Is the Indian in Africa a Villain or a Mere Political Scapegoat?
By Ogova Ondego
Published February 4, 2017
Whenever I read Mashetani, a play by Ebrahim N Hussein that looks at the lifestyle of a capitalist in socialist Tanzania after the Arusha Declaration of 1964, I think of the plight of the ‘Indian’ or ‘Asian’ in Kenya, Uganda, South Africa and Fiji.
Hussein says everyone has got everyone’s own Shetani (the devil or Satan) who everyone blames for everyone’s own spiritual shortcomings.
But how does the ‘Indian’ or ‘Asian’ in Africa come in here?
The ‘Indian’ or ‘Asian’ in Kenya, Uganda and South Africa appears to be a convenient shetani, especially to those of the ‘political class’ and their sympathisers.
The ‘Indian’ or ‘Asian’ in Kenya and Uganda is the descendant of the Indian migrant who was brought to Mombasa from then British India from 1896 to help in building the Kenya-Uganda Railway in the then British East African Protectorate.
Standing at 46000 in 2009, the population of the ‘Indian’ in Kenya is less than 1% of the East African country’s estimated 45 million people in 2017. Some 35000 ‘Indians’ living in Kenya in 2009 were classified as being non-citizens. This indicates that only about 11000 ‘Indians’ are citizens of Kenya.
But what has this got to do with the ‘scapegoat’ angle?
Why do members of the ‘political class’ accuses the ‘Indian’ of being an ‘economic saboteur’ of the countries of their residence? That people with family names like Khamani, Somaia, Aslam, Pattni, Pereira, Shah and Singh who come from a ‘minority tribe’ feature in almost every financial scam only plays in the hands of this ‘political elite’, giving credence to their ‘Indian’ or ‘Asian’ scapegoat stereotype, doesn’t it?
Mlaumu shetani, blame it on the devil, Hussein says in Mashetani. Mlaumu Mhindi, accuse the ‘Indian’ or ‘Asian’ while the real culprit (read, black African) makes his or her escape good could be what’s happening here.
The seed to write this article came to mind in 2015 when I read and reviewed Letters from My Dad, a book by James Ojago of the United States of America with roots in Kenya. I had throughout the 1990s been hearing politicians heaping blame on the ‘Indian’ and the ‘Asian’ fraudster in Kenya. Then the so-called Zupta (Jacob Zuma + Gupta = Zupta) Scandal of alleged corruption and cronyism broke in South Africa in 2016. The so-called Gupta Brothers—Ajay, Atul and Rajesh—are reported to have immigrated into South Africa from India in 1993 where they have made a fortune believed to be through political connections with the family of President Jacob Zuma.
But, from the account of Muntu Vilakazi in ozy.com, the Indian scapegoat appears to be a global phenomenon.
In February 2016, the Indian High Commission in Kampala cautioned Indians against attending political rallies after a member of the community was attacked in the run-up to the Presidential election in April 2016, Vilakazi says.
“And in South Africa, home to a 1.3-million-strong Indian diaspora, the extremist Economic Freedom Fighters Party, led by Julius Malema, accused Zuma of selling the country ‘over a plate of curry.’ ”
Vilakazi contends that “Many of the allegations [against Indians] simply reinforce deep-seated stereotypes. Through the colonial era, Indians generally backed the British in South Africa and East Africa and were involved in frequent clashes with angry locals.”
Vilakazi quotes Sanjiv Patel, described as a third-generation agro-industrialist in Uganda and member of President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement, as having said that “Some typically Indian traits have also left the community alienated”. Such traits include businesses within Indian families, not trusting outsiders, and ‘showing off’.
Turning to Kenya, Vilakazi quotes an Indian diplomat known as TP Sreenivasan who, after being ordered to leave Fiji, had his leg broken in 1997 by “armed locals [who] broke into the Indian high commission, pinned [him] down and broke his leg with iron rods” over his inability as high commissioner to stop the ‘Indian community’ from funding then ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) party. Prior to this, Vilakazi quotes Sreenivasan as having said that Kenya’s opposition politicians had met him to complain that “the Indian community was financing only the ruling party, not the opposition.”
So what solution does the now retired diplomat suggest for the ‘Indian’ or ‘Asian’ in the Diaspora?
“Fund everyone, fund no one or get out,” TP Sreenivasan tells Vilakazi.
“After Kenya became a Republic in 1964, many [Indians] would have nothing to do with Kenyan citizenship, opting instead to follow the British either to England or to Canada,” Dr Ojago writes.”The few who retained Kenyan citizenship have continued to engage in shady business deals, including but not limited to price gouging, tax evasion, money laundering, gold and coffee smuggling, theft of petroleum products, smuggling of small arms and ammunition to rebel groups in the region, wildlife poaching and what have you, always in cahoots with corrupt elements in the government. When confronted with evidence, they are quick to flee the country for the safety of either India or Europe in order to evade prosecution.”
Ojago, a medical doctor, writes, “There is no current adult black Kenyan who can honorably vouch for a positive experience with an Indian merchant, either as an employee or as a client, in Nairobi City or any community where Indian merchants are currently resident.”
I had posed a few questions on the subject before I cooled my heels on the subject.
Then I came across Pathways: Kenya’s 50 Years of Independence, a book written by David G Maillu who has also written a book called Behind the Presidential Motorcade.
Pathways: Kenya’s 50 Years of Independence says that the change of guard from President Jomo Kenyatta to President Daniel arap Moi in 1978 put “the Indian community into a vulnerable position.”
Saying “Kenyatta had treated the Indian community very well, Maillu writes “Towards the last days of Kenyatta’s life, the Kenyan Indian tribe had picked up a sense of instability and vulnerability. That was why a substantial number of them sold out their business and emigrated to Britain and to other places of their choice. It was during Kenyatta’s time that 60 000 Indians were on April 4, 1972, expelled from Uganda by President Idi Amin; “they had British passports and the President wanted to Africanize business. It was a devastating experience for Indians. The Kenyan Indians received the expulsion of Indians from Uganda like a historic shock, praying that that should not happen and should never happen to the Kenyan Indians in spite of their possession of British passports.”
“After President Moi had been sworn in, leaders of the Indian community conducted exclusive series of meetings to address their fate. They took the Uganda incident as their important point of reference in addition to the growing racial tension against Indians from the African stand. The Indian intelligence network which kept the record of Moi’s behaviour came out with the solution.”
“Money,” Maillu answers.
” President Moi had inherited a vibrant institution of corruption good enough to be labeled Industry of Corruption. During Moi’s time the Indian businessmen were destined to do wonders in the promotion of the Industry of Corruption. They bought acceptance and justice by funding President Moi’s corrupt hand. . . Their money bought them the licence to work, live and expand in Kenya. . . it didn’t and wouldn’t matter to anyone regarding how much of the money Moi received from Indians he kept to himself; just as it hadn’t mattered to anyone how much money President Kenyatta had collected from the colossal donations to the Gatundu Self-Help Hospital.”
What is your take on this subject? I don’t know what to say.