Why Kenya’s War on Corruption Should Be Inclusive

Published on 25th September 2023

Members of the Asian community, of which the vast majority is of Indian descent continue to play a pivotal role in the socio economic development of Kenya six decades after the country attained independence.

One is likely to find Indians in big and small urban centres where they control small and medium-sized commercial enterprises. The Indian people in Kenya rarely scramble to get employed. They focus on businesses with high chances of success. Others are engaged in running schools, hospitals, publishing, and charities.

It's worth remembering that Indians endured dehumanizing labour conditions from the British colonialists during the construction of the Kenya Uganda railway in late 1800. This propelled the country's vitality for trade in East Africa.

Constructing the railway stretching from Mombasa to Uganda wasn't easy. The Indians were often called pejorative names with a connotation of slavery "coolies" by British masters. On the other hand, the human-wildlife conflict, man-eaters of Tsavo, and resistance from local communities like Maasais and Nandis took a toll on Indian constructors, whereby many lost their lives.

On a personal level, I wouldn't be where I'm today if it were not for the superb management skills of Mr. Suresh Shah, an Indian and the former managing director of the defunct Uchumi Supermarkets. The company offered me a job where I was able to navigate room for my dreams in life. Many Kenyans have shaped their destiny through members of Asian descent.

Uchumi Supermarkets hit the pinnacle as its share index soared in the former Nairobi Stock Exchange, currently the Nairobi Securities Exchange (NSE). When Shah left, his predecessor Mr. Titus Mugo, sunk the company. It went on receivership in 2006 making it one of the biggest corporate misfortunes in the country. Many attempts by the government and shareholders to revive Uchumi came to a halt. I wonder why Uchumi was doing well when an Indian was at the apex.

The commitment by Indians to fight for the country before and after independence puts them in a class of true heroes who love Kenya with a passion. They should be treated with utmost respect. Personalities like the late Makhan Singh, and Pio Gama Pinto deserve accolades for joining other Kenyan nationalists to fight for liberation from British rule.

Makhan, was a trade unionist who closely worked with the Mau Mau rebels while Pinto even became more critical to the excesses of Kenya's first President, Jomo Kenyatta, and was assassinated three years after independence.

This clearly demonstrates the reason why Asians born and naturalized in Kenya should enjoy every right just like any other Kenyan community. It wasn't for nothing that retired President Uhuru Kenyatta officially recognized the Asian community as the 44th tribe in 2017.

When President Ruto made a terse statement singling out Jaswant Rai, in the fight against graft, it reverberated to Kenyans in different ways.

I'm sure the President didn't mean any harm to Asians, especially those who call Kenya their home. However, what echoed in the minds of many Kenyans, especially the majority of the Asian community, is that Ruto, was indeed orchestrating a plan to jail, deport or send any corrupt members of the Asian community to their "maker."

The President's sentiments were repeated by the Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU) Secretary General Francis Atwoli while addressing mourners in Vihiga. This added insult to injury as critics of Atwoli, opine that since majority of COTU members are employed by Asian businesspeople, he should go slow in criticizing Indian investors.

The Rai controversy in the sugar sector and President Ruto's stern warning has brought to the fore a hot debate about Asians and their business dealings.

Just like Kenyans in the Diaspora, Asians migrated to the country and found a conducive atmosphere to pursue their dreams. Majority ventured into business and it became a huge success. That's why they control huge commercial enterprises which are a boon to the country's exchequer.

Others Asians have ventured into politics like Dr Swarup Mishra, former Kesses MP, Shakeel Shabir of Kisumu town, Nyaribari Chache's Jhanda Zaheer, and Rahim Dawood of North Imenti.

This shows that Kenya is a multicultural society where citizens respect and accommodate diversity. It also demonstrates that any human being irrespective of race, creed, or geographical origin can succeed in the country.

We want to be viewed as a country that embraces diversity, multiculturalism, social and economic cohesion. This does not mean that those who break the law should be left to go scot-free.

Despite the circus of Rai, in the sugar sector, not all Asian entrepreneurs are corrupt. Let the government of President Ruto go for all the rotten apples irrespective of their tribal leanings.

We understand the President's frustration about what bedevils Mumias Sugar Company and the many attempts the government has made to revive it. Furthermore, it's within his right to warn lawbreakers about the likely consequences of their actions.

There are those who hold the view that the President was being one-sided since there are many unresolved corrupt scandals touching key personalities in the country. For instance, in Uasin Gishu County, a former governor is embroiled in an education airlift to Finland where parents lost millions of Kenyan shillings, yet the alleged leader is serving in the Senate.

We can't sidestep mentioning members of the Asian community who have made an indelible mark in manufacturing, industry, philanthropy, and even education. The late Naushad Merali, of the Sameer group, with a net worth of Kshs 90 billion tops the list of Asian tycoons in Kenya. His company is a huge employer of many Kenyans.

Others like Manu Chandaria, and Vimal Shah of Comcraft group and Bidco Oil Refineries respectively are prolific businessmen whose companies employ hundreds of Kenyans. On the other hand, Chandaria is a great philanthropist who has used his personal wealth to transform many Kenyan lives.

The corruption perpetuated by native Kenyans is as bad as corruption by foreigners or naturalized Kenyans. The fight against this vice requires broad lenses. It doesn't matter whether it's a Whiteman, Asian, Kikuyu, or Kisii involved in corruption... The law has to take precedence to ensure fairness and justice in the process.

President Ruto, is on the steering wheel. He has every right to introduce any system that he deems necessary to fight endemic corruption in the country.

Prof. Charles Choti, a Kenyan living in Washington DC made this observation about Ruto's aggressive approach in the fight against graft, "If the President's comment about Jaswant Rai, can scare the corrupt to stop the vice, so be it. Even if he goes ahead to rally our legislators to introduce the death penalty to all convicts of corruption, like what the Chinese do, that will be the best deterrence mechanism in the fight against corruption.  

Majority of Kenyans want to see heads rolling. The president's move to have the corrupt face justice in KEMSA and KEBS needs to be lauded by all.

By Joseph Lister Nyaringo

President, Kenya Patriotic Movement, a Diaspora lobby based in the US.

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