AFRICANGLOBE – With Uhuru Kenyatta, a Kikuyu and business behemoth, set to take over the reins of power, some of Kenya’s Asian community is concerned for the future.
In the weeks leading up to Kenya’s general elections, business at Nairobi’s Colourprint, one of the city’s oldest printing presses and one of Kenya’s many Asian-run companies, was booming. The demand for tens of millions of campaign posters, flyers and leaflets meant to sway voters between the thousands of nominated candidates for various local and national positions, left the company scrambling to keep up the pace. “We can print up to 300,000 posters in one day”, Assistant General Manager John Kyalo said, “and we’ve been operating 24/7 since January”.
Yet there was one candidate whose posters did not pass through Colourprint’s press: Jubilee Coalition candidate Uhuru Kenyatta – an aggressive businessman, Kikuyu, International Criminal Court indictee, son of Kenya’s founding president, and now Kenya’s president-elect.
On Shaky Ground
With Uhuru Kenyatta slated to be Kenya’s next president, trying times may be ahead for the Asian community, which owns a significant share of the country’s major manufacturing industries. Kenya’s Asian community – predominantly made up of south Asians who worked on the railroads and stayed to build retail businesses then larger industries, or came later to join relatives – is an economic goliath in Kenya but a political piranha, carefully nipping at all sides of the political field to serve their business interests.
Estimated at around 100,000 strong, Kenya’s Asians have no unified voice in politics. And in a political climate marked by ethnic competition, the Asian community has remained politically irrelevant for decades, feeding themselves and the economy by building Kenya’s industrial backbone, creating stable industries and hedging their political bets by working behind the scenes, buying power and influence with whomever is in charge.
With another Kikuyu presidency, however, there is cause for concern. “Another Kikuyu in power will be a big blow to the Asian community”, says Sudhir Vidyarthi, a Kenyan media mogul of Indian descent and Colourprint’s CEO. “It will only get worse. Corruption will increase [with] more people will be getting their share.”
The signs were already there under outgoing president Mwai Kibaki. When Kibaki, also a Kikuyu, came to power in 2002, Asian companies in industries like printing stopped receiving government tenders, according to several Asian businessmen. Instead, business went to Kikuyu companies, or what Sudhir Vidyarthi calls “Briefcase Businessmen” – typically Kikuyu middlemen who secure government contracts then quietly subcontract to Asian businesses. These third party middlemen allegedly take a cut and give kickbacks to their MP’s or whomever they are working with.
“The Asian community is a minority in numbers, but a majority in terms of economic power”, says Zahid Ranjan, founder of the Kenya Asian Form, and Editor of Awaaz Magazine, which focuses on east Africa’s Asian community. But, he warns, “the ground is already shifting. They are sitting at a very precarious position.”
Downtown Nairobi’s River Road has seen a host of small Kenyan printers open up, cutting into the industry, and Somalis are beginning to overtake the Indians in the retail sector. Now, Kikuyu businesses, once mostly dealing in land, banking, and agriculture, are finding their way into industrial sectors too.
From Partners to Pariahs
There hasn’t always been tension between Asians and Kikuyus. In fact, in the years leading up to Kenya’s independence, some in Kenya’s Indian community fought side by side with Kikuyus for Kenya’s freedom. In 1933, Sudhir’s father, Girdhari Lal Vidyarthi, founded Colonial Printing Works. The presses’ flagship paper was “The Colonial Times”, a prominent newspaper that spearheaded the anti-colonial political writing of Kenya’s earliest freedom fighters like Tom Mboya and Jomo Kenyatta. Its motto was “Frank, Free, and Fearless”. The paper also fuelled the efforts of Indian-born freedom fighters like Makhan Singh – who founded East African Trade Union Congress, the first central organisation of trade unions in Kenya – and Pio Gama Pinto, one of most active members of anti-colonial movement. Both individuals played key roles in the independence movement, and eventually the Mau Mau uprising. Under British rule in 1945, G.L. Vidyarthi was the first Kenyan ever charged with Sedition, and served two years in prison with hard labour.
Yet on the eve of independence, everything changed for the growing Indian community. Immediately after Jomo Kenyatta’s first post-colonial government came to power, “the movement got betrayed”, claims Rajan. Both Pio Gama Pinto and Tom Mboya were assassinated. President Kenyatta warned Indians to stay out of politics, and disbanded the Kenya Indian Congress. It was a period of grand ‘Africanisation’, and many Indian business were forcibly taken over. “From then on, the voice of the Asian community was driven underground”, explains Rajan.
Mohinder Dhillon, 82, a world-renowned Indian-born Kenyan cameraman, remembers the time clearly. He says that the Indian community’s part in the anti-colonial struggle was “a fight of conscience”, one which India had successfully overcome 17 years earlier. Yet when Kenya’s struggle was won, and Africanisation began, he felt broken. “I felt disgusted, but we couldn’t do anything about it”, he says. He believes the reason Indians were targeted was because they took money from where it hurt the most – the poor. “They worked where they were noticeable, making them an easy target when it came to Africanisation.” And so the Asian community went silent. They became insulated, creating a tight-knit community out of fear, and focused on business interests.
Business is Business
In the late 1970s, however, things began to change for the better for the Asian community when Daniel Arap Moi, who was part of the Kalenjin ethnic bloc, became president. Asian businesses moved up from retail to dominate major manufacturing in industries such as textiles and printing. “In being tolerable to Indians, Moi became the richest man in Kenya”, recalls Dhillon. James Shikwati, a Kenyan economist and Director of the Inter Region Economic Network, agrees. “‘Don’t touch the Asians’ was Moi’s policy”, he says, and it served Moi, and the Asians, well. Moi became Kenya’s richest man.
There were a few hitches, however. When Vidyarthi’s company, Colourprint, was too critical of the Moi narrative in 1994, the press was raided. Earlier, hired thugs attempted to burn the press down, but only succeeded in burning their own car and fleeing. The car was later found to be registered in the name of Moi’s son.
Generally, however, although democracy suffered and freedom of expression was stifled and beaten under the Moi regime, for most of the Asian community, it didn’t matter. Business was good.