Very strange things are happening in the sugar industry. Consider this. It is December, 2007. President Kibaki travels all the way to Kakamega County to lay the foundation stone for a new sugar factory — the Butali Sugar Mills.
The investors immediately start building the plant. The factory is now complete, ready for commissioning. As a matter of fact, the factory has been doing test runs in the past couple of weeks, raring to start production.
Yesterday, Housing minister Soita Shitanda, also the member of Parliament for the Butali area — confirmed that the factory was complete.
Now comes the intriguing twist to the saga.
The chief executive of the Kenya Sugar Board, Ms Rosemary Mkok, is suspended for registering the Butali factory.
It now emerges that, away from the limelight, the Kenya Sugar Board has in the past few months been under immense pressure not only to deregister Butali Sugar Mills, but to demolish the multi-million shilling factory.
The question is: Where were all these people who now want the factory demolished when President Kibaki was laying the foundation stone way back in 2007?
Is it conceivable that the President was misled into giving the nod to this project, a project that had been on the cards since 2005?
If there is one thing the saga has proved, it is the ease with which powerful businessmen can still play government offices against one another as they pursue personal gain.
The public servants who find themselves in the crossfire are just collateral damage.
Behind the scenes is a ferocious battle between two multi-millionaire businessmen — Mr Jayant Patel of Kisumu and Mr Jaswant Rai of Eldoret — both adept at the game of political lobbying.
All major centres of power have been sucked into the battle — the Office of the Prime Minister, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Office of the Attorney General — and individuals with direct access to State House.
The Butali Sugar story is about the vacuity and arbitrariness of today’s policy making. Decisions can be made today and changed tomorrow.
Permanent secretaries and ministers have found themselves spraying out letters all over the place like confetti, some of the correspondence conveying decisions countermanding positions made by their predecessors.
What is the crux of the matter? Mr Rai wants Mr Patel out of the western Kenya sugar zone, whose exclusivity he claims was granted to him in October 2000 by the Ministry of Agriculture.
His argument is that his rival has encroached on his territory. On the other hand, Mr Patel insists that his factory has been legally registered by the Kenya Sugar Board since April 2005.
I am not surprised that the government is unable to make a decision on such a straightforward matter.
With top government officials rigidly polarised into either those who support Mr Rai and those who support Mr Patel, neither side is prepared to consider the long-term interests of the ordinary cane farmer.
In 2005, Kilimo House constituted a technical team to asses the feasibility of establishing a new sugar mill within the zone. The team found that Butali was a viable project and that Mr Patel and Mr Rai could co-exist in the zone.
The warring parties cannot even agree on the meaning of the term “zone”, as used in the Sugar Act of 2001.
According to Mr Rai, it means that a factory cannot be erected within a 40-kilometre radius.
But his rival insists that the Act only stipulates a maximum, not a minimum, area. So to Mr Patel, since Butali is 19 kilometres away from Mr Rai’s factory, his mill’s location is within the distance stipulated in the Sugar Act.
Mr Patel’s supporters also cite the situation in the Nyanza sugar belt where Kibos, Miwani, Muhoroni, and Chemelil factories are located less than 10 kilometres apart.
The government should not allow itself to be held hostage by such narrow interests. An independent party should be brought in to evaluate the feasibility of a second sugar factory in the area.
Such an evaluation should be based on the interests of the area’s sugarcane farmers.
The investigation ordered by the government into the circumstances under which Butali Sugar Mills was registered is just a red herring.