The two ministers on Thursday tore into each other at a Cabinet meeting described as “chaotic, hot and eruptive”. The emotional confrontation between Agriculture minister William Ruto and Justice, National Cohesion and Constitutional Affairs’ Martha Karua ended with her ominous warning to the besieged minister: “We’ll meet tomorrow (Wednesday) at the censure motion.”
Cabinet meetings are not open to the Press and the Nation relies on interviews with those in attendance. During the argument, the President watched quietly, his only intervention to signal to those who wished to speak to do so.
The meeting approved a send-off package for the sacked Electoral Commission of Kenya commissioners. But it was the quarrel between Mr Ruto and Ms Karua that many were talking about afterwards.
Those who spoke to the Nation said that it was Mr Ruto, under pressure over the disappearance of thousands of bags of maize from the national stores even as the nation starves, who started it all when he accused Ms Karua of fighting him politically in public.
“The Hon Martha Karua has been fighting me publicly over matters that can be easily sorted out within the Cabinet,” he is reported to have said. In his own defence, Mr Ruto alleged that the maize issue had been blown out of proportion.
He sought to deflect some of the heat in the direction of Prime Minister Raila Odinga when he said that the responsibility of releasing maize from the National Cereals and Produce Board stores lay with the Cabinet committee on Food Security, chaired by the PM.
The committee, he said, brought together members from the office of the PM, and the ministries of Finance, Special Programmes and Agriculture, and as such all should share the blame for the maize shortage.
“I have never wanted to say this in public but that is the truth about this issue of maize,” he is reported to have said.
He said he had ordered his permanent secretary, Dr Romano Kiome, to invite the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission (KACC) to investigate the issue “when the minister (Ms Karua) was telling villagers in Gichugu about the stolen maize”.
Ms Karua was fighting him politically, he is reported to have said, and was merely using the maize shortage as an excuse.
Sources at the meeting said the Justice minister denied fighting Mr Ruto, adding that her statements outside Cabinet were confined to the maize shortage.
Ms Karua argued that documents linking Mr Ruto to the allocation of maize to a few individuals and companies posing as millers were in public domain.
“There is no need to fight the Hon Ruto because everything (about the disappearance of maize from the NCPB) is in the public limelight. What I said were facts as they were,” she is quoted to have said.
The maize in question, she is reported to have explained, was subsidised by the government and could not be freely sold to individuals and companies as stipulated in the NCPB Act.
“This is government maize, which is subsidised for the sake of starving Kenyans. We are not talking about NCPB stocks that can be sold to anybody. Any allocation of this maize to individuals and companies that pose as brokers is corruption,” she is reported to have said.
Mr Ruto wrote notes for individuals to be allocated maize, she charged, according to the sources. Mr Ruto challenged Ms Karua to produce the letters he allegedly wrote, or forward them to KACC.
During the exchange, the President sat quietly, watching the sparring ministers, a source at the meeting said. “The President did not say or do anything. He just sat there quietly watching as the ministers took on each other. It was chaotic, hot and eruptive,” the source said.
The two ministers have been sparring in public over the past three weeks, with Ms Karua demanding Mr Ruto’s resignation over the maize scandal. The saga has gripped the country since December 2008 when it emerged that maize stocks in emergency stores had declined to 1.2 million bags.
Shortly after the government intervened and directed the board to sell 140,000 bags to millers at a subsidised price of Sh1,750 a bag, it was reported that 100,000 bags of the cereal had gone missing.
Another 400,000 bags were to be released to millers but were instead allocated to brokers who posed as millers but sold the maize at Sh2,500, earning a quick profit of Sh850 a bag.
Ikolomani MP Bonny Khalwale raised the matter in Parliament and produced documents that linked the minister and his personal assistant to the allocation.
Mr Ruto faces a censure motion on Wednesday brought by Dr Khalwale. “I am confident MPs will support my motion because we want to put an end to impunity,” he said.
Dr Khalwale tabled a similar motion against Trade minister Amos Kimunya, then Finance minister, which saw him leave the Cabinet for a while. Some MPs from Mr Ruto’s Rift Valley stronghold have vowed to support him in the House.
At the Cabinet meeting, Energy minister Kiraitu Murungi is reported to have defended Mr Ruto, arguing that there were correct channels in the Cabinet to resolve issues.
Mr Murungi, who is facing questions of his own over the loss of 237 million litres of oil by Kenya Pipeline Company, is said to have argued that it was wrong for Cabinet colleagues to fight each other in public on matters that were still under investigation. He is said to have challenged Ms Karua to resign for personalising the war against corruption for political reasons.
“If it is the question of resigning, she should lead the way because she is using the fight on corruption to fight political wars and enemies,” Mr Murungi is quoted as saying.
In response, Ms Karua is said to have spoken of “some people” who have always been protected and kept in Cabinet in spite of the mistakes they had made.
Mr Odinga, it is said, distanced himself from the maize scandal, arguing that his job as the chairman of the Cabinet committee on food security was to get views from the ministries and make policy.
“I presented the policy paper to this Cabinet and once it was approved, I handed it over to respective ministries for implementation,” sources quoted him.
The maize scandal aside, the Cabinet approved a Sh68,701,260 send-off package for former ECK commissioners. The proposal means that the commissioners will be paid a three-months gross salary and a 31 per cent gratuity of their basic salary for the period they served in the commission.
They will also receive one month salary in lieu of notice and their leave will also be converted into cash. Former chairman Samuel Kivuitu will pocket Sh5.8 million while the rest of the 21 former commissioners will receive between Sh2 million and Sh4 million.
A total of 467 employees will be redeployed to various ministries with the Public Service getting the lion’s share of 312 members. Those who will not be re-deployed will receive Sh170,000 golden handshake, a month’s salary in lieu of notice, severance pay of one month basic salary for each year worked and pending leave days will be converted into cash.