Return of the Kikuyu Presidents
Since the election of President Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, in 2002, however, things have changed in some ways but not in others. The political space opened up, avenues for working politically have improved, yet the Asian community remained silent. “It’s a self-defeatist community”, Rajan admits, “they buy their way through politics, and do not get involved at all”. As had been the case since independence, the community stayed away from politics and the community remains untied to the ethnic divisions that run through the Kenyan system. Asians feared sticking their necks out too far and the community’s attitude remains ‘AGIP’ (any government in power), according to Rajan – they vote on what’s good for business and the economy.
But this year, there were signs of a shift. Asian leaders like Rajan were in full force on radio, in print, and at local meetings, encouraging their community to stick around and not leave, like many did last time, and exercise their right to vote. There was no unifying candidate for Asians in this election, but Asian big business money was essentially used tactically as insurance, funding both Uhuru Kenyatta and his leading contender Raila Odinga.
Sudhir Vidyarthi estimates that the community contributed tens of millions of dollars to various political candidates during the campaigns – a number impossible to verify. Yet with Kenyatta’s recent win, the community fears it will nevertheless see their business decline. “Kenyatta is more aggressive than Kibaki when it comes to business”, claims economist James Shikwati. Kenyatta is one of Kenya’s richest businessmen, controlling several industries like dairy, and his family owns land equal to the whole of Nyanza Province. The Asian community “has every reason to be scared”, he says. He says it’s certainly possible for Kenyatta to set up parallel companies to run Asians out of business, if he wanted to.
And while Rajan and others in the Kenya Asian Forum are encouraging the Asian community to become more involved in politics, Shikwati believes that their plan could backfire. “They could become the 43rd tribe that no one wants”, he says. The Asian vote would never a decisive one, and even the Asian youth haven’t changed much, continuing to organise within rather than outside their community.
Although their money speaks louder than ballots, if they lose business, Asians lose their might. India is now Kenya’s largest import market, and India has given an essentially “silent guarantee” to help it’s diaspora in Africa. But that doesn’t mean things couldn’t change in the next few years.
Kenyatta’s reported ties to the other Asian power – China – could see a shift in the balance of economic influence. And if Kenyatta is convicted by the International Criminal Court on what some see as trumped up charges aimed at keeping him from power, possible Western sanctions could open up greater opportunities for Chinese businesses, which tend to overlook sanctions for human rights violations.
Whichever way things go, the Asian community is stepping carefully. Their interests are secured, for now, but it may not be that way forever. “We’ve been pushing the community for 20 years, saying that your economic power will not last forever – you need to safeguard your rights and be a part of the political process”, says Rajan. “It’s only a matter of time until their entire identity will be questioned.”
By; Jonathan Kalan