CSs trade blames on how toxic sugar found its way to Kenya

Industry, Trade and Cooperatives CS Adan Mohamed (C) accompanied by his PS Betty Maina and Kebs Chief Manager market surveillance Raymond Michuk i(R) when they appeared before the National Assembly Agriculture and Trade Joint Committees. [Boniface Okendo/Standard]

Cabinet Secretaries engaged in a blame game during a heated parliamentary committee session yesterday, where results confirming sugar was contaminated were tabled. There were claims that blacklisted companies were cleared to import the commodity.

Agriculture CS Mwangi Kiunjuri, who appeared before a joint parliamentary committee that is probing how suspected contraband sugar found its way into the country, first blamed the National Treasury for opening a window for unregulated imports that was exploited by unscrupulous traders to flood the market with the hazardous commodity.

But Treasury CS Henry Rotich said the duty-free window he opened last year did not sanction the importation of poisonous commodity, and that it was up to the licensing agency - which, curiously, falls under the Agriculture docket - to ensure compliance with statutory requirements.

The two CSs - who testified separately - gave contradicting figures of total imports, suggesting the Government seemed not to be aware of exactly how much poisonous sugar was brought in.

A more damning revelation by MPs that blacklisted firms associated with directors linked to drug trafficking had imported the sugar got Rotich in trouble. The lawmakers were not satisfied with the CS’ response that he was not privy to information, yet the imports occurred under his watch.

Kiunjuri said it was criminal if companies blacklisted by Parliament had indeed been cleared to import sugar, with MPs directing Rotich to furnish the probe team with more information on the assertion.

Trade and Industrialisation CS Adan Mohammed told the joint House team, which is co-chaired by Kieni MP Kanini Kega and his Mandera South counterpart Adan Ali, that a multi-agency task-force was still doing tests on the seized sugar, but that the commodity screened so far had failed safety tests.

By Friday last week, 587,622 bags had been confiscated.

The brown, white and raw sugar had failed to meet standard specifications in moisture, copper and lead content; water insoluble matter; yeast and molds, among other parameters, according to a report presented by the CS.

Significantly, mercury was not listed among the parameters, and Interior CS Fred Matiang’i, who first raised the alarm that the contraband sugar contained traces of the metal, did not show up before the committee. The MPs’ team directed that Matiang’i had ‘no option’ but to appear this morning.

Adan also pushed blame to the National Treasury over the importation of duty-free sugar, saying his ministry was only involved in checking the quality of the imported sweetener.

Kiunjuri said toxic and contaminated sugar gained entry into the local market after Treasury issued a gazette notice last year that opened a three-month window to any trader to import the commodity duty-free.

He told lawmakers that traders, including unlicensed ones, took advantage of the gazette notice issued in May last year, and which gave a blank cheque to anyone to ship in the sweetener.

“When the gazette notice was issued, we expected only registered importers to do so. Little did we know that other players could come in,” said Kiunjuri.

The Agriculture CS told the Kega and Ali-led team that allowing the importation of the commodity without specifying the quantity led to oversupply.

Mr Kega is the chairperson of the Trade, Industry, and Cooperatives committee, while Mr Ali leads the Agriculture and Livestock committee.

“Later, after conducting analysis, we noted that the sugar imported to the country had surpassed the quantity. That is how our market was flooded and we communicated the same to the Treasury,” Kiunjuri explained to MPs.

According to the Agriculture CS, after the flood-gates were opened for the three months, records show that over 370 traders imported one million metric tonnes of sugar, which surpassed the shortage estimated at that time to be 700,000 metric tonnes.

When pressed by committee members to explain what kind of sugar was shipped in and whether he knew what quantity may have been unfit for consumption, Kiunjuri fell short of admitting that he did not have the information.

Poisonous sugar

“The issue of poisonous sugar doesn’t arise in this case. Any sugar that entered the country came through our border points and there are people in charge of that. We did not issue a license to anyone to import sugar after the gazette notice; those who could did so.”

“Sugar in this case refers to brown sugar, table sugar, raw sugar and industrial sugar since it was not specified. If some unscrupulous traders took advantage of the vagueness of Gazette Notice 4536 and imported toxic sugar, it was beyond us as a ministry,” said Kiunjuri.

But Rotich differed sharply with his counterpart, reading from a different script on the quantities imported last year.

He told the legislators that according to data obtained from the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA), only 920,571 metric tonnes were imported duty-free during the window period - a 100,000 metric tonnes difference from what Kiunjuri had earlier asserted.

Rotich added: “And by importing, I mean not only traders did so, but even some Kenyans brought in small quantities of sugar from outside the country for their own consumption in their homes. Everything is picked by our revenue systems as imported sugar.”

The Treasury boss attempted to absolve himself from blame, insisting that the notice he issued did not mean that sub-standard sugar was to be sneaked into Kenya and find its way to shelves of shops.

“The gazette notice I issued does not invalidate other existing regulations. It was only a duty-free window and those in charge of licensing ought to have done so. It did not mean that we allow importation of sugar that is bad for human consumption.

We ordinarily have regulations that have to be followed and the window I gave did not set any fresh rules. It was duty-free in regards to taxation but other agencies that regulate importation should have carried their mandate,” stated Rotich.

At one point, both CSs attracted the wrath of the lawmakers after they said they did not know that some of the firms that imported sugar had been blacklisted from doing business in the country by the Agriculture committee.

“Among the list of companies that imported sugar are two firms whose license was cancelled by the Sugar Directorate after two of its directors were charged in court on suspicion of drug trafficking. How sure are you that we are dealing with sugar and not narcotics?” Dagoretti North MP Simba Arati posed.

“If anyone was blacklisted by Parliament but still went ahead to import, that’s criminal and the law must take its course,” said Kiunjuri. Rotich said he did not have information on the companies whose licenses were revoked for being linked to the narcotics trade, attracting the wrath of MPs who accused him of being uncooperative.

Committee co-chair Kega reminded him that he was the Treasury Minister in 2016 when the matter occurred, and therefore could not claim ignorance. He advised Rotich to get more information from his officers.

Security agencies

Adan later told the committee that security agencies were partly to blame for the smuggling of contraband sugar.

 The Trade CS said agencies dealing with sugar importation were in a difficult position to deal with the dumping of the commodity due to lack of intelligence by security agencies.

“The agencies concerned with regulation of sugar do not get intelligence briefs on issues to do with illicit trade.

“There is a need for a framework of information sharing between security agencies and regulatory bodies, which can be used to make proactive interventions,” Adan said.

He described the country’s 40,000km border as porous, warning that smugglers were using unregulated entry points to bring in sugar and other illegal commodities into the country. “At the same time, there are around 44 designated land border entry points with some not manned by all the requisite agencies.”

He said that sugar impounded from Diamond Wholesalers in Eastleigh and Paleah Stores in Ruiru had not come into the country legitimately.

The Kenya Bureau of Standard has since completed tests on sugar seized from the two go-downs and established the commodity was not suitable for human consumption because it contained copper as well as mold and yeast.

Adan further said that unscrupulous importers had been making false import declarations, revealing an instance where a trader attempted to disguise 16 containers of sugar as a grinding machine.