Some days ago, Charles Njagua, aka Jaguar, the youthful Member of Parliament for Starehe constituency in Nairobi, Kenya, went on a verbal rampage.
Amid cheers from the crowd, he threatened to mobilise his constituents to flush out foreign petty traders from his constituency, give them a thorough beating, before marching them to the airport for deportation.
So alarming was the anti-foreigner vitriol that Tanzanian lawmakers, worried about Tanzanians doing business in Kenya, dedicated part of a parliamentary session to discussion of the threats. On its part, the government of Kenya, worried about the impact of the threats to regional trade, diplomacy, and breakdown of law and order in Nairobi, arrested the MP on a possible charge of incitement to violence.
Had the “honourable” MP considered this matter seriously? How would crazed mobs know who was legally trading and who was not? Even for those plying their trade without proper permits, is it not the work of the police to remove them?
Did he consider the fact that foreigners make up a small percentage of hawkers or small traders, so that even removal of all of them would not solve the problem of unemployment and poverty in Starehe? Had he considered the effect his preferred “solution” would have on legitimate competition, efficiency and costing?
NOTHING LIKE CONTROLLED MOB VIOLENCE
There is no such thing as targeted and controlled mob violence. Many people, including Kenyans, would be killed or maimed. Kenyan business rivals would take advantage of the murderous spree to settle scores. Women, foreign and Kenyan, would be raped. Thieves, always waiting in the shadows, would swoop in, stealing from both foreigner and citizen.
You would expect Jaguar, being a man who interacts with leaders from the EAC and from farther afield, to know that there are thousands of Kenyan petty traders in Tanzania, China, South Africa and Namibia. What do xenophobic politicians think would happen to these hardworking Kenyans eking out a living in these nations were their citizens beaten or killed in Kenya?
Why don’t our politicians explore ways of empowering Kenyan traders to be able to compete with others? Just recently, small traders complained about the inconvenience and losses they experience at the port in Mombasa while trying to clear their goods. For years, traders at the Gikomba market in Nairobi have complained about the state of the roads in and around the market. For years, small traders around Nairobi have complained about congested and unsanitary markets.
There are complaints about licence fees, cost of electricity, and frequent cases of arson. There are problems caused by illicit products in the country. Credit to small traders to be able to expand their business is unavailable. There are a myriad problems impacting small traders and SMEs.
These are the problems MPs should concern themselves with, because solving some or all of them would increase trading and, consequently, improve the wellbeing of Kenyan traders and their families.
But applying oneself to solution of these problems requires mental and physical exertion. It would mean study, research, intelligent debate, and consulting with experts. It would necessitate withdrawing from the Tangatanga outfit campaigning for 2022 or its opposing group. In short, it would mean hard work.
And hard work, exerting oneself beyond the call of duty in order to achieve a national good, is not part of Kenyan politicians’ psychology or ideology. It is far easier to point fingers at imaginary enemies for problems that are caused by negligent leadership, corruption and inefficiency.
Remember Idi Amin? He chased away Indian traders, but poverty increased in the country. South Africans, after remarks like those made by Jaguar, burn African foreigners alive, but the problems of poverty and lack of opportunity are caused by the corrupt and inept ANC government. It is always less taxing to scapegoat rather than work hard to solve problems.
There is another sinister dimension to xenophobia. Supposing people like Jaguar were able to get rid of all the foreigners, and still poverty and joblessness persisted, who would they point to next as the cause? Would it be members of another ethnic group? People of a different religion?
President Paul Kagame once said in an interview in The EastAfrican that when the genocidal government had killed, exiled or silenced the Tutsi, it turned inwards, cannibalising itself. The writer Peter Kimani, in a TV debate, said that hating the Chinese or others was substituting racism and xenophobia for tribalism.
He is right. A racist, xenophobe, tribalist and religious bigot are all cut from the same cloth.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator