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Maize scandal: Will CS Kiunjuri break the jinx at Agriculture Ministry?

BUSINESS
By Steve Mkawale | November 24th 2018
Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri at National Cereals and Produce Board silos in Kisumu on November 13,2018. Kiunjuri was not happy with the management of the silos over the coloration of the maize in their custody. (Denish Ochieng/ Standard)

In the past few weeks, Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri has been having sleepless nights over a Sh2 billion maize scandal that has rocked the ministry.

President Uhuru Kenyatta has been breathing fire and publicly warned Kiunjuri and officials of the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) of dire consequences over alleged misappropriation of funds budgeted for maize farmers.

Things appear to be getting thicker for the CS who now risks being censured after he failed for the fourth time to appear before a parliamentary committee.

Last week, the National Assembly Agriculture Committee summoned him to appear, failing which the committee would either fine him Sh500,000 or pass a censure motion against him.

Kiunjuri is now finding himself in a territory where his predecessors have been.

The scandal in which the NCPB paid a few traders at the expense of many farmers for maizedeliveries is haunting him and has claimed his Principal Secretary Richard Lesiyampe, who has been suspended and charged with the Sh1.9 billion scandal. 

Before Kiunjuri there was Willy Bett who, alongside Lesiyampe, were put on the spot over the controversial importation of 30,000 tonnes of maizefrom Mexico.

The duo was accused by the parliamentary agriculture committee of creating an artificial shortage of maize so as to reap from duty free imports.

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Bett was among seven Cabinet Secretaries who were sacked after serving in President Kenyatta’s first term. He was later appointed Kenya’s High Commissioner to India.

The saga surrounding maize delivered to the NCPB is not new. The controversy nearly cost the jobs of top-ranking government officers, including Deputy President William Ruto, who in early 2009 was accused by then parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) chairman Boni Khalwale of illegally selling maize. Ruto was the Agriculture minister at the time.

Briefcase millers

In late 2008, the ban on importation of maize had been lifted by the government to allow capable businessmen to import to supplement the local produce that was short of the minimum required to satisfy Kenya’s market.

But briefcase millers, existing only on paper, some of whom were defunct at the time when the scandal unfolded, were awarded large quantities of maizeby the Strategic Grain Reserve.

According to parliamentary records, the companies accomplished their mission by inflating their milling per-hour capacity and having four Permanent Secretaries approve them.

“The briefcase millers and local businesses that were either awarded quotas by the Strategic Grain Reserve (SGR) or awarded import permits by the National Cereals Produce Board of Kenya (NCPB), respectively, might have also re-directed the bags of maize outside the country to avoid price controls stated by the government and thus make bigger profits,” reads the Hansard report of the 10th Parliament.

All the documents bearing the NCPB seal that linked Ruto to the illegal sale of maize were accepted by Parliament’s deputy speaker.

The scandal sucked in then Prime Minister Raila Odinga as his office was a signatory to the SGR quota allocations.

The Office of the Prime Minister also gave instructions that the contaminated maize should not be returned to South Africa and it was retained in Kenya to be destroyed. The scandal saw two senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office – PS Mohamed Isahakia and Chief of Staff Caroli Omondi – resign a day before Raila attempted to suspend Ruto.

The Ministry of Agriculture was first involved in a post-independence multimillion-shilling maizediversion scandal that led to the suspension of Paul Ngei from the first Cabinet.

Ngei, a friend of then President Jomo Kenyatta, was accused of meddling in the Maize Marketing Board, a predecessor of the NCPB, leading to a severe maize shortage in the country.

He used his position to have the board allocate his wife Emma and Uhuru Millers Ltd, which he had interest in, a large amount of the maize that was for export.

The shortage forced the government between 1964 and 1965 to import yellow maize from US to feed its citizens.

Jomo appointed a commission to investigate the matter and Ngei was found culpable.

Since then, all Agriculture ministers and now two Cabinet Secretaries have been, in one way or another, linked with maize scandal.

Others have been mentioned in irregular importation of sugar or farm inputs such as fertilisers.

In 1982, then Agriculture Minister Jeremiah Nyagah was caught up in a multimillion-shilling scandal in which some maize was exported to Zimbabwe while only those of poor quality were released to the local market.

When he was the minister, Kipruto Kirwa, now chairman of Amani National Congress (ANC), was blamed for allowing massive importation of sugar, which undermined local production and led to closure of mills.  

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