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Mudavadi fights off 'petty' sugar politics, focuses on the 2022 race

By Oscar Obonyo | June 13th 2021
ANC party leader Musalia Mudavadi during an interview on April 1, 2021, at Musalia Center, Riverside in Nairobi. [Edward Kiplimo, Standard]

He was doing just fine — basking in the glory of recent poll victory in Mutungu constituency and moving with speed to solidify support in his western Kenya political base and across the country — when a hitch in the Mumias Sugar Company receivership popped up.

Now, Amani National Congress (ANC) party leader Musalia Mudavadi is a man under siege, facing a barrage of accusations from his backyard over alleged improprieties and interference in the planned takeover of the sugar company.

Politicians from the Luhya community have trained their guns on the former vice-president, accusing him of standing in the way of a new investor — Devki Group of Companies.

The heightened political tension in the western Kenya sugar belt follows last week’s withdrawal by the group of its bidding lease in the troubled sugar company. Devki cited “political interference” as one of the reasons for the move.   

Curiously, the onslaught against the ANC leader, his Ford Kenya counterpart Moses Wetang’ula and Kakamega Senator Cleophas Malala, is spearheaded by former National Assembly Majority Whip Ben Washiali, former Sports Cabinet Secretary Rashid Echesa and former Kakamega Senator Boni Khalwale, who are allied to Deputy President William Ruto.

The apparent coincidence has clouded the otherwise crucial concerns around Mumias takeover by giving the ongoing ping-pong a political angle.

And in an evident swipe at the DP, Mudavadi reacts that those who are part of the Jubilee administration must take responsibility for the current economic mess in the country “and stop the shameless claims that they have better solutions for Kenya”. 

Mudavadi’s battles ahead of next year’s polls have apparently just started. Will he be politically consumed by the sugar politics, almost in the same fashion as Raila Odinga (then Prime Minister) who lost ground in Rift Valley ahead of the 2013 polls over his stand on conservation of the Mau Forest?

And just how will the former Deputy Prime Minister politically and economically navigate through the perennial ghosts of the sugar industry in western Kenya?

In an exclusive interview with The Sunday Standard, Mudavadi explains his political predicament on the sugar issue and proposes solutions to the sugar problem that is quickly turning into a hot political potato. Below are excerpts of the interview:

Amani National Congress (ANC) party leader Wycliffe Musalia Mudavadi. [Courtesy, Standard]

Question: Let us start off with your take on why sugar is a controversial issue in western Kenya.

Answer: Sugarcane has been a core cash crop for western Kenya residents for the last 40 years and it is therefore at the centre of the economy of the region. This explains why the sugar issue is always  emotive.

Q: Is this why some people are playing politics with this grave matter?

A: Let it be known that it is the election fever that is responsible for the politicking. Politics is local and there are aspirants for civic, parliamentary and senatorial seats who believe the best way to have advantage over opponents is to excite voters in the sugar belt with non-factual narratives that suit their interests.

Q: Doesn’t this crowd out the real issues that affect the industry?

A: Unfortunately, yes. And this should not be allowed because some issues, like the Mumias takeover process, are very critical at the moment. We have a whole year to the next elections, so you can imagine us doing nothing tangible for cane farmers apart from politicking all the way to the ballot.

Q: Politics aside, are you standing in the way of a new investor in Mumias as claimed?

A: This may also be politics at play because nobody is against anybody. We are only saying that any transfer of ownership must be handled above board. It must be done properly and smoothly and must involve all stakeholders.

Q: But desperate Mumias employees and cane farmers are protesting that you are trying to stop someone who is coming to their aid…

A: This is not a philanthropic exercise. No investor is coming to do us a favour but to make profit. This is an exercise of mutual benefit to the investor and farmers and we will therefore not drop our guard in interrogating the takeover process. While I strongly hold that the private sector be supported, investors should nonetheless not be allowed to take company assets.

Q: You are nonetheless viewed as an impediment to your people’s rescue mission. Doesn’t this bother you?  

A: As a political leader, I am duty-bound to address this issue and all we are doing is to ensure accountability and transparency. Is anyone suggesting that the political leadership of Nyanza region, for instance, would sit back and not raise a voice if, say, Sony Sugar Company was to be placed under receivership? 

Q: What are your objections?

A: We are raising questions specifically on the takeover procedures. We are questioning why Devki’s bidding plan did not go through public participation, whether and how the outstanding debts and bills will be settled, alongside employees’ delayed payments. We also want to know the fate of the nucleus land of Mumias, which was donated to the government by locals when the factory was being set up, among other concerns.  

Q: Fine then – but some of the politicians allied to you have been fingered for allegedly playing a role in the collapse of Mumias. Why can’t you start by cleaning your hands?

A: I do not have a personal or political interests in this matter other than that of the cane farmers and the community. I have previously raised the issue of judicial inquiry on the sugar issue, touching on all the key players, including those in the political arena.

Q: But do you see this sugar saga going away anytime soon?

A: It will take spirited efforts to fix this because Mumias had been the jewel in the crown of the sugar industry in Kenya until it was placed under receivership. Mumias, and indeed Kenya’s sugar industry, have collapsed partly because of corruption and unfriendly policies. So we must start by fixing these.   

Q: How do you propose this to be handled?

A: What Mumias needs is a firm that can restore its credit worthiness and revive its operations, and not just a businessman who will come to chase profit and run away after milking the plant dry. Luckily, the interested investor promises to handle both aspects and we now only need to streamline the takeover process.

Q: What of a national approach to sugar question?

A: Simple – just handle related operations above board. There is also a need to revisit the Task Force Report on Sugar Farming by (Kakamega) Governor Wycliffe Oparanya, which was handed over to the Ministry of Agriculture. The report has a raft of recommendations, including on taxation, write-off of government debts and related institutions like Kenya Power and regulation of importation tariffs within the Comesa region. With stringent anti-corruption measures, these can help streamline the industry. 

Q: What other related issues would you fix in the event you are elected as the country’s CEO next year?

A: We would have to start by interrogating this government’s spending spree that has put us in huge debt. The government, for instance, currently operates in an expansionist State yet the revenue base is shrinking. The Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) has been given targets it can’t meet. We will also have to address the issue of public debt because we cannot allow heavy taxation to kill the very goose that lays the golden egg. And of course we will have a crash programme on the fight against corruption.

Q: Do you expect your political competitors to adhere to this script as well?

A: Why not? In fact, as we head to next year’s polls, we must call out those leaders seeking the presidency who have been in the kitchen where some of these punitive policies now choking Kenyans were brewed and who now claim they have better solutions. How can they possibly think they can fool us?  

Q: Talking about your competitors, are you in the process of teaming up with any? 

A: At the moment, I am focused on being the country’s next CEO and I will be seeking to get support from all walks of life. Nonetheless, coalition-building is work in progress and it will play out all through until six months to the elections.

Q: But with leaders from your backyard politically divided over the sugar issue, what is the guarantee they will rally behind you?

A: Our aim is to get a chance to rule Kenya and I have offered myself to do so. I want my community to support me in the ballot. The sugar issues aside, signs are clear that we can work together as a team and support our own just like we did in the Matungu and Kabuchai by-elections.

Q: Are you implying Luhya unity will be realised this time around?

A: Which other unity do you want the Luhya to exhibit as a community when we have demonstrated before that we can all rally behind one individual? We did that in 2002 when we rallied behind the presidential candidature of Mwai Kibaki and again in 2007 and 2017 behind Raila Odinga. If we aim and mean it, we do it, just like we are going to do it again this time. Just watch this space.

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