Saturday, January 17, 2009



By Jerry Okungu
Nairobi, Kenya
January 17, 2009

I met Ken Flottman sometimes in 2007 when he was in Kenya as the Country Director with the International Republican Institute. The occasion was a trip to Garissa town in Northern Kenya to train parliamentary aspirants on basics of political campaign management.

This was my first time to really be around him for a long time; two days of training and two days of traveling. After that incident, I never saw him again until he left Kenya abruptly following the controversial 2007 elections.

My conversation with Ken those four days in the sweltering sun of North Eastern revealed another side of him that I am not sure many Kenyans had observed. I realized that he was a keen observer and listener, and where he didn’t understand the situation, he would readily engage us in the conversation. And unlike many foreigners, he wasn’t afraid to talk politics with local Kenyans.

Towards the end of 2008 when I was on vacation in the USA, Ken mysteriously traced me through the internet and we reconnected again.

It was at this time that he talked to me candidly about the saga that surrounded Kenya’s 2007 exit poll whose controversy has lingered on for more than a year. He was in charge of that project at the time therefore he should know better than anybody else.

In the short time he lived in Kenya, he made the lifestyles of our local politicians his pet pastime. He made many candid observations that I find so fundamental to our bad leadership that if only our politicians could heed his advice, we would all live in a better society so devoid of unnecessary tensions between the haves and the have-knots.

Ken is still wondering why Kenyan MPs and ministers should not drive a Volkswagen as a model car instead of expensive cars from Europe and Japan.

As he ponders over this anomaly, he confesses that he certainly learned a lot from Kenyans from all walks of life, especially from Kenyan politicians that he met.
Since returning “home” to the American election year he had been thinking about a specific symbolic thing that he could share back from his experience in the United States that might be of some special value to Kenyans in the current struggle to reshape a more stable and sustainable Kenyan model of democracy.
It has to do with the Mercedes Benz.

One of the questions he was most frequently asked in Kenya during the trying times following announcement of the “results” of December’s election by the ECK was whether Americans had “tribes” in America. He found that question difficult to answer at a variety of levels perhaps because one key difference that explains a lot about the relative stability and lawfulness of politics over the years in the U.S. is that Americans do not have a political tribe that can be fairly identified as the Wabenzi.

In the U.S., politicians don’t generally drive Mercedes or other vehicles that are intended as symbols of elite and privileged status. Politicians usually drive vehicles that help them be seen as identifying with the majority of the constituents whose votes they seek. Likewise, American politicians have generally been expected over the years to drive American cars as part of the same “message”.

However, in Kenya, where to have any car is a privilege of relative elite, the Mercedes favored by the political tribe fairly screams of elitism and access to pools of money that most voters could only dream of.

Whatever elected officials in the U.S. do with their own money, even in “the world’s largest economy” it would be quite a scandal to spend taxpayer dollars for a Mercedes, much less a large fleet of them.

In his opinion, the Kenyan government’s failure to maintain a reasonable road network is a scandal of epic proportions that has much to do with regional underdevelopment and the tribalist sentiment that boiled over into mass killings after the ECK’s post-vote fiasco.

To spend the wananchi’s money on Mercedes in a country where most of the roads are not really fit for bicycles seemed to him to be beyond extravagance to the point of representing a profound moral failure.

And he continues to argue that it certainly isn’t just roads because in spite of economic growth the government sang about most of 2007, it hardly touched the provision of basic services in so many areas of the country over so many years including the perennial food crisis that faced most parts of the country with each passing year.

He argues that, the difference in cost between a Toyota and a Lexus can pay for a water project in Nairobi’s Kawangware, Mathare Valley, Kibera slums or Pand Pieri informal settlements in Kisumu. It is simply a matter of priorities.
Sadly in Kenya, public officials choose to serve their personal interests rather than the interests of the public.

He, however recognizes that there are cultural differences between the U.S. and Kenya that come into play but luxury cars do not really have anything to do with the legitimate tribal traditions of anyone other than the neocolonialist Wabenzi, and that Kenyans need to look now more than ever to elect those who will actually lead rather than simply pose with a mace or a Mercedes.

Ken Flottman may be an American who lived here for just one year. That notwithstanding, he has told us a few home truths.

Tell this our politicians and they will remind you that Kenya is a sovereign state that does not need any foreigner to tell us what to do with our money. Unfortunately when hunger strikes, we surrender our sovereignty in exchange for handouts!