As we approach the 2007 general elections in Kenya, non-residents are grappling with the question of wither the country goes come January 2008. Debate of the precise role of hundreds of thousands of Kenyans abroad has begun in earnest. A recent, widely circulated article by presidential aspirant Joseph Nyagah was no surprise. He exhorted the Kibaki administration to “involve Kenyans abroad in tackling the country’s problems”.
In my opinion, the forthcoming elections present perhaps the best opportunity for Kenyans based abroad to make a lasting mark on the political, social and economic landscape of the country.
At no other time have favorable factors for change intersected so superbly. For one, non-resident Kenyans wield more financial power than ever before. According to the East African Standard, a leading daily, Kenyans abroad remitted $464 million compared with a paltry $46 million in direct foreign investment in 2004. Put in other words, ordinary Kenyans living abroad pumped ten times more money than all the European, American, Asian and Arab investors combined.
Additionally, technology has created opportunities for organizing hitherto unknown. E-communities comprising Kenyans in Canada, US, UK, Australia, New Zealand have sprung up where they debate easily and conveniently. Availability of cellular phones with text messaging capabilities in even the remotest terrain in Kenya assures constant communication.
So, what is wrong with Kenya, some may ask? Perhaps it is more advisable to define what is right with Kenya (clearly a much shorter list). The rot of endemic corruption rising to the highest echelons of power, the disintegration of essential institutions such as universities, collapse of infrastructure and plummeting confidence in the NARC government, just to name a few.
For instance, a Kenyan Member of Parliament (and they are a whole 220 of them), earns more in salaries and allowances than legislators in the West! These are luxuries of obscene proportions in a country where per capita income averages less than $1 per day! Ravaged by drought, disease and death, Kenya can hardly afford the tax-free allowances and salaries, posh residencies for some barely literate legislators and unbridled access to fuel-guzzling road monsters.
In my view, Kenyans abroad squandered the opportunity when they fence-sat the November referendum on a new constitution. Performing largely a spectator role, non-resident Kenyans left the task to penniless peasants, fishermen and herdsmen. The resounding NO vote in the referendum was achieved with little or no influence from Kenyans in the diaspora.
The Way Forward
In the short term, the Kenyan community overseas must seize the opportunity to meaningfully impact the 2007 elections by showing considerable political clout in tandem with remittances. Can they match what they do through Western Union and Moneygram with the ballot box?
In the long-term however, they must establish themselves as the hard-to-ignore constituency, an integral part and parcel of the Kenyan polity. Unlike other immigrant communities, Kenyans have a bulk of their family still left in the country, which means that whatever transpires there has a direct impact on the migrants.
To remain relevant, Kenyans abroad must:
a. Build effective coalitions with the ability to marshal and direct public discourse. Pertinent issues (such as unsustainable MPs’s emoluments) should not go unchallenged. If donors and foreign investors have any say on the internal affairs of Kenya, her kinsmen abroad should logically claim 10 times the voice! They must deliberately seek to influence change for the better by putting pressure on the current crop of leaders.
b. Vote and be voted. Agitate, boycott or by any means necessary, get the Kenyan political elite to understand that voting is not a privilege. They must demand, a reasonable opportunity to elect leaders, regardless of geography or time zones. In this day and age, it is nonsensical to claim that Kenyan citizens living in foreign cities are disenfranchised thereby.
c. Set and drive the agenda. Though obviously well-meaning, Mr. Nyagah’s article, exposed the paucity of initiative by the Kenyan community abroad. The heading itself was a clear give-away: “Involve Kenyans Abroad….”. By whom and why? That we should need anyone, much less a member of the current Parliament – irredeemably disgraced in my view- to make our case is the severest indictment.
Otherwise, the size of remittances notwithstanding, Kenyans abroad will remain ignored, ineffective and insignificant. Politically at least.
About Henry Ongeri
Henry Ongeri is a Kenyan-American lawyer and Managing Partner of H.M. ONGERI & ASSOCIATES, a transatlantic law firm with offices in Africa and the United States. He is a regular commentator on global issues for Mshale.