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Relief food has become a cash cow to a few select persons

BUSINESS
By | March 24th 2012

By VINCENT BARTOO

While relief food is meant to save the lives of starving residents in arid and semi-arid regions, the food has become a cash cow for Government officials and politicians.

Investigation by The Standard On Saturday in drought-prone Turkana and Pokot counties reveals a scam, denying residents the much-needed relief from famine that ravages them yearly.

Turkana residents line up to receive relief food. Most of the food given to the hungry is not the exact quantity allocated to them by the Government and donors.

Special Programmes Minister Esther Murugi has already appealed for Sh6 billion to buy relief food to alleviate hunger for more than five million Kenyans. Sadly, the food may not reach these people and might instead be used to line the pockets of corrupt Government officials and politicians.

They take advantage of the high levels of illiteracy of the communities in these regions and their pastoralist nature to divert their food, robbing them of a fundamental constitutional right.

When a DC in Pokot was last year arrested and charged with theft of relief food, the lid was lifted on a scam shamefully perpetrated at high levels of Government.

The 280 bags of maize was meant for residents of Tabach in Pokot North, but the lorry was intercepted as it drove to Kitale town where the food was to be sold. The DC’s case is still before a Kitale court but this has not stopped fellow provincial administrators from continuing with the vice.

Investigations by The Standard On Saturday reveal how easy it is for such administrators to pilfer the food with impunity, a fact even Special Programmes Permanent Secretary Andrew Mondoh admits.

When The Standard On Saturday visited Lodwar, we met a self-confessed former relief food broker, Paul Ekaran alias Lokopir, whose job was to link the provincial administrators with potential buyers of the food.

He linked the buyers and DCs and District Officers who are in charge of the food. "I did the dirty job for them until one day it dawned on me that what I was doing was wrong," said Lokopir.

The corrupt DCs and DOs would issue Lokopir with a signed Form S11 authorising him to get the maize from the Lodwar National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) depot. The Form S11, we established, is a blank cheque given to DCs and DOs to plunder relief food.

All it takes is just a signature and a stamp from the DC’s office and the food is released by the NCPB to the bearer of the form. Lokopir pauses from the interview and calls a DO on speakerphone, informing him that he has a buyer who intended to buy relief food. The DO, unaware he had quit the trade, asks Lokopir to tell the buyer to wait till the next day as they were awaiting supply of maize.

Although NCPB spokesman Evans Wasike denied involvement of the board in the scam, Lokopir reveals some corrupt board officials at the depots were culpable.

"They are aware of what is going on. How can I take the Form S11 to them and they give me 200 bags yet I am not a Government employee?" he posed. A civil servant based at Lodwar who sought anonymity broke it down for The Standard On Saturday saying theft of the relief food is easy to execute.

Loopholes in distribution

He reveals the provincial administrators take advantage of loopholes in the distribution to steal and sell them, raking in millions. "Information about how much food a district receives only gets to the DC, so only he, the NCPB officials, and the Ministry of Special Programmes know how much is received as relief food," he said.

The senior official said the DC, DOs, and NCPB officials then collude to divert huge quantities of the food meant for needy residents without their knowledge.

"So, if Kerio in Turkana Central for instance is to get 500 bags, only 200 bags are taken there. The rest is embezzled," he added. The other loophole is the constant lack of transport to ferry the food to far-flung areas.

"Turkana County is expansive yet we do not have trucks. We rely mostly on National Youth Service (NYS) trucks occasionally given to us to ferry relief food," said the official.

He said when the NYS trucks are withdrawn, relief food is stored at NCPB depots awaiting transportation. "The waiting provides a perfect chance for theft as they pile," said the official.

The pastoralist nature of the communities in these regions, he added, coupled with low levels of education have worked in favour of the corrupt officials.

"These communities move a lot in search of water and pasture for their animals. Records can indicate they got food yet they left the area," said the official. He added some chiefs tried to raise the red flag over the scam but they were soon compromised.

"They (DCs and DOs) know outspoken chiefs. They allocate them the stolen maize to silence them," reveals the official. Ordinarily, relief food comprises maize, beans and cooking fat but locals in these areas mainly know of maize.

"They do not know what they are entitled to. So they just receive whatever comes. The rest benefits the corrupt officials," added the official. Ms Seline Locham, the Coordinator of Turkana Women Advocacy Development Organisation, enlisted the services of locals known as ‘social auditors’ to secretly monitor movement of relief food.

"Our findings were shocking. One day, one of my auditors asked for a lift in one of the GK lorries carrying relief food," said Locham. She recalled getting a text message from the auditor informing her that the lorry had stopped midway the trip and offloaded part of the relief food to another private lorry.

"The private lorry had empty sacks. The relief food that is normally in Government of Kenya branded sacks were offloaded to the empty sacks," added Locham. This happened in a remote part of Turkana Central District, providing an ideal environment to execute the theft.

"He (auditor) then started taking photos from his phone but he was detected and warned of dire consequences if he dared expose what he saw," she said.

In Pokot County, provincial administrators also have a field day squandering relief food with little fear of being caught. It is here that relief food found in a private lorry was impounded and a DC and NCPB officials arrested and charged for theft after the media exposed it.

Campaign tool

Another resident, Julius Lotela, recalls a landslide that hit Tabach location, displacing locals and destroying their crops.

"When we sought relief food for the displaced people, it had been exhausted to our dismay because no distribution had been done due to rains that kept us well fed," he said.

Lotela, who sits in the district steering group that decides on distribution of relief food, said they tried to take the local provincial administration to task over the matter in vain. "They covered up the matter while intimidating us and it ended there. I quit the steering group," he said. Lotela is convinced that about 70 per cent of the relief food is embezzled by provincial administrators including chiefs.

Our investigations also revealed that District Education Officers in these areas also loot the food meant for school feeding programmes. Some Members of Parliament from these areas are other beneficiaries of the relief food gravy train in two ways.

"They intimidate and threaten relief food agencies and even Government officials into getting contracts to supply the food," said a senior provincial administrator.

He said the MPs, knowing the theft that goes on with the food, also demand their share of the stolen food. "For any food that goes to any location in their constituencies, they have their share. You decline their demands at your own risk," added the administrator.

He further disclosed that the politicians use the relief food as a campaign tool.

"This happens a lot during the dry spells. They take the GoK maize, put it into new bags and go round supplying them to win support," added the administrator.

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