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 told Think Africa Press, “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.
With 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 may be cause for concern for some Asian business leaders. Before the elections, many of Kenya's Asians were "buying insurance" says Sudhir Vidyarthi, a Kenyan media mogul of Indian descent and Colourprint’s CEO, supporting both candidates but hoping for Raila - many Asian businessmen boast close ties with the current Prime Minister. There are fears in significant pockets of the Asian community that a Kenyatta presidency could affect Asian run businesses.
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 some call “Briefcase Businessmen” – typically middlemen who secure government contracts then quietly subcontract to Asian businesses. These third party middlemen allegedly take a cut and give kickbacks to their MPs or whomever they are working with.
“The Asian community is a minority in numbers, but a majority in terms of economic power”, says Zahid Rajan, 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.
There hasn’t always been tension between Asians and Kikuyus. In fact, in the years leading up to Kenya’s independence, 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.
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.
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 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, 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.”
Amendment note 19/3/13: The third and fourth paragraphs of the section "On shaky ground" have been altered. This is a precaution against Kenya's hate speech laws and an acknowledgement of the potential effects that overly ethnicised language could have in the potentially febrile political environment.
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