Ruto tells off MPs opposing plans to lease five sugar millers

Sony sugar company Tractor transporting canes to the factory on February 22, 2021. [Caleb Kingwara, Standard]

President William Ruto has asked MPs opposed to the government's plan to lease its five sugar millers to "take opposition politics elsewhere."

The President who was in Bungoma on Thursday for a development tour said the state plans to lease the millers for a period of at least 30 years which is in line with the push to improve efficiency

He said Nzoia and Mumias Sugar companies in Western region had been reduced to loss making ventures that are perennially in need of a radical management shift to save the government from bailing them out every now and then. 

The President who was responding to lawmakers who had asked him to shelve plans to lease Nzoia, it's nucleus estate, schools and other equipment said he had previously served as Agriculture Minister, Deputy President and had the Midas touch to return the state owned millers to profitability. 

"The Sh53 billion debt that was starving Nzoia's operations has been written off just like all other debts the other state mills owed creditors. I pledged that during the campaigns and have already fulfilled it. I am now trained on paying off farmers' debts and will today leave Sh 1.6 billion for Nzoia farmers because I am focused on the reforms in the sugar sub-sector," Ruto said. 

"You have also seen me scare the biggest cartels in the sub-sector who were frustrating the revival of Mumias Sugar and it is now running. Give me time to go the whole nine yards in reforming the sub-sector, don't threaten or pull me back with negative opposition politics on this journey," he added.

Ruto said since the farmers were the most important stakeholders to the sugar millers, it was fair to start bailing them out before going to the employees in the next phase of streamlining the sub-sector. 

He said it was time for a new firm to run Nzoia so that farmers and workers are paid on time as Bungoma county governments rakes in between Sh300 and Sh500 million every year in land rates from the miller's nucleus estate (24,000 acres) the vast of which, 15,000, was donated by the local community. 

Speaking at Nzoia Sugar Grounds, the Head of State assured the community that the leasing would not bring down the firm like it happened with Pan-paper as the government would find a good firm to run the company that was established in 1978. 

Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua said the company was in a mess and defying the government proposal of leasing it out was misplaced. 

National Assembly Speaker Moses Wetang'ula equally said that the MPs who were opposed to the leasing for purposes of popularity were misleading the public. 

"Some are speaking out of ignorance but the truth is we will put every development (about leasing) above board so that all stakeholders of the factory are informed. The land of Nzoia is our ancestral right and we cannot let any mischief happen on it. Nzoia is our only cow whose milk feeds our families," he said. 

The Speaker called on the leaders to be present when he meets Agriculture Cabinet Secretary to iron out burning issues.

Leaders opposed to plans to lease the sugar millers are MPs Majimbo Kalasinga (Kabuchai, Ford Kenya), Jack Wamboka (Bumula, DAP-K), John Makali (Kanduyi, Ford Kenya) Martin Pepela (Webuye East, Ford Kenya) among others. 

The leaders had earlier threatened to boycott the president's visit unless he withdraws an advert calling for a bidder to run Nzoia Sugar Company for 30 years but would turn up to speak their mind after the president arrived. 

Wamboka set the ball rolling at the meeting by telling the Head of State that he should forget about leasing the firm as the locals would not allow it. 

"Today we don't have Pan-paper because of leasing and we don't want to hear anything about leasing or privatising Nzoia. It will for sure go under. Let me tell you the truth Mr President, our people don't want the factory to be leased. Stop that process," he said. 

The first term lawmaker reminded the President that he pledged to buy a new machine for Nzoia, pay farmers and workers within his first 100 days in power and he shouldn't go against the promise "as Bungoma voted for you overwhelmingly to win against your strong opponent Raila by a slim majority of slightly higher than 200,000 votes."

Kanduyi MP Makali said leasing the firm was synonymous with paralysing the economy of the region which was pegged on its existence.

The Speaker and the leaders have been on record saying the county gave Ruto an edge over Raila to bag the presidency which they feel should be rewarded in a better way. 

So far the Wetang'ula who has some five Ford Kenya MPs in the National Assembly enjoys his Speaker position courtesy of MPs from Ruto's UDA and he has influenced the employment of his allies in government. However, according to the local leaders that counts for nothing if Nzoia is leased. 

Kalasinga wants Ruto to treat the loss making Nzoia the way he treated KCC which was bailed out through Parliament and a new plant installed rather than be leased.  

Speaking earlier while distributing fertilizer. Agriculture Principal Secretary Paul Ronoh supported the leasing of Nzoia saying: "It's not to fully privatising of the mills but the government has come up with leasing to protect the farmers and ensure land is protected."

"The process has started and we will put everything above board. We will do it cautiously to ensure we (government) have some control to protect the farmers' and community interests," he added.

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