Waiting for the Minister’s Convoy

Kigali, Rwanda: I stood outside the beautiful Serena Hotels conference hall lobby, chatting on my phone. At 8:35 a.m., I had arrived a little too early for the conference slated for 9.15 a.m. With the Minister of Public Service and Labor as the person giving the opening remarks, and being in Africa, I reckoned that the event will start at about 10:30 a.m; enough time to allow the busy Minister attend to other “urgent matters.”

At 9.05, an unremarkable jeep pulled up in front of me. A man dressed in a suit I would consider not too fashionable alighted, clutching some files. He walked briskly past me towards the hall. Must be some civil servant conference participant, I noted casually.

At about 9:17 a.m. the sound of opening activities came to me from within the hall indicating the commencement of the event. Excellent, I thought; no African time here.

But how could the conference organizers have commenced without the Minister who is billed to be one of the very first to address the audience, I inquired of my Rwandan neighbor.

“The Minister is here” he said. “There he is.” I followed the polite nod of his head as his eyes rested on the simple looking man who passed me earlier.

“OK. He sent a representative.”  I responded as I busied myself going through the event schedule.

“No. He is the Minister.”

For some seconds my mind was beclouded. I suddenly found myself concluding that I was either erroneously at a religious gathering, and that the ordained minister heading the congregation was being pointed out to me, or more realistically, that  I was indeed at the right government function where a reverend minister had been  invited  to say the opening prayers. That was the only way it would make sense to me that the man who alighted from that car without fanfare is indeed a government minister.

In search of clarity for my befuzzled mind, I took a second, closer look at the schedule and saw clearly written, Opening Remarks by the Minister of Public Service and Labor.

Lost in thought, I did not realize that I had dropped my phone until my kind neighbor nudged me back to reality.

“Is he a full Minister or the Minister of State, or Executive Assistant to the Minister” I further probed, not realizing that I did not say thank you for his good deed.

“He is the Minister.” He responded, a little bit bewildered by my disconcerted body language.

I ignored him and turned to ask the honest looking elderly lady beside me. I hold no grudge against young men, the likes of who just gave me the information, but I needed a second opinion from someone more reliable in appearance.

“Excuse me Madam. When are we expecting the Minister of Public Service and Labor?”  I asked.

“Where are you from?” The good lady asked, perhaps sensing my flash bipolar condition.

“Nigeria” I responded meekly, humbled  – as is now often the case – by the negative gravity often experienced at the mention of that name.

“Your accent,” she said, smiling and not elaborating further. “The Minister is the one speaking.” She concluded diverting her full attention to the podium.

The  gentleman had just taken the microphone and was very calmly and respectfully addressing the full room of civil servants, university professors, and other citizens.

Very interesting.  Not one extra car did I see with the minister upon his arrival. I only have a vague recollection of seeing someone else in the front seat apart from the driver. The man opened the car door himself and carried his files.

During lunch, the Minister – I still cannot believe it as I write – joined us to queue for food; the same service line, the same food, the same drink, the same plates and cutlery. Nothing different for the “big man.”

Excuse me someone, am I in Africa or elsewhere?

Yes. This is Africa.  Welcome to Rwanda. The African country where government ministers are not entitled to any extra car allowance and definitely no sirens. Upon appointment as a minister, the appointee is given the equivalent of 11,000 USD in local currency to buy a car. He gets a monthly allowance of 1,400 USD to maintain his vehicle. and that is it. He is also entitled to only one security personnel and one secretary. No more personal servant or any other form of assistant or aide is allowed the minister. The Attorney General (known as Prosecutor General) gets about 15,000 USD to buy a car, and 700 USD monthly for car maintenance.  The senators get even less in allowance and office perks.

Contrast this with the situation in Kenya. Ministers on the bill of the government purchase vehicles include top-of the-range Mercedes Benz, Volvos and powerful four-wheel-drives like Range Rovers, Land Cruisers, Nissan Patrols and Toyota Prados.

In his first year in power in 2002, President Mwai Kibaki’s government set to task purchasing  high-end luxury vehicles. And  “between January 2003 and September 2004, the new government spent at least 878 million Kenya shillings (about 12 million dollars) in the purchase of luxury cars that were largely for the personal use of senior government officials such as ministers, assistant ministers and permanent secretaries,” cites a Transparency International report.

When the Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta implored ministers to cut costs by purchasing less expensive cars with engine capacities of no more than 1.8 litres, the ministers refused stating that they “need to look like ministers.” Housing Minister Soita Shitanda expressly stated that he “cannot drive into a function in a small car similar to the ones driven by teenagers.”

A minister in Nigeria reportedly has over 30 aides- no one is sure of the exact number. The ministers travel in long convoys of siren blaring cars.  Federal ministers, senior army, air force and naval officers, state commissioners, local government chairmen and others are entitled to cars and to the use of sirens.

When in late 2011 President Jonathan announced  – during the launch of the Federal Road Safety Commission’s new driver’s license and number plates – a nationwide ban on the use of sirens by unauthorized persons, few Nigerians took him seriously.

Some would argue that it is unfair to denounce countries like Nigeria with an unusually high number of cars, security and personnel as part of their ministerial convoy as these are some of the most dangerous places on earth to be a resident, not to talk of a prominent one.  Being appointed even to a street environmental task force remotely connected with the local government, results in nothing less than a declaration of fatwa on the appointee by the criminal community – kidnappers, swindlers, armed robbers, even pick pockets.

One cannot go without the other. It is the corruption entrenched in the public service that has resulted in the abundance of crime on the streets of Lagos, Nairobi and Kampala.  When a minister’s salary and allowances are so high, while the common man struggles to pay for even the most basic healthcare, then of course, the minister becomes a target for the disgruntled and crime prone segment of society. When ministers are demi-gods, arriving at meetings two hours behind schedule to a standing ovation by the delighted audience, then that society needs complete overhaul.

Rwanda serves as an example for other African countries to emulate. A minister is there to serve the masses and should always present himself or herself as such, and not as their lord.

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