Why diaspora has little political sway despite economic muscle

Sunday February 10 2019

President Uhuru Kenyatta Japan

President Uhuru Kenyatta greets the Kenyan diaspora living in Japan on November 11, 2017. PHOTO | COURTESY 

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The latest statistics from the Central Bank of Kenya indicate that the diaspora remittances jumped from Sh197 billion in 2017 to Sh274 billion in 2018. This translates to more than half of Kenya's total export earnings which stand at Sh494 billion.

In fact, the government regulator noted, while releasing his report, that the spike in diaspora remittances is good for the economy as it helps stabilise the Kenyan shilling and spur investment.

Yet, despite this ever-growing size of remittances to Kenya, members of the diaspora have not been able to leverage this for any political or policy change.

Members of the diaspora the Sunday Nation spoke to blamed lack of political will and suspicion for the failure to leverage on the economic might.

“The main reason is the lack of political will and irrational suspicions by the political class in the country. This is not exclusive to those currently in power, as some opposition leaders are not any more eager, says Kenyan-born Henry Ongeri who practises law in Minneapolis, Minnesota.


Mr Ongeri says this has led to the failure of the Kenyan body politic to establish the institutional framework necessary for the full integration of Kenyans in diaspora.

“In some cases, they are simply scared of the potential influence of the diaspora. We no longer think that this intransigence is incidental or unintended.”

Mr Ongeri cites the elusive voting rights for a huge segment of the diaspora and the now “normal” acceptance of discrimination in the issuance of passports and national identification cards.

“Despite clear provisions of the relevant law and unequivocal pronouncement by the Supreme Court, a majority of Kenyans living in North America, Europe and Middle East have not voted in any election in Kenya,” he said.

When it comes to issuance of passports and Identification cards, Mr Ongeri argues that Kenyans in the diaspora are expected to pay more for the same services as one would get at Huduma Centres back in Kenya.

“Ironically, Central Bank of Kenya is never late in documenting remittance trends and politicians keep flocking to the diaspora to court us!” he added.


Mr James Sang, a resident of Washington, DC, is also perplexed by the fact that the diaspora remittances have surpassed Kenya’s traditional exports like coffee, tea, flowers and tourism and now account for the largest foreign direct investment in the country’s economy yet they have very little influence on what happens in Kenya.

Mr Sang, himself a heavy investor in Kenya after spending millions of shillings in 2017 to establish a clinic in Nakuru, says he believes one of the reasons the diaspora has been completely excluded from the country’s policy decisions is their negligible numbers, especially those who can vote.

The other, he says, is the government’s failure to develop methodologies that transform the remittances into an infrastructure development fund since remittances typically go directly into personal projects or to relatives.

“We play a huge part in our nation’s development. In 2017, my friends and I decided to set up healthcare clinics in Kenya as a way to give back to the community and also to participate in the government’s overall Big Four Agenda,” Mr Sang said.

However, Dr Ken Simiyu, formerly of Toronto, Canada, but now a research fellow at the University of Maryland, introduces an interesting take on why the diaspora are not mainstreamed in the Kenyan politics and policy-making. He lays the blame on the nature of the Kenyan diaspora.


Unlike most other African diaspora who were pushed into the diaspora by political activities in their countries of origin, he says, most of the Kenyan diaspora is composed of individuals who moved because of school or economic reasons.

“Because of this, they are naturally less inclined to take part in the political process in Kenya unlike other activists. The majority are aloof at the political happenings in Kenya and are content at looking at it from the side lines. Many are content with making investments such as buying plots and building houses,” he said.

He adds that Kenyans back home also don’t take the diaspora seriously because by nature the diaspora is not political and is only seen through an economic lens.

He argues that remittances to Kenya are mainly used for consumption but not for productive activities hence lack the ability to make a political impact.

“So despite the apparent cumulative large amounts remitted, the collective impact is not felt as the cash doesn’t directly influence any particular sector of the economy,” he said.

He says the only way the diaspora can be influential is if they pool the funds through investment vehicles in the diaspora and then making significant sectoral investments in Kenya.


Dr Simiyu also argues that most of the diaspora are not cut out for the rough and tumble of Kenyan politics.

“They are used to societies where politics is civil and people argue policies. In Kenya society doesn’t care about honesty, policy and service. Lies and thuggery are the order of the day which put off the diaspora. Most have given up with the system. The few who have dared participate in the political process have often learned that having clear policy arguments doesn’t matter,” he said.

Dr Simiyu also pointed out that many groups abroad are organised along tribal lines which narrows their influence. Groups that cross tribal boundaries eschew politics because they fear it will quickly divide them. “With lack of cohesion these groups cannot have any influence in Kenya,” Dr Simiyu says.

Mr Sang called on the government to implement the diaspora policy and speed up the dual-citizenship applications.

“With such vast wealth at its disposal, the diaspora is well positioned to be an even greater force in the country’s development. As such, the government must take the initiative to integrate it in its strategic policies,” said.