Covid-19: Court halts maize import plan after Omtatah sues

Thomas Kiptum Gorgoren, a maize farmer in Uasin Gishu County, as pictured on March 11, 2020. He wants the government not to import maize until local farmers exhaust their stock. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Justice Pauline Nyamweya issued the directive in a case challenging the National Treasury's decision to allow private millers to import dry maize now deemed as substandard and poisonous.
  • Activist Okiya Omtatah challenged the decision announced in a Gazette notice, arguing it authorised the importation of dry maize which does not meet the East African Community's standards.
  • Since heavy rains and flooding in various parts of the country have destroyed crops, the quarterly food security outlook shows that at least 17 counties could suffer shortages between February and May.

The High Court has suspended the government’s plan to import four million bags of maize to avert a possible food crisis in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Justice Pauline Nyamweya issued the directive in a case challenging the National Treasury's decision to allow private millers to import dry maize now deemed as substandard and poisonous.

“In the interim period and pending the hearing and determination of this case, all 41 gazetted millers are hereby restrained from releasing, distributing, selling or in any manner facilitating the use and consumption of any maize imported, pursuant to notice No 3234 dated April 17, published in a special issue of the Kenya Gazette,” said Justice Nyamweya.

While noting that all millers will be affected by any court directions on the matter, the judge also certified the suit as urgent and set it for hearing on priority basis.

OMTATAH'S ARGUMENTS

Activist Okiya Omtatah challenged the decision in the Gazette notice, arguing it authorised the importation of dry maize which does not meet the East African Community's standards.

Mr Omtatah said the notice stipulated importation of maize whose aflatoxin levels don’t exceed 10 parts per million instead of the required standard of 10 parts per billion, which would be 1,000 times higher than what the law permits.

He also said the notice specified that the maize to be imported should have a moisture content not exceeding 14.5 per cent yet the EAC sets a maximum of 13.5 per cent for safety for human consumption.

The activist said that unless the specifications are tailored for maize already at the port of Mombasa or on the high seas, the 41-day importation period, between April 20 and May 30, is too short if the logistics of sourcing, buying, inspecting and hiring a vessel to transport the maize from Mexico, which is the only current source, are considered.

He added that he reasonably suspects that the impugned notice was tailor-made for vested interests and designed to achieve a collateral purpose contrary to the national values and principles of governance as per the Constitution.

LIVES ENDANGERED

In his suit against the Treasury CS and the Attorney-General, Mr Omtatah said the Gazette notice should have recommended standards set by the EAC Customs Management Act, which are locally accepted by the Kenya Bureau of Standards.

The Strategic Food Reserve Trust Fund, which is the one expected to spearhead importation of relief maize, is listed as an interested party in the case alongside the 41 gazetted private millers.

The activist also said the unlawful importation of poisonous maize violates the bill of rights to life, human dignity, clean and healthy environment, highest attainable standards of health as well as goods and services of reasonable quality, hence Kenyans lives are likely to be endangered.

“The court is enjoined  to stand up to this lawlessness and cascading corruption in the affairs of the Treasury Cs by suspending and later quashing the impugned Gazette notice in public interest,” he said.

HEAVY RAINS

Since heavy rains and flooding in various parts of the country have destroyed crops, the quarterly food security outlook shows that at least 17 counties could suffer shortages between February and May.

As a result, the Agriculture ministry said the government would import two million bags of white maize for human consumption and another two million of yellow maize to be processed as animal feed at an excise duty of 14 and 10 per cent respectively to protect local farmers.

The case will be mentioned on June 2.

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