As Kenya's new tribe, Asians face messy tribal politics

As Kenya's new tribe, Asians face messy tribal politics

Having been declared Kenya's 44th officially recognized tribe, Asians now face new takes on existing inter-community problems as they wade into Kenya's turbulent tribal politics.

With the recent annulment of Kenya’s presidential election results, all eyes are on how the country will move forward amid calls for recounts, especially given its history of post-election violence. An interesting sub-plot in this political drama is the impact that Kenya's rowdy elections have on the lives of Indian-Kenyans.

India and Kenya's long shared history

India and Kenya’s absorption into the British Empire sent thousands of South Asian workers to the region to construct imperial infrastructure projects. Post-independence, relations have deepened, with a vibrant, and economically important Asian* diaspora of some 80,000 in Kenya, most the descendants of those first workers. This diaspora has helped forge a strong bilateral trading relationship with India worth some $4.3 billion.

Despite being overtaken by China in recent years, India manages to outperform China in terms of the number of jobs created by its foreign direct investment (FDI). World Bank rankings of FDI-to-job creation ratios place China fifth, while India tops the list for the number of jobs directly created by FDI between 2003-2015. Despite investing more money, many Chinese firms favour employing Chinese workers over locals, a common complaint about Chinese projects across Africa. Chinese companies have also faced protests and attacks on their workers by locals demanding better employment opportunities, among other grievances.

Conversely, Indian investments do not face these same kinds of risks, although periodic waves of anti-Indian sentiment do sweep Kenya. Lingering resentment regarding the prominence of Indian-Kenyans in business and trade has made them convenient scapegoats for social and economic problems: anti-Asian rhetoric has been a feature of past electoral cycles in Kenya. Asian diaspora have often filled the same role in Africa as the Jewish diaspora historically has in Europe; each often mistrusted, and periodically persecuted. The textbook example of this relationship is the expulsion of Asians from Uganda under Idi Amin.


Jomo Kenyatta (father of current President Uhuru Kenyatta and himself first President of Kenya) celebrates Kenyan independence in 1963.


A similar exodus of Asians also occurred in Kenya. At the eve of Kenya’s independence there were some 176,000 Asians in the country. In 1963, the newly independent Kenya declared that these individuals (as well as 46,000 Europeans) would have two years to adopt Kenyan citizenship. The issue for many was that this would void their British citizenship. Ultimately less than 20,000 had made the switch by the allotted deadline. This in turn was widely interpreted as an unwillingness to become part of the new Kenya, re-entrenching the 'otherness' of Asians in Kenya.

Today there are some 46,700 Kenyan Asians and an additional 35,000 Asians without Kenyan citizenship, according to government statistics: a far lower number than Kenya's Asian population at independence. While tolerated, Asians in Kenya would continue to face suspicions and mistrust, with 100,000 leaving the country during the 1960s and 1970s. This process was hastened by an ‘Africanization’ of the civil service - of which Asians comprised 30% - leading to dismissals in favour of ‘native’ Kenyans.

Bridging the gap

In recent decades, these more formal institutional barriers have been reduced, with Kenya’s Asian community largely coexisting with wider Kenyan society. Nevertheless prejudice and stereotyping continues to occur. Indians in Kenya are often seen as interlopers, either as vestiges of a colonial past, or alongside the Chinese diaspora, as indicators of Kenya's new neo-colonial relationships with Asian superpowers.


Kisumu East MP Shakeel Shabbir


Indians in Kenya are also accused of being drains on the economy, despite their prodigious entrepreneurship. Detractors argue that they squeeze ‘native Kenyans' out of the job market and invest their money overseas instead of in Kenya. There are also complaints in Kenyan entertainment and news sites about Indians treating black Kenyans with suspicion and as second-tier individuals.

With such a dynamic, it is unsurprising that anti-Indian sentiment has sometimes accompanied Kenyan election cycles as a means to rally political bases and direct discontent outwards. Individuals who try and bridge this gap often face a hard time - from both sides. Take the story of Shakeel Shabbir, MP for Kisumu East. A Kenyan politician of Indian descent, Shabbir became the second Asian person to win a parliamentary seat in Kisumu - the first being Amir Jamal in the 1960s.

Having been twice re-elected, Shabbir continues to be a popular figure, yet has faced strong opposition from the Asian community in Kisumu. Shabbir has repeatedly expressed his frustration with the Asia community in his county, reportedly complaining that many refuse to interact with non-Asians in the community. He has also faced backlash from the wider Asian community, with many vowing not to vote for him because he married outside his race.

The creation of the Kisumu Central riding in 2013 led many to assume Shabbir would choose to run there, since it houses the central business district where most Asians in the area work and live. This would be the logical move for a Kenyan politician, given the tribal nature of Kenyan politics. Instead, Shabbir decided to continue to represent Kisumu East, a county with a significant rural demographic and mixed ethnic make-up.

During the recent August election, Shabbir was dealt another blow when two rival candidates rallied the support of their respective tribes, the Kolwa and Kanjulu - the two big clans in the community - to oust Shabbir. Shabbir’s previously loyal demographic of Kolwa clan supporters moved to collude with the Kanjulu to elect one of their own to power.

Despite these challenges, Shabbir managed to win Kisumu East yet again; he had remained confident that his proven track record and efforts at pan-ethnic cooperation would win the day. He was proven right, yet his experience demonstrates the importance of clan and tribal identity in Kenyan politics, a feature that many have decried as a threat to the stability of Kenyan democracy. The role of tribe also highlights another issue which has faced Asian Kenyans. By not belonging to one of Kenya’s 43 recognized tribes, Asians were seen as perennial ‘others’; outside the tribal identity framework that colours much of Kenyan political and social life.

Welcome to tribal politics

It is therefore interesting to note that a few weeks before the August election, President Uhuru Kenyatta officially recognized Asians as Kenya’s 44th tribe. While a largely symbolic gesture (one which Kenyatta's opponents mocked as a gimmick to secure votes), this move does remove some the institutional stigma which they have long faced.

While now recognized as an official minority, the focus needs to be on the creation of effective overall protections and opportunities for Kenyan minorities in general. Nevertheless, many Asian-Kenyans are pleased with the announcement. Zain Verjee, CEO of aKoma Media notes that instead of the anti-Asian rhetoric of past elections, Kenyatta’s move demonstrates the growing efforts to court the ‘Asian vote’.


President Uhuru Kenyatta ratifies Asians as Kenya's 44th tribe


Speaking on the announcement, Verjee stated that “the move has officially designated Asians of Kenya - long categorized as ‘other’ - as a formal tribe. Our new status has placed us on equal footing with the other tribes in this land. Today I don’t need to justify how ‘Kenyan’ I am.”

While a positive moment for many, the creation of Kenya’s 44th tribe does have its problems. Firstly, it ignores the differences between Kenya's Asians, grouping them all together into one collective. Secondly, it only reinforces the tribal nature of Kenyan politics, which has long been a source of tension and violence. With different tribal groups generally backing either Odinga or Kenyatta, one’s voting preferences become entangled with one’s ethnic identity. Disagreements between rival voting blocks easily spills into sectarian violence, with voting habits used as further proof of ill will among rival factions.

Consequently, statements such as “Kenyan Asian community backs President Kenyatta’s re-election,” made by the official website of the President of Kenya on May 24th do little to help. The above statement characterizes the entire community as having one voice and voting preference. This is the same kind of language invoking tribal loyalty and conformity that pervades Kenyan politics. If this narrative takes hold, then (for the time being) being Asian will be associated with having voted for Kenyatta, something that could only further stoke anger among non-Asian Odinga supporters and sow further instability, especially with the country’s political future still up in the air.

*Note: In Kenya, the term 'Asian' generally refers to individuals with Indian ancestry. For the sake of consistency this article follows the same convention and uses the terms 'Asian'  and 'Indian' interchangeably.

Jeremy Luedi is the editor of True North Far East. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, Courrier International, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, and FACTA Magazine. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, Radio Free Europe and the Washington Times, among others.