Kenyan TV viewers were recently treated to a riveting flyweight verbal slugfest between Elgeyo-Marakwet Senator Kipchumba Murkomen and Cherangany MP Joshua Kutuny.
Instead of getting enlightened on serious food security issues that have dogged the country since Independence, viewers were treated to a juvenile quarrel based largely on the two politicians hurling crude insults across the table.
A big problem is that protagonists were unwilling or unequipped to engage in serious discourse on the elusive quest for national food security, the economics of maize farming, the role of the National Cereals and Produce Board, subsidies and market interventions, market economics versus State control and all the other issues that cloud food supply.
It did not help matters that neither of them got onto the TV show in their own right but merely as hired mouthpieces for powerful individuals with stakes in the premature presidential succession race.
In short, it wasn’t about maize but simply political war fought by proxy.
Mr Kutuny is in the small group of Rift Valley Kalenjin politicians accusing their regional political kingpin, Deputy President William Ruto, of being a key profiteer in the cartels that subvert the supply chains to make big money, often at the expense of their constituents, farmers in Kenya’s grain basket.
Mr Ruto’s backers argue that Mr Kutuny and his colleagues are merely hirelings at the service of groups out to derail the DP’s bid to succeed President Uhuru Kenyatta at State House in 2022. The finger is pointed (in)directly at figures such as the President, (former?) opposition leader Raila Odinga and Baringo Senator Gideon Moi.
Otherwise, Mr Murkomen and company don’t dispute that Mr Ruto is a big farmer who has sold maize to NCPB and been paid for his supplies. They also don’t exactly deny that he may have been involved in the importation and supply of maize and fertiliser, defending the right of anyone to legitimately engage in such business.
The right to deal with NCPB came out clearly at the TV encounter when both Mr Kutuny and Mr Murkomen concurred that they had sold and been paid for maize deliveries to the board. Both took that as a right, seeing no contradiction or conflict of interest in political leaders dealing with a chronically corrupt institution.
For them, it’s about who is in a position to exploit office for preferential treatment on maize deliveries and payments and insider information on duty-free import windows.
It was a revelation that NCPB had long abandoned its core functions and became a mere vessel for politicians and merchants out to make windfalls from food insecurity. It’s time for radical prescriptions to put a stop to our maize eating scandals.
Recently, I was at an event where somebody suggested that, to eliminate corruption cartels, a first step would be to blow up the NCPB. The audience was shocked.
But, on reflection, that might not be bad thing, when we consider that the ogre actually does very little towards market regulation, efficient distribution, maintenance of strategic reserves, farmer support and all the myriad functions related to food security.
Kenya has a vibrant private sector that can take up many of those roles if freed from the shackles of a corrupt and inefficient Ministry of Agriculture bureaucracy which often behaves like a communist command and control organ.
Gatundu South MP Moses Kuria is not everyone’s favourite politician. He too often shoots from the hip with acerbic ethnic-hate comments that incite angry reactions. Soon after the disgraceful Kutuny-Murkomen verbal duel, he had his own turn on the small screen, giving a more sober performance which questioned the very basis of what his colleagues were quarrelling about.
Mr Kuria’s proposal was that we cease this obsession with maize. That we end State support for inefficient producers through prize fixing at the producer and consumer ends. That we abandon the role of NCPB as a guaranteed buyer for big farmers who employ political muscle to demand prices far above world market rates. In other words, blow up NCPB and let maize farmers survive as do avocado, orange, bean, potato and cassava farmers.
Food for thought — if only it wasn’t coming from a politician who keeps mum on State support for coffee, tea and miraa farmers from his part of the world. And one who is sponsoring legislation that defies all free market principals in seeking to make coffee farmers hostage to a prize-fixing cartels of local processors who have already enslaved and impoverished cashew nut and macadamia farmers through State protection.
[email protected]; @MachariaGaitho