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Lack of diaspora evacuation budget has roots in Moi era

Sunday April 19 2020
Macharia

Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Macharia Kamau addresses the media on April 14, 2020. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By AGGREY MUTAMBO

Past misdeeds in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs may be haunting current occupants managing the country's diaspora affairs.

This week, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was fighting fires from critics who say it has mishandled the affairs of the diaspora community as the coronavirus pandemic bites.

The key question was whether Kenyans stuck abroad, especially in China and India, should be evacuated.

In a directive sent out to Kenyan missions across the world, Ambassadors are now required to file updated data on Kenyans in their area of jurisdiction, including those stranded or affected/infected by Covid-19.

But the notice was categorical that such information should be filed “without creating expectation of evacuation.”

Critics expected that the Foreign Ministry would have organised evacuation missions for any stranded Kenyans.

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But diaspora Kenyans are now accusing the government of neglect.

“We want the government to allocate sufficient funds for consular services,” said Shem Ochuodho, the Global Chairperson of the Kenya Diaspora Alliance.

On Tuesday, Foreign Affairs PS Macharia Kamau did admit some Kenyans in China may have been maltreated as Beijing cracked down on possible suspected cases of Covid-19.

NO EVACUATION OFFER

In India, the Foreign Ministry said there were indeed Kenyans stranded. But there was no offer for evacuation yet.

“This situation has been extremely worrisome to all of us. The reality is that this has been a very unfortunate outcome.

“Africans, Kenyans included, have been discriminated against in the process of [Guangdong provincial] governments response to mop up the situation that they are facing there, post-crisis,” Mr Kamau told a briefing on Tuesday.

Last week, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed some 60 Kenyans who had sought treatment in India were stranded, unable to travel back due to a lockdown that has since been extended to May 4.

While Mr Kamau did not offer any evacuation plans for those in China, the Kenyan Embassy in Beijing later issued a notice asking Kenyans willing to be evacuated at own cost to send in their details.

The condition is that they must be certified Covid-19 free, but must also be ready to be quarantined for a minimum of 14 days once they land in Kenya.

“If you are ready to travel under these conditions, fill the above QR code so that the bio data reaches the Embassy immediately,” said the notice sent out to the Kenyan community in China.

“Please note that the departure will be from Guangzhou on a date to be determined immediately the above information is availed (sic). Kenyans with questions were told to inquire from Mr Kimani Waweru, the deputy head of Mission in Beijing on +86600690463.

A flight, the notice said, would pick them up in Guangzhou and fly out. A source said Kenya Airways was to be used, based on its scheduled flights to Guangzhou, to pick them up once they agree to buy tickets.

MOI ERA

So why is it so difficult for the government to pay evacuation costs? A number of diplomats serving in Nairobi and abroad have told the Sunday Nation the problem is systemic and stems from the Moi era.

In 1983, one diplomat told the Sunday Nation, former President Daniel Moi’s administration removed an emergency kitty from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs which would normally be used in emergency cases where nationals are stranded abroad.

“The National Treasury (then Ministry of Finance) removed it from the annual budget. Our current annual budget doesn’t have provision for emergency evacuation,” the official said.

It now means every time Kenyans abroad run into a crisis, the Ministry has to formally request Treasury to allocate it money, the bureaucracy notwithstanding, the official explained.

When Covid-19 erupted in Wuhan, where some 120 students from Kenya are, National Treasury CS Ukur Yatani told the Sunday Nation earlier that money could be provided, as long as Foreign Affairs adjudged it appropriate to evacuate.

“If the situation becomes compelling, money would be provided. And we are set,” Mr Yatani said at the time.

With more than a month since the first coronavirus case was confirmed in Kenya, and 262 cases later, his Ministry is now fully charged with managing the local crisis and saving the economy.

LOGISTICAL NIGHTMARE

Financial weaknesses, however, are being compounded by the logistical nightmare on the ground.

In India for instance, the 60 patients were scattered across India in Bangalore in the south, the commercial capital New Delhi, Hyderabad and Mumbai, according to a note filed by Mr Bett to Nairobi last week.

“If we were to send a KQ plane, for example, it would be a logistical nightmare for it to hop from one city to another, because land travel between cities is forbidden,” the official explained to the Sunday Nation.

Kenya, like other countries, could negotiate with the Indian government to evacuate their nationals. But the official said that privilege is not given to stranded nationals.

“They will ask us to fly into Mumbai or New Delhi and fly out. That means we can only evacuate those we find there. It doesn’t make sense. So, before we reach evacuation, there is the real challenge of gathering Kenyans there.”

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