By Joe Kiarie
A few years back, they set on a journey into the unknown, leaving their jobs and families behind in pursuit of greener pastures miles away from home. The destination was the oil-rich South Sudan, which was enjoying a new lease of life after guns were dropped following a 21-year-old civil strife.
Despite the risks involved, the thousands of Kenyans setting camp up north were optimistic that with their country having steered the Sudan peace process and warmly sheltered refugees from Juba, the locals would reciprocate in kind.
But this conviction is fast proving to have been a fallacy, and the risks turning out to be real.
A worrying proportion of the over 70,000 Kenyans in South Sudan are now making the return journey in coffins. Their luckier colleagues are maneuvering the bumpy ride in tears, armed with shocking stories after being hounded out of multimillion-shilling investments by seemingly xenophobic locals.
Amid regrets, those who have returned home are painting a picture of a country steeped in anarchy, with locals and authorities capitalising on weak State presence to persecute vulnerable foreigners.
Today, businessman Patrick Jackona still curses the day he decided to invest in Juba. After investing millions of shillings in various sectors in South Sudan since 2001, he says he returned home empty-handed last year after being kicked out of his booming investments by a business partner.
The aviator says he and his three Kenyan partners lost Sh25.2 million in South Sudan after a local chased them off a joint investment. He says they registered a company in 2005 alongside a local lawyer and decided to put up aviation offices, a hotel and 15 fully furnished apartments.
“As the rules were clear that a foreigner could not own land, we got into an agreement with the lawyer that he buys the plot, which we were to acquire once the laws changed. He injected $10,000, while we, as partners, imported all construction material from Nairobi and Lokichoggio and catered for all the construction cost.
“But just a month after everything was complete, the lawyer woke up one morning and said he was pulling out of the partnership. We lost over $300,000 worth of investments,” he recounts.
Jackona says their attempts to seek legal redress were futile as the lawyer was working in cahoots with local advocates and the police, posing serious threats to their lives as foreigners.
“So many Kenyans have been arrested, humiliated and intimidated at the behest of their local investment partners. Once released, most have no option but to come back to Kenya empty-handed. It is sad because we treat them so well here,” he charges, revealing that his three colleagues also returned back home.