Kenya’s first major graft at independence was about maize
While the Government officials have put on a brave face, trying to resolve food crisis, Ministry of Agriculture bosses seem to be holding their breath as they watch the unfolding food crisis across the country.
They know too well what shortages of the different agricultural commodities mean, especially if they have been keen on what similar situations in the past have resulted into.
This is especially in regards to maize shortage and its impact on the retail prices of flour that has made Ugali, Kenya’s staple, a luxury. It has in the past seen senior officials suspended or fumble in public as they try to explain the food insecurity situation in Kenya that largely measured in the lack of or availability of maize.
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Of particular concern to the Agriculture Ministry officials including those running State agencies is situation that unfolded in 1964 and 1965, occasioned by different circumstances, which led to the suspension of Paul Ngei as the Minister for Cooperatives and Marketing.
Mr Ngei, the independence hero and one of the Kapenguria Six who had been incarcerated together with Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, was accused of meddling with the Maize Marketing Board and smuggling the crop leading to shortages in 1964 and 1965.
A report by a commission appointed to look into shortages found that he manipulated State agencies handling maize distribution in the country, particularly the Maize Marketing Board, the predecessor of the National Cereals and Produce Board.
Of particular concern to the Commission was that Ngei – who also chaired the board – oversaw ‘unfairness, inefficiency, corruption and black marketing’ in the distribution and marketing of maize throughout Kenya.
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Said to be the first major scandal of the Kenyatta government, Ngei was accused of smuggling maize and overseeing the export of surplus maize earlier during his tenure. The surplus maize would have safely seen Kenya through the shortages of 1964 and 65 but now the country had to rely on yellow maize imports from the United States.
The Commission also found that Ngei was arm twisting the Board into allocating maize to companies run by his wife Emma Ngei – Emma Stores and Uhuru Millers. “We find that Mr Ngei allowed his interest in his wife’s business to come into conflict with his duty to a statutory board to the certain detriment of the latter,” says the Commission in its 1966 report.
“We find that Mr Ngei had by his own conduct... shown himself to be closely connected with the business of Uhuru Millers and that he cannot now escape criticism for whatever resulted from that close connection.”
Ngei was later absolved of the allegations and found his way back into the cabinet, serving in Kenyatta’s and later in Daniel Arap Moi’s governments.
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Among the ministerial positions he held included marketing, housing and social services, environment and lands and settlement. The scandal however tainted the picture of a man that earned a place in Kenya’s history through his fight for the country’s independence. Another maize scandal would resurface 43 years later in 2009, this time dragging in the name of the then Minister for Agriculture, William Ruto, now the Deputy President.
Mr Ruto refused to resign over the allegations that thousands of bags of maize from the Government’s strategic reserves might have been inappropriately allocated.
The name of the then Prime Minister Raila Odinga would also be dragged in the scandal, with Permanent Secretary Mohamed Isahakia and chief of staff Caroli Omondi, both from the office of the Prime Minister, adversely mentioned in an audit report that also recommended for investigations into their conduct.