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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Titan of Coast backroom politics

Mombasa tycoon Tahir Said of TSS./FILE
Mombasa tycoon Tahir Said of TSS./FILE

One of the valid generalisations of coastal politics is that you need both the Mijikenda communities and the Swahili/Arab communities, if you are to be successful. The Mijikenda have decisive numbers when it comes to voters, but very little money. The Swahili/Arab communities have money, but relatively few voters.

And of course both money and voters are required in plenty to secure political victory. For many years during the Moi era, the legendary tycoon Tahir Sheikh Said - referred to as TSS by one and all - was known to be one of the indispensable financiers of elections at the Coast.

No records are ever kept of such financial transactions of course. But there were always whispers of who had received how many millions from TSS. And it was taken for granted that no visit to the Coast by a serving Kenyan President was complete without a face-to-face meeting with TSS. Being a man of modest education, who never sought elective office for himself, TSS reportedly wielded great power behind the scenes due to his generous contributions to politicians who found favour with him.

Particularly within the Lamu archipelago (which is reportedly where he was born, and spent his early years), getting on the wrong side of TSS was a political death sentence. For as sure as night follows day, the mighty TSS would bring up a candidate to stand against you, and fund this candidate so lavishly that your defeat was preordained.

TSS was by no means the only billionaire businessman from within the Swahili/Arab communities of the Coast. But he was the most conspicuous of this tiny elite of the ultra-rich, partly because he liked to use his own name in his enterprises.

So we have the gold-plated landmark TSS Tower in the Mombasa CBD; there is (or was) a TSS Bus Service plying the Mombasa-Nairobi route; there is a TSS maize miller; and there were other businesses involved in the export and import of commodities like sugar, tea and coffee.

A devout Muslim, TSS’s efforts to enter the tourism sector were a complete flop, as he refused to serve liquor on the premises of his beach-side resort, which was eventually turned into a residential complex. He was also said to own so many individual rental properties, that monthly rent collections for the TSS properties reportedly amounted to many millions of shillings.

Typical of such outstanding Kenyans who rise from obscurity to become one of the great men of their time, TSS did not apparently give much attention to how his vast business empire would be managed after his death.

Hence the undignified squabbling over his assets, which have made it all the way to the law courts, and dimmed the lustre of this remarkable man.

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