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Unanswered questions about maize crisis

Saturday May 27 2017

Shoppers with government-subsidised maize flour at Maua Society Store in Meru on May 22, 2017. PHOTO | PHOEBE OKALL | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Shoppers with government-subsidised maize flour at Maua Society Store in Meru on May 22, 2017. PHOTO | PHOEBE OKALL | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

MACHARIA GAITHO
By MACHARIA GAITHO
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Ugali, or rather the lack of it, became a major item on the national agenda over the past month. Supermarket shelves suddenly went bare of the maize flour used to make one of Kenya’s staple meal, and when available, the price had shot through the roof.

The flour crisis, together with shortage of other basic foodstuffs such as milk and sugar, happened to coincide with the official unveiling of Mr Raila Odinga and running mate Kalonzo Musyoka as presidential election flag bearers for the Opposition coalition grouping, the National Super Alliance.

It was a situation tailor-made for the Opposition. In short order, at a mid-May rally in Nakuru, Nasa announced the launch of its "Unga Revolution", vowing to take to all parts of the country its campaign putting the government to task over mishandling of the food situation.

The Jubilee government reacted with its own political weapon, releasing into the market heavily subsidised maize meal following the arrival of imported grain in record time after lifting of import taxes. 

President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto were keen to point to the speedy intervention as an example of government resolve and efficiency.

MANY QUERIES

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The prompt government response may have deflated the Opposition’s "Unga Revolution" somewhat, but also raised many queries touching on the likelihood of an artificial shortage meant to create room for politically-connected commodity traders to make a killing on subsidised maize at taxpayer’s expense.

Maize became a political weapon as Jubilee and Nasa supporters traded barbs over the cause of the shortage, but critical questions remained unanswered.

In a television interview, for instance, Mr Ruto dismissed contemptuously legitimate queries over the actual source of the imported maize; and whether traders may have had insider information on the lifting of import duty so they could have shipments lying in wait to dock as soon as the legal notice was published.

Some Jubilee politicians were also primed for a propaganda counter-offensive aimed mainly at depicting Mr Odinga as a person with no moral authority to hit out at corruption over the maize imports and subsidies. They charged that he has his own well-known history of business and political dealings with the commodity traders that usually reap super-profits at such times.

WERE UNANIMOUS

Most political and economic analysts on television talk shows and newspaper commentaries were unanimous in criticism of Jubilee over the lack of forward planning that allowed the maize shortage to become a crisis, the emergency intervention that principally benefitted maize importers at the expense of farmers, and the pre-election political response of subsidies that cannot be sustainable and will further punish the taxpayers.

However, it was apparent that the Nasa leadership was also shy to hit out too hard at the government, possibly because the consumer and voter was quite happy to get the cheap maize, when available, without worrying too much the origin, the likely corruption, and the fact it was likely to last beyond the elections.  

In the midst of maize becoming a political football, the more urgent debate of sustainable solutions to the cyclical food shortages went under the radar.

Neither Jubilee nor Nasa came out with any statement or policy paper to indicate that they had thought deeply of short-, medium- and long-term solutions beyond their more immediate concerns of a General Election.

Other than unleashing their designated attack dogs at each other on social media, newspaper commentaries and political platform, none of the two main political protagonists would allow themselves to be drawn into any serious discussion on food security as a critical issue on the national agenda.

DRAFT PROPOSALS

None of them have completed their party manifestos and policy papers ahead of the elections, but even at a time of serious crisis, they did not see it fit to at least release draft proposals on how they would resolve the situation.

In the absence of meaningful policy papers at this stage, the documents one could be guided by are the Jubilee manifesto of 2013, and also the Cord manifesto of the same election if the Odinga-Musyoka coalition of then is taken as the precursor of Nasa.

It would be notable meanwhile, that while food security was a major plank of the Jubilee alliance manifesto, President Kenyatta did not even mention the issue in his last policy statement in Parliament ahead of the elections, the State of the Nation address in mid March.

While the speech dwelt largely on national security, the president used the occasion to delve into all the major achievements of the Jubilee government, a self-assessment touching on nearly every government ministry as the manifesto pledges.

It was tellingly silent on the Ministry of Agriculture and the promises on food security.

VERY LITTLE

The online government portal www.delivery.go.ke established to highlight delivery of the 2013 promises also has very little to show in terms of solid achievements in increased food production. It enumerates considerable investments in projects such as the Galana-Kulalu Irrigation project, the distribution of subsidised fertiliser, and launch of a livestock insurance program, but shows little in terms of actual results.

The Jubilee manifesto for 2013-2017 promised a Green Revolution that would increase farm yields, multiply the amount of land under cultivation, establish irrigation schemes and improve dry-land agriculture,  guarantee credit for farmers and access to markets, improve distribution systems, and generally make farming more profitable and worthwhile for both small and large scale farmers. That was what it said would guarantee food security and save Kenyan’s from forever being hostage to seasonal drought and famine.

That the government four years later finds itself hostage to the threat of an "Unga Revolution" could be a serious indictment.

But then it is easy to evaluate Jubilee on its promises and delivery, whereas Nasa cannot be measured on a similar scale since it was not mandated to deliver.

It however should have been motivated to take Jubilee failings as spur to highlight its alternative prescriptions. That has been lacking, but then maybe there is little alternative to offer because the Jubilee and Cord promises of 2013 were strikingly similar.

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