Kenya is to EA what US is to the world; you just can’t write it off

Monday August 07 2023

Photo illustration. FILE PHOTO | NMG


East African Community ’s intellectual interaction, competition and cross-pollination of ideas peaked at the close the 1960s in newly independent Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

But the seeds of division planted in EAC’s womb at its 1967 founding also germinated, sprouting with the splitting of the University of East Africa as its constituent colleges of Nairobi, Dar es Salaam and Makerere became independent universities answerable to their respective governments.

Two mental giants, Jomo Kenyatta and Julius Nyerere, were respectively in State Houses Nairobi and Dar es Salaam at the height of the global West - East ideological rivalry, while ideologically neutral Kampala provided intellectual arbitration for the fierce bi-polar competition.

The star-studded bench at good old Makerere had stellar political scholars such as Kenya-born Professor Ali Al’amin Mazrui; Kenyan student leader Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, and later Tanzania-born Ugandan teaching assistant Mahmood Mamdani, who was just returning from a decade of studies in America, where he participated in the civil rights movement.

Six decades after independence, Nyerere’s and Kenyatta’s political grandchildren are at it again, but using less intellectual firepower, denying audiences their grandparents’ humour.

Read:ULIMWENGU: Great confab, useful encounter with our ‘re-humanised’ leaders


Remember Nyerere’s jibe at Kenya being a man-eat-man society, making Kenyatta scoff at Tanzania being a man-eat-nothing society? Now you hear stuff like “our broke neighbours have no dollars and we have refused to give them some... and their investors running away.”

But I wouldn’t rush to write off Kenya — not yet, and maybe never. As we grow older we become wiser. Years ago, I could laugh at a businessman crying of being broke; today I would instead salute him in awe, knowing there is a bank stuck with useless collateral as he makes more dime in “new” companies.

Kenya is not broke, it has intangible wealth bequeathed by its shrewd founders. In the region, Kenya is like the US is globally — heavily indebted but not about to lay down and be run over by anybody, not even China.

When I was the Uganda bureau chief of The EastAfrican in the mid-1990s, I had a mobile phone paid for by my boss at Nation in Nairobi, who himself had never owned one. Kenya didn’t need to rush into mobile telephony, for it had a million landlines, from which Kenyans called their workers in Uganda (which had only 50,000 landlines) on mobiles bought with Kenyan capital.

Today, Kenya’s Safaricom is not only the biggest mobile company in the region but also the biggest “bank” in terms of money volumes moved.

Read:Safaricom maintains most valuable brand position

Yet the mobile money concept started in organisational deserts of Congo and Somalia, where airtime scratch codes were texted to beneficiaries who sold them in their locality for cash, then Kenya “refined” mobile money transfer, that is now linked to all banks.

Remember when Uganda did the heavy lifting that brought the SPLA to power in South Sudan? Then Kenyan capital moved in.

Uganda’s perpetual Foreign Minister Oryem-Okello summarised it wryly thus: “For the foreseeable future, Ugandans will be selling tomatoes in Juba while Kenyans do the big corporate business in the new South Sudan.” One of these days he might say the same about Goma or Kinshasa, where a Kenyan businessman called Uhuru Kenyatta is leading EAC’s pacification of DRC, where Equity Bank is already tops.

More recently, when “Bulldozer” Magufuli was in charge he got angry with foreign entities taking cashew nuts for a song from poor Tanzanians.

He banned them, sent in the army to buy all at a modestly fair price and then put the cashew mountain on auction.

Guess where the winning bidder came from: Kenya! Whatever the bidder’s true origin, Kenya was the place to pick the required few hundred million dollars at short notice to rescue Tanzania’s cashew sector. Investors now running out of Kenya are investing Kenyan capital wherever they are going.

Whatever happens, there are things cannot change, especially Kenya’s unwavering regional business interests.

Read: Kenya's trade surplus with Africa hits record levels

Other East African countries can only overtake Kenya if they get China’s discipline: to invest like capitalists and distribute like socialists.

But even China, which is now in striking distance to take out America, is too disciplined to yield to the temptation.

Beijing isn’t even unenthusiastic about promoting the yuan to replace the dollar as the world’s currency, as US’s rivals are pushing.
It is better to follow China’s example and first build more muscle for a decade or two before writing off Kenya.