Saturday, March 14, 2009

Row with US delays relief food

The face of hunger in Turkana. Photo/COURTESY

The face of hunger in Turkana. Photo/COURTESY 

By MUGUMO MUNENE

A consignment of maize from the United States intended to feed Kenyans facing starvation almost did not make it into the country because of a diplomatic dispute between the Kenyan and American governments.

The Sunday Nation has learnt that before US Ambassador Michael Ranneberger received the maize worth Sh780 million in Mombasa on Friday, there had been a lot of communication between the Kenyan and US governments after a Kenyan official stood in the way of clearing the food.

The saga

A source privy to the saga, who asked not to be named because he is not authorised to speak to the press, told the Sunday Nation that a public health official based in Mombasa ordered the Mombasa-based importers not to release the maize.

The seizure order was issued to Weston Logistics Ltd under the Food, Drugs and Chemical Substances Act, which allows an officer to seize goods he or she believes have violated the law.

The letter from the official, which did not specify which law had been contravened, was dated March 10 after Grain Bulk Handlers received the maize from MV Patent which had transported the 10,000-tonne cargo from the United States.

After the order was issued, the US embassy contacted Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s office asking that it be rescinded.

However, a standoff ensued, but the public health official eventually backed down.

Receiving the maize on Friday, Mr Ranneberger said the first consignment of 30,000 tonnes was of high quality and had been tested by the US Federal Grain Inspection Service, the US government agency charged with grain standards.

The quality assurance process, Mr Ranneberger said, would be followed for all other maize imports from the United States.

At the official function on Friday, representatives of both governments steered clear of the seizure order with Mr Ranneberger praising the Kenya Government for playing “a constructive role in facilitating the historic shipment of white maize”.

In January, President Kibaki launched an appeal to the international community to supply Sh37 billion of relief food. Several Western diplomats responded by expressing concern over what they viewed as the government’s failure to stem corruption.

Britain has offered relief food to Kenya but will deliver it through the World Food Programme not the government.

Mr Ranneberger said America would partner with companies in the private sector, mainly millers, by guaranteeing loans of $83 million (Sh6.6 billion) for 90,000 tonnes of maize to be shipped to Kenya the next month.

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