THE BANE OF MAIZE IN KENYA
By Jane Mwangi
As far as epidemics go Maize scandals in Kenya take the prize with every political season bringing with it a new saga. And this has been going on since 1966! Maize is the staple food in the country with the average Kenyan consuming 90 kilos of maize flour a year. Compared to the 50 kilos of wheat or 17 kilos of rice, it is no wonder that it has lured many a crooked politician, businessman and their cronies over the years.
The recent historic ruling by the Anti-Corruption court against the Sirisia MP John Walukhe, is unique only in the sense that justice has been served. The politician and his partner in crime Grace Wakhungu were found guilty of defrauding the NCPB of Sh297 million using bogus documents to prove a non – existent supply of maize.
The two would have gotten away with it too, if not for their greed which led them to go after the board’s assets and bank accounts. This was revealed by one of the star witnesses, Brian Yongo who told how he was paid Sh7.5 million by Wakhungu to find a lawyer who would pursue NCPB on their behalf. For his efforts, Waluke lost his parliamentary seat and was fined Shs 1billion or 67 years in jail marking a new era in the fight against corruption, where the guilty are held responsible for fleecing innocent Kenyans to enrich themselves.
MAIZE SCANDAL SAGAS
What is baffling is that the Waluke scandal has been preceded by many others since independence, which begs the question what is special about maize in Kenya? Due to the high demand for Maize as the mainstay of the Kenyan diet and considering that most Kenyan farmers depend on rain – fed agriculture which is unreliable, shortages tend to arise, leading to the importation of the cereal to meet the high demand.
This happened in 1966, during the reign of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, whose government imported 250,000 bags of yellow maize to boost supplies. The then Minister for Co-operatives and Marketing, Mr. Paul Ngei and also the chairman of the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) the national marketing board for maize in Kenya, was found to be the culprit behind the shortage. One of his wives, Emma was trading in the missing maize while another was strategically placed in a key position within the NCPB, as personal secretary to the chairman of the board. Corruption in Kenya was being institutionalized at this time so the minister was saved by President Kenyatta who went as far as amending the constitution to allow him to pardon Ngei.
MAIZE, MONEY, VOTES
Politicians in Kenya have used Maize as a bargaining chip to lure voters especially in the maize rich regions of the North Rift, with promises to pay farmers better and on time, all the while looking for opportunities to rip them off. Political alliances and feuds have been forged with maize at their centre as in the case of William Ruto and Raila Odinga. In 2009 Ruto,used his influence as Agriculture Minister to gain allies across the political divide and quash Raila’s attempts to expose his role in a Sh2 billion maize subsidy scandal, thereby ending their once chummy relationship.
More frequent however, are manmade causes aimed at compelling the government to allow duty free importation of maize by powerful albeit corrupt politicians and businessmen. This has led to fiascos such as the one of 2009 when contaminated maize found its way into the NCPB silos. And even though there were cases of Aflatoxin poisoning among the populace due to this, the corruption went on unabated, and 2018 saw yet another maize debacle, this one involving the then Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri in a Ksh 1.9 billion scandal. In an effort to boost farmers’ incomes the Kenyan government offered to buy maize at an attractive Ksh. 3,200 per 90kg bag. This was blood in the water for trading sharks which imported cheap maize and sold it to the NCPB. Kiunjuri was reprimanded publicly by the President Uhuru Kenyatta who warned him not to pay out the money meant for farmers to corrupt traders, and lost his job as CS. This slap on the wrist ensured that more underhand dealings would occur so there are currently several businessmen and NCPB officials in court over the illegal allocation national reserves of maize to briefcase millers.
The colossal amounts to be made in the maize sector juxtaposed with the infinitesimal penalties meted out to politicians will continue to attract graft at the cereals board, unless a serious effort is made by the government to remedy the situation.