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The making of Kenya's first maize import scandal

Bags of Maize at the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) warehouse in Nakuru on March 15, 2021. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard] 

A flurry of letters, telegrams and foreign visits by high-level government officials heralded the making of one of Kenya's first scandals.

Although there were no tweets or emails, the snail mail and long-distance calls caused the delay in the importation of maize from America, leading to starvation in parts of the country.

After waiting for months for the 200,000 bags of yellow maize, the chairman of the Maize Marketing Board Ronald Ngala poured his frustrations in a letter dated March 15, 1965.

"We have been gravely concerned about the several delays which have occurred since this matter was first agreed upon by our Government. The situation is further aggravated by the recent advice that the Kenya Charge d'affaires in Washington has refused to sign the authorisation paper. “

Ngala was worried that unless the agents his board had contracted were given authorisation, Kenya would run out of 1964 stock of white maize.

Things worsened however when Finance minister James Gichuru cancelled the contract given to CB Fox because the American authorities were against it and instead appointed Universal Shipping Company.

This opened a floodgate of telegrams, letters and telephone calls, which further delayed the importation.

Agriculture Minister Bruce Mackenzie further muddied waters when he appointed Standard Bank and Chase Manhattan Bank to handle financial aspects to the chagrin of the board, which protested that there had been no action since February.

By the time the first shipment was offloaded at the Port of Mombasa in June 1965, the Minster for Cooperatives and Marketing, Paul Ngei, was already poised to engineer the country’s first maize scandal.

It would take a commission of inquiry 37 days to listen to 144 witnesses heard on camera to untangle the mess.

The commission chaired by Chanan Sigh and comprised J Nyamweya, JK Gecau and OS Knowles found Ngei culpable, but he was yet to exhaust his nine political lives. He was ultimately pardoned by President Jomo Kenyatta.

Fifty-seven years later, Trade Cabinet Secretary Moses Kuria is a man on the spot not for allowing GMO maize imports at a time when farmers in large-scale growing zones are harvesting.

If MPs make good their threat to impeach him, will he like Ngei survive or will he like the proverbial hero be floored by a GMO maize cob?