In Summary
  • Munir Ahmed had spent over a decade as a banker at Standard Chartered in London and Johannesburg when he got an opportunity to return home.
  • Central Bank of Kenya Governor Patrick Njoroge still struggles with Kiswahili syllables probably because he thinks in English first before processing it in his second language.
  • Mohamed Wehliye, an adviser with the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority, had been part of the wave that returned with a firm belief in systems and meritocracy when he applied for the position of head of the Capital Markets Authority

Walking among the clucking of incomprehensible voices in a foreign country and hearing someone speak Kiswahili could almost make you jump out of your skin.

For a moment, the image of home, familiar spaces, friends, food, music, weather all become symbolised by that single person for Kenyans working in the diaspora.

For years they live plotting how to come back, and when an opportunity presents itself, they grab it like the image of a good dream when the alarm clock chimes. But as it turns out, it’s just a dream, it cannot be grasped by the harsh realities.

Munir Ahmed had spent over a decade as a banker at Standard Chartered in London and Johannesburg when he got an opportunity to return home.

Initially, he worked briefly for Standard Chartered before he made a move he will live to regret, joining government-owned National Bank of Kenya.

“When you are out there you always want to come back, where your parents are, the friends you grew up with. Out there you are also pursuing your own interest but when you come back you feel you are building something for your community and country,” he said, smiling at his own apparent naivety at the time.

Still struggling

The returnees have a lot to catch up with upon landing home. Sheng, the informal lingo that evolves by the day, is probably one of the ways one gets to know they are back.

Central Bank of Kenya Governor Patrick Njoroge still struggles with Kiswahili syllables probably because he thinks in English first before processing it in his second language.

The holder of a PhD in economics from Yale University has probably learnt more Sheng and improved his Kiswahili from the rounds he has made over the past couple of months talking to ordinary Kenyans on the currency switch that would fit into a memoir.

Most of the diaspora came back to work for their country after the era of President Moi, believing that the period of favouritism was over, and they could use their knowledge and experience abroad in a country that had turned over a page.

Meritocracy

Mohamed Wehliye, an adviser with the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority, had been part of the wave that returned with a firm belief in systems and meritocracy when he applied for the position of head of the Capital Markets Authority (CMA), which he says he cannot consider again even as the position became vacant on Paul Muthaura’s exit this year. With hindsight, he thinks the hopes were dashed.

“For us in the diaspora, we got used to working systems and we do not want to go through all the lobbying nonsense that comes with jobs in Kenya. I have worked in Australia, Japan and the Middle East and I am used to meritocracy. But it was a good experience to test the Kenyan system and definitely my impression was not good,” said Wehliye.

Munir said he was encouraged by the fact that National Bank had advertised the position of managing director for the first time, and in August when he applied he got the job, setting himself a five-year target to grow NBK into a regional bank.

He found a bank with virtually no systems, no controls or IT security, no mandates. Management was using systems that ran with manufacturer passwords and his predecessor told him he could pretty much do anything except sell the bank. (His successor, Wilfred Musau, was incidentally forced to turn it over to Kenya Commercial Bank for next to nothing.)

40 policies

Munir wanted to bring in the culture of the private sector, so he set out creating a structure, drawing 40 policies. He sought to cut cost-to-income ratios because the bank was simply paying salaries and providing for bad loans.

The board used to meet 60 times a year, and since management had to take almost two days preparing for the meetings, it ate 180 days out of a 240-day calendar year just meeting. He sought to cut that.

But it is the culture of corruption and ethnicity that quickly isolated him as the mzungu, as the grapevine would say, pretending not to know how things are done.

“At one time, a board member called me over for coffee and told me to my face what benefits we could get out of there. I remember he said our children will not forgive us if we let the opportunity go,” he said, adding that he could not comprehend how to even react.

“I wanted to create a culture where I recruit from inside first before looking for talent outside, so an executive opening comes up, I make a recommendation on someone and the board splits right in the middle — half support the move the other half want their own and for months nothing can be done,” he said.

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