2.4b), while he is said to have amassed about $125 million as his personal fortune, a considerable amount given the poverty of his country.

Unlike Abacha’s case, there was no similar repatriation of illicit funds with regard to the late Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, the former president of the Democratic Republic of Congo renowned for his legendary profligacy and general vanity.

While in power, Mobutu earned international notoriety as a poster boy for the excesses of typical African despots.

The proud owner of several yachts, he also owned a string of exotic Mercedes cars and, together with his favoured entourage, spent funds looted from state coffers with relish.

Not one to stick in one place for too long, he had numerous jaunts around the world, and reportedly divided his time between plush palatial residences in Paris, Lausanne in  Switzerland and other exotic destinations.

Apart from his legendary womanising, www.tnr.com informs us that Mobutu was renowned for almost obsessive hedonism.

According to some reports, he had over the years  developed a special taste for pink Champagne, and also flew in fresh cakes from Paris for his consumption.

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