Thursday, February 5, 2009

Maize scandal: The lies and the facts

First Lady Lucy Kibaki (left), Agriculture minister William Ruto (centre) and Budalang'i MP Ababu Namwamba. Photos/FILE

First Lady Lucy Kibaki (left), Agriculture minister William Ruto (centre) and Budalang'i MP Ababu Namwamba. Photos/FILE 

By BERNARD NAMUNANE and DAVE OPIYO

First lady Lucy Kibaki was on Thursday cleared of any wrongdoing in the maize scandal. Her accuser, Budalangi MP Ababu Namwamba (ODM), beat a hasty retreat, offered an apology to Mrs Kibaki and the documents he produced to support his claims were ruled to be fakes.

However, Agriculture minister William Ruto was not cleared of all the allegations directed at him by Ikolomani MP Bonny Khalwale (New Ford Kenya) and all the documents bearing the National Cereals and Produce Board seal that linked Mr Ruto to the sale of maize were upheld by Parliament’s deputy speaker.

They included those from managers of the board allocating maize to some individuals allegedly on the strength of a call by Mr Ruto. Others included tables showing that the cereals board had in store 2.6 million bags of maize in June last year and those that allocated maize to companies and individuals that Dr Khalwale described as undeserving.

Mr Ruto had informed the House that the maize in the stores at the time was 1.6 million bags. Mr Khalwale wanted to know what had happened to the one million bags. It also emerged that though Mr Ruto has announced reforms in which he claimed to have removed 14 of National and Cereals Board’s 17 managers, he at the same time appointed the managing director of a milling company allocated more than 600,000 bags of maize to NCPB’s board of trustees.

Both the minister and the appointee when contacted denied any conflict of interest and said the appointment was in accordance with the law. Many of the managers announced to have been removed in the restructuring are still in office, according to a spot check by the Nation.

Mr Namwamba’s apology came after a day in which he came increasingly under fire from the Kibaki family. Four of the President’s children published an advertisement stating that the company Gingalili (1968) Limited which the First Family owns, “is not and never has been in the business of buying and selling maize or any other commodities.”

Mr Namwamba claimed in Parliament on Wednesday that Gingalili was among firms that bought maize from the National Cereals and Produce Board, which is in charge of maintaining strategic food reserve and relief supplies. It is not illegal to buy maize from the board but in times of famine the sale of maize is restricted to millers only.

On Wednesday, the First Family through the President’s press service described the allegations as “false” and “meant to deflect public attention from a serious matter of availability and affordability of food.”

On Thursday, President Kibaki’s children Judith, James, David and Anthony went public to state that Gingalili is a farm owned by the First Family in Subukia, Nakuru, but said it focused on dairy and vegetable farming.

Mr Namwamba on Thursday made a personal statement in the House to say he never meant to drag the name of the First Lady into the maize-buying scandal. He said his real intention was not to ‘cast aspersions’ on the character of Mrs Kibaki, for whom he said he had great respect but “to ensure that the full disclosure of the matter was done.”

He went on: “However, the impression that has so far been created has been misleading and a gross misinterpretation of the facts. “I therefore take the opportunity to correct the facts and save the First Lady the pain and embarrassment that to me is regrettable.”

Mr Namwamba said the fact that the company associated with the First Lady was only allocated ‘a mere’ 500 bags of maize by the cereals board did not suggest any impropriety in the matter. He at the same time said there was nothing illegal to hold shares in a company or purchase maize from the cereals board.

Deputy Speaker Farah Maalim later ruled that the documents produced by Mr Namwamba were not genuine and that only documents bearing the seal of the cereals board would be considered valid. That meant that the allegations raised by the Budalangi MP against the First Lady were expunged from the official records of the House and cleared Mrs Kibaki of any wrongdoing.

He did not make a ruling on what punishment, if any, the House was to impose on Mr Namwamba for introducing the name of the First Lady, who can not defend herself on the floor, into the debate. Nor did the Speaker rule on the sanctions for producing fake documents.

However Mr Maalim’s ruling freed Mr Ruto from being linked to the contents of emails between the managing director of African Merchants Assurance Company (Amaco) – a company associated with the minister – allegedly showing there were plans to purchase two million gunny bags worth Sh153 million from an Indian Company and sell them to the board.

It also annulled the notes that were written by the minister’s Personal Assistant to the cereals board supposedly advising the managers to allocate maize to particular individuals and companies.

Be accepted

Said Mr Maalim, “Only documents with the official National Cereals and Produce Board seal will be accepted. All other documents are to be expunged from the Hansard.” Immediately, Dr Khalwale protested at the ruling arguing that his documents referred to more people apart from the cereals board.

“The documents I presented here have references to more people than the NCPB and I feel they should be accepted,” he said. But Mr Maalim warned that he had made a ruling and any member who challenged it risked being thrown out of the House.

Before the ruling, Mr Ruto and Lands minister James Orengo urged the Deputy Speaker to reject all the documents because they had not been presented to him before they were tabled in the House.

Mr Maalim said it was the responsibility of MPs to ensure that the documents they tabled were genuine and directed that the Speaker must be made aware of their contents before they were presented.

The Kibaki family responded vigorously to criticism of the First Lady, terming it unprecedented, undignified and exceedingly shameful. The family said it was a sad day for Kenya “when an MP can use his Parliamentary privilege to cast dishonest aspersions on the character and dignity of innocent Kenyans who do not have the opportunity to defend themselves in Parliament.”

They added: “We humbly request the Speaker of the National Assembly to give the nation direction on this issue, as it is not the first time a Member of Parliament is maliciously maligning Kenyans from the floor of Parliament.” The Kibakis said even going by the current low political standards among certain politicians, the attack on the First Lady was uncalled for.

Cannot hide

The family challenged Mr Namwamba to repeat his allegations outside Parliament “where he cannot hide behind the Parliamentary privilege.” The Kibaki children urged their mother to remain steadfast and strong in her service to the nation. The First Lady, they said, should continue speaking out for the many Kenyans whose voices are never heard.

“Given her known attributes of tremendous integrity, courage and determination, especially in the face of adversity, we are certain that she will prevail,” they said. They also thanked Kenyans for their “kind words of support and encouragement.”

Mr Namwamba’s attack on Mrs Kibaki came just a day after President Kibaki contradicted her on the performance of Internal Security Minister George Saitoti. While the First Lady had called for the removal of the Kajiado North MP for allegedly failing Kenyans on the Nakumatt and Sachang’wan fire tragedies, President Kibaki affirmed his confidence in the former mathematics don.

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