he government’s response to public anger over the skyrocketing price of basic food will no doubt offer much-needed respite in an election season.
With the Opposition just about to push its “Unga Revolution” campaign over the scarcity and rising cost of maize flour, the government moved speedily to unveil a subsidy programme that in one day reduced the price of a 2kg packet of flour to Sh90 from a record high of Sh140.
The Sh6 billion subsidy announced by Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Willy Bett should be a big relief to increasingly restive citizens buffeted from all sides by empty market shelves and sudden and drastic increases in the prices of basics such as maize flour, milk, rice and sugar.
It was also a big relief for the Jubilee administration of President Uhuru Kenyatta, who was looking at the prospects of going into a re-election campaign while his main opponent, Raila Odinga of the National Super Alliance, was licking his lips at the opportunity presented to exploit growing voter disenchantment over the rising cost of living.
The sudden arrival of cheap flour should assuage public discontent, while taking the wind out of opposition sails.
It should also divert attention from a growing public debate on whether incompetence and corruption in government had created an artificial shortage while politically connected commodity traders were waiting in the wings to reap a windfall the moment tax-free imports landed.
Indeed, before the announcement on subsidised flour, the big debate everywhere was how a ship carrying maize imported from Mexico docked at the port of Mombasa just five days after a Kenya Gazette notice lifted import duty on the commodity.
The general assumption was that powerful people in government with advance knowledge of a coming tax waiver already had shipments in the high seas.
The government was running around in circles, with a series of contradictory explanations from different Cabinet secretaries, serving only to muddy the waters further.
Then came the big announcement from Mr Bett, posing with packets of the maize flour with government branding and price tags.
Citizens who had borne the brunt of the shortages and rising prices of Kenya’s staple food no doubt welcomed the availability of affordable flour, and couldn’t care less about the politics and the economics of it all.
However, the intervention masked a much more serious problem.
This was brought out clearly in an NTV panel discussion on Wednesday morning focused on food security, national security and related issues.
A diverse panel featuring security experts, such as KCA University vice-chancellor Noah Midamba, former Kenya Army officers Captain Collins Wanderi and Captain Simiyu Werunga, was in broad agreement that irrespective of the arrival of imported maize and the subsidy, the government remained indicted for allowing the situation to get out of control before intervening.
A key element was that the maize shortage was not a sudden and unexpected event but had been projected and warning signs issued well in advance by a variety of agencies, including the government’s own early warning and disaster response mechanisms, but no action was taken to stock up in advance.
The Ministry of Agriculture and its National Cereals and Produce Board, the custodian of the national strategic grain reserve, were particularly culpable. So was the ministry of Devolution and Planning that hosts the Department of Special Programmes, the National Treasury and the Presidency.
The panellists, some of them supporters of the Jubilee Party, agreed that the cyclical food shortages, whether today or in the past, should not be blamed on drought, but on gross inefficiency or wilful sabotage within the various government departments.
Another key point was that endemic corruption has for decades exploited drought and famine to help commodity traders and their political patrons reap billions from the suffering of Kenyans.
The other issue that the government and its supporters do not want to talk about is that a subsidy can only be a short-term measure. It is costly and unsustainable in an economy already stretched to the limit by ballooning budget deficits and public debt.
Cheap maize is unlikely to last in the store for more than a few weeks, and certainly not beyond the General Election in August.
It will also create a secondary market where politicians, their families and business associates buy up the bulk of subsidised flour, hold it and unleash it for super-profits when the prices go up, or re-export it to neighbouring countries, where the wholesale and retail prices are still much higher than the subsidised product in Kenya.
Macharia Gaitho is a former managing editor for special projects at the Nation. He has returned to the paper on special assignment as the head of the elections desk.