Kenyans in the diaspora continue to have little political say despite possessing a huge economic muscle.
Figures released recently by the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) show that remittances from Kenyans living and working abroad grew to Sh274 billion in 2018 down from Sh197 billion the previous year.
Since 2015, diaspora inflows have been Kenya's leading foreign income earner ahead of tea, coffee and tourism.
CBK says diaspora remittances have helped strengthen the Kenyan shilling against the dollar and spur investment.
However, the diaspora community has not been able to exploit its economic strength for any political or policy change in the country.
Daily Nation reporter Chris Wamalwa has spoken to a number of Kenyans abroad in an attempt to understand why this is the case.
Kenyan-born Henry Ongeri who practices law in Minneapolis, Minnesota attributes this to lack of political will by Kenyan leaders.
He says: “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."
He adds that it's for this reason that the political class has not advocated for the establishment of an institutional framework for the full integration of the 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,” Ongeri tells Wamalwa.
Ongeri cites denial of the democratic right to vote for Kenyans abroad as well as the discrimination in the delivery of government services such as the issuance of passports and national IDs.
“Despite clear provisions of the relevant law and unequivocal pronouncement by the Supreme Court, a majority of Kenyans living in North America, Europe, and the Middle East have not voted in any election in Kenya,” he says.
For instance, Ongeri notes that Kenyans in the diaspora are required to pay higher fees than the normal rates to acquire IDs and passports.
“Ironically, Central Bank of Kenya is never late in documenting remittance trends and politicians keep flocking to the diaspora to court us!”
James Sang, a Kenyan living in Washington, DC attributes the exclusion of the diaspora from the country’s decision-making table to their negligible numbers, especially when viewed in terms of votes.
He also faults the government for failing to develop ways of turning the remittances into an infrastructure development fund.
He says it's sad that most of the remittances go 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,” Sang says.
However, Dr. Ken Simiyu, a research fellow at the University of Maryland, has a different view on the exclusion of the diaspora Kenyans.
He explains that unlike most of the other African diaspora who were forced to leave the countries as a result of political activities, a majority of the Kenyans abroad 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 sidelines. Many are content with making investments such as buying plots and building houses,” he says, adding that the nature of Kenyan diaspora is not political and is only viewed through an economic lens.
He also says most of the diaspora remittances go to consumption rather than directly influencing specific sectors.
“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 notes.
Dr. Simiyu also argues that the nature of Kenyan politics makes the diaspora disinterested.
“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 don’t matter."
He also mentions a lack of unity among Kenyans in the diaspora as another reason why they are not involved in policy making. He notes that many groups abroad are organized along tribal lines.
"With lack of cohesion these groups cannot have any influence in Kenya,” Simiyu says.