Political culture just as important as the law

In Summary

Nordic political culture – Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Iceland – is irrevocably opposed to any suggestion of elected leaders living like royalty when attending to their official duties.

The United Nations Environmental Assembly and the One Planet Summit – both held last week at the UNEP campus in Gigiri – brought a lot of distinguished foreigners to Nairobi.

The presence of these VIPs reminded me of a story I was told many years ago by an ambassador accredited to Kenya by one of the Nordic countries.

It was a story about a high-level visit to an East African nation, by one of the Cabinet ministers from his country.

What happened is that there were quite a number of conferences and workshops taking place in the hotel where the ministerial delegation was to stay, and thus there was a shortage of rooms. So, the hotel management very diplomatically upgraded the visiting minister from the standard room that had been requested, to the presidential suite, at no extra cost.

Now at this point, I must explain that whereas most Kenyan readers may imagine they know what a presidential suite looks like, the fact is you have to actually walk into one to get an idea of the grandeur and magnificence of a presidential suite at a five-star hotel.

In my travels around the world over the past two decades, I have stayed at some very luxurious hotels. But I had never seen the inside of a presidential suite, until I was asked by the BBC World Service – for whom I was then doing a weekly commentary on economics and business – to attend a high-level conference in a neighbouring country.

My own hotel room was nice enough. But the eye-opening experience came when the Director of Communications for the host organisation, came to get me and take me for a promised interview with the CEO.

I am deliberately concealing the identity of my hosts, as I later got to know this CEO quite well. He is a brilliant but modest man who would be embarrassed to read now – roughly 10 years after our meeting – that as I walked across a vast carpeted area to get to the elegant sofa where he sat waiting, I wondered if that presidential suite could possibly be any smaller than a tennis court.

And that was not even the half of it. Later, when I remarked on the sheer size and luxury of the presidential suite’s “sitting room” to the communications director, she told me of the additional facilities which I had not seen.

If I recall correctly, they included a fully-equipped kitchen, a private conference room; a private office; and two bedrooms each with a walk-in closet and “en suite” bathroom.

But back to the Nordic Cabinet minister: to the utter astonishment of the hotel managers, the minister flatly refused to occupy the presidential suite, which I imagine must have been very much like the one I saw.

It would seem that Nordic political culture – and I speak here of Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Iceland – is irrevocably opposed to any suggestion of elected leaders living like royalty when attending to their official duties.

And so strong is this tradition that it would apparently have been a devastating black mark on the minister’s record if it had got out that, while on a tour of development projects in a poor nation, she had found it appropriate to occupy a presidential suite.

Equally amazing, the other lesser VIPs also refused to take up the offer of that presidential suite. In the end it was the humblest member of the delegation, the minister’s personal assistant, who was ordered to move into the presidential suite and allow her minister to occupy the standard room which had been reserved for that PA.

Such then is the egalitarian political culture of Scandinavia.

Now contrast this with Kenya where any leading politician turning up at a church fundraiser with millions of shillings in cash is deliriously cheered by the congregation, as he (or she) hands the loot over to the pastor.

And where landing at a dusty school field in a ‘personal’ helicopter, is now the indispensable proof that an ambitious politician has “arrived”.