The Kenya–Uganda sugar trade saga has given President Uhuru Kenyatta a herculean task as he attempts to exert his influence and that of his Jubilee government in the Western Kenya sugar belt.
A flurry of quickly arranged media briefings and conflicting statements from senior government officials on what exactly transpired in Uganda has only helped to muddy the waters for the President and his team.
Was any deal signed? Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohammed is categorical that it did not happen while the President is angered that the Opposition is opposed to the trade pact.
Despite the backlash from Western and Nyanza MPs after the pact was announced, the President made yet another high profile visit to Kisumu, to attend the winners' concert of the 89th National Music Festival.
Previously, such concerts were held at State House Nairobi, but it appears the President wanted to use the opportunity to meet leaders and people from the region, a day after Western Kenyan politicians, whom he has been trying to woo into Jubilee’s embrace, snubbed an invitation to State House.
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Interestingly, Deputy President William Ruto was in nearby Bungoma County, an area also largely affected by the politics surrounding the alleged Uhuru-Museveni sugar deal.
The President reacted angrily after CORD leader Raila Odinga, one of the first leaders to bring the deal to light, termed the presidency’s actions in a statement “sour” and “tasteless” and that it ‘flies in the face of the government’s stated attempt to revive Mumias Sugar through tax-payer funded bailout.
After suffering a bruising attack during President Obama’s visit, the opposition has quickly regained its footing through the controversial deal that has put President Kenyatta and his team in a tight corner.
The presidency has recently been on a charm offensive to Western Kenya, dishing out a Cabinet appointment, an array of parastatal positions to leading voices from the region as well as orchestrating a bailout deal for the crumbling Mumias Sugar Company. However, the Uganda deal threatens to be the yarn that might undo the carefully woven fabric of Jubilee’s foray into western Kenya in anticipation of splitting the region before the 2017 presidential polls.
Perhaps of most concern will be the fact that previously thought friendly legislators from the region have been at the forefront criticising Kenyatta’s latest decision. Ababu Namwamba, thought to be a Kenyatta sympathiser, termed the President’s actions as a “betrayal.”
“The primary duty of any government is to protect interests of citizens. Everything else is secondary. The US still protects corn farmers. Holland would never compromise interests of Tulip growers. Denmark jealously guards their milk producers. Germany and France heavily subsidise their farmers to help them compete,” Ababu said.
On Thursday, MPs from the region boycotted a firefighting meeting at State House thought to have been called to address the concerns of the region. “We decided to decline the invite. The sugar question is not a Western affair only. We need leaders from Nyanza and Coast as well,” Nambale MP John Bunyasi said.
Vocal Kakamega Senator Bonni Khalwale said the deal only “opens doors to unscrupulous business people.”
A week later, the deal remains a secret between the two governments, with the Jubilee administration being elusive over both the content and the fact that a deal was signed. Last Wednesday, CS Amina maintained that no deal was signed between the two governments.
“There was no agreement signed during the visit by President Kenyatta. If there were any agreements, they must have been signed by entities outside the two governments,” she said at a press conference in Nairobi.
Earlier, while reacting to Raila’s criticism of the deal, President Kenyatta alluded to a deal between the two governments being struck.
“I would rather import Ugandan rather than Brazilian sugar,” said the President, three days after he addressed the Ugandan Parliament where he threw another jibe at opposition leaders arguing they should not use their positions to undermine legitimately elected governments.
CORD maintains that when a choice has to be made between “our people and our region, the choice should be easy and clear. It is our people first.”
This latest gaffe by the presidency has provided a lifeline to an opposition that seemed to be losing ground to Jubilee in a historically opposition zone. Plus, the unfolding debate will provide wind beneath the wings of legislators who had fallen out of favour with the leadership of their various parties as well as constituents.
“Now they can find enough reason to galvanize themselves. They have a rallying call that can cut across three regions,” says political commentator David Makali.
If they play their cards right, they can harp on the sugar issue to galvanise their bases and perhaps bring about the ever elusive unity that the region has craved for since the early 90s when political stalwarts such as Masinde Muliro or more recently Wamalwa Kijana commanded.
However, current politicians have in the past proved to be fickle in their ideals. Many have presented a united front to the public but resort to individual survival at the end of the day.
“This will happen because these politicians are in bed with all the things that are endangering Kenya’s sugar industry,” Saulo Busolo, former MP and Kenya Sugar Board head said.
“The biggest dangers to Kenya’s sugar industry is mismanagement of state run companies and contraband sugar. Our politicians cohabit with both these ills.”
Busolo accuses the vocal legislators of playing politics with serious issues. “As they argue, they have completely thrown science and reason out of the window. We have always been importing some sugar to meet our deficit. This is a regulated practice. Uganda will never pose a threat to Kenya’s sugar industry. They are just playing politics,” he said.
To save face, the executive will also have to play this kind of politics by invoking the influence of its men and women in Western Kenya.
First up, the latest placation to the region and current Water and Irrigation Cabinet Secretary Eugene Wamalwa. At the time of Wamalwa’s appointment, African Policy Institute Chief Executive Officer Peter Kagwanja said Jubilee was making headway in Western region by using its financial muscle.
“Western was warming up to Jubilee long before Wamalwa was appointed CS. Not much was done by Jubilee to win Western in the 2013 election, but the coalition seems to have hit the road early enough for 2017,” said Prof Kagwanja.
Kagwanja said Western Kenya can be divided into three political regions — Bungoma-Trans-Nzoia, Kakamega-Vihiga and the Busia axis — and adds that Jubilee has to use a different approach to woo each area.
“What remains open is that Wamalwa is going to be a strong player among Western leaders sympathetic to Jubilee,” Kagwanja predicts.
There were visible pro-Jubilee voices during Wamalwa’s thanksgiving among them the chairman of The National Alliance (TNA) and Nominated MP, Johnson Sakaja. But can these voices sway thought, opinion and influence decision making among peers in the region? Can Wamalwa marshal his troops and change the current song from a dirge to an upbeat tune?
“It is not too late for Jubilee to salvage the situation. All they need to do is communicate properly to the stakeholders. The importation is not a bad thing, it is the way the news got to the public that is causing this furore,” said Makali. The political commentator argues that had the government sought the views of the farmers and the area leaders over the matter, things would have turned out differently.
“Currently however, the perception that the current government is insensitive to the needs of Western Kenya will gain ground,” he said.
In the meantime however, CORD leaders have been accorded a chance to proof their regional block. Whether they succeed remains to be seen.
Currently, sugar millers are staring into an abyss. Debt, mismanagement and competition from tax- free sugar imports have made them struggle for survival. As the companies struggle, so do cane farmers, entrapping hundreds of thousands into a vicious cycle of poverty.
“If you place this industry at risk you are destroying the lives of millions of people. This sector needs massive aid, not an all-out assault,” Namwamba said.
As things stand, it might require more than piecemeal appointments for Uhuru to bring the dithering Western region bride back to the negotiation table.