How maize scandals have been part of Kenyan politics since the 1960s

Paul Ngei

Paul Ngei who was the minister in charge of marketing and was also the chairman of the Maize Marketing Board. Older folks might recall the Paul Ngei and Emma Ngei saga of 1965 when the husband-wife duo showed politicos how to make money through maize.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • In what seems like the making of another maize scandal, the government has given the green light for importation of GM maize, supposedly to lower the cost of flour, yet farmers in the country’s bread basket regions are currently thick in the harvesting season. As history shows, controversies around maize imports have always served a corrupt few.

Trade Cabinet Secretary Moses Kuria and his Agriculture colleague Mithika Linturi are moving at the right speed towards a maize scandal. It will not be long before they reach the gates of Apate, the goddess of fraud and deception in Greek mythology. Again, no government since 1963 has escaped a maize scandal.

Before 1978, the scandals were usually on maize exports. At the time, Kenya used to feed the region and some developed nations such as Japan.

Today, the scandals are on imports after we destroyed the entire sector. It is a world inhabited by wheeler-dealers and politicos such as Sirisia MP John Waluke and others. It is a space where skullduggery rules and backstabbing occurs openly.

Older folks might recall the Paul Ngei and Emma Ngei saga of 1965 when the husband-wife duo showed politicos how to make money through maize.

To cut a long story short, and since I have written on it before, much to the chagrin of the Ngei family, Ngei was the minister in charge of marketing and was also the chairman of the Maize Marketing Board, the predecessor to the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB).

When he was new in the ministry, Ngei authorised the export of maize to Japan — a move that depleted stocks, and the country was forced to import thousands of tonnes of yellow maize from the US to ease the 250,000-bag shortage.

Thus, Ngei pioneered the art of creating artificial shortages to open the doors to imports. In addition, his wife was an agent of the Maize Marketing Board and had been given exclusive permission to transport maize to their Uhuru Millers, which meant that the Ngeis never ran out of stocks during the shortage.

When Jomo Kenyatta ordered a commission of inquiry, in vintage Ngei fashion, he refused to admit any mistake and told the commission chairman, Justice Chanan Singh, to “bring the FBI in for investigation to prove that we have ever bought maize”.

It was clear from the records that Ngei's wife, who was an agent of the Maize Marketing Board through her Emma Stores, had metamorphosed into a major supplier of maize in Eastern Province.

And ever since, and because Ngei was never charged, senior government officials have always found new ways to make money from maize.

Fast forward to 2017, when President Uhuru Kenyatta's government set aside money to buy maize from farmers, some traders took advantage of the high prices set by the NCPB. They bought the maize at Sh2,200 for a 90kg bag, and sold it to NCPB at Sh3,200, creating a scandal that saw some government officials taken to court. In the end, farmers who had taken their maize to NCPB were not prioritised in the payments since all the money had been paid to the cartels.

And that was just one scandal, though they all follow the same script: shortage, single-sourced import, some organised protest, cartels mop up maize from farmers, the government steps in with billions to buy maize from farmers, and so on. It is a racket.

The only minister who escaped the maize dragnet was Jeremiah Nyagah. He was a clean and honest man – though that is not an adjective I should use on a politician. Nyagah took his faith seriously, and in the 1970s, MPs took his word as a mark of honesty. Of all Agriculture ministers, Nyagah is still the only person who left the ministry without a major scandal — and he was in that docket for 10 years after replacing the Mosad man, Bruce MacKenzie.

Nyagah had watched the Ngei saga from the sidelines, and years later, he would be removed from the ministry to allow one of the power brokers of the Daniel arap Moi presidency to sell all the maize in the strategic reserve. In one fell swoop, some two million bags disappeared. It was the first scandal of the Moi regime, and it opened doors to many others – to the extent that imports by wheeler dealers destroyed maize farming.

Moi's first maize scandal was crafted in December 1979, after Nyagah had been demoted from Agriculture minister and taken to Culture and Social Services — thanks to Charles Njonjo, who was angling to become the most senior Kikuyu.

The maize scandal came to light accidentally in Njonjo's bid to finish Nyagah. The story is that after James Osogo replaced Nyagah, all the maize in the strategic reserve disappeared. In his new book, Osogo has not named the people who were behind it. He says by a “twist of fate in 1979, it was discovered that there was little maize in the stores”. So, he says, an emergency committee was set up to look for maize. And the only alternative was yellow maize.

“The country was not spared rascals who cashed on this unfortunate situation to get rich. Dubious companies were floated both in country and overseas to cash on tenders that were being advertised for the importation of maize.”

When he tried to put things in order, “it occurred to me that I was fighting shadowy figures who controlled Kenya’s maize underworld … a highly placed individual who later became a minister in the Moi Cabinet, hurriedly floated a company in London … and tendered to supply sixty thousand tonnes of white maize within 28 days … the company was paid by irrevocable letter of credit from the NCPB to its London office”.

So what had happened to the maize? What Osogo does not say is that the powerful minister was also behind the sale of the entire harvest.

In those days, maize could not be exported without the minister's signature, and Nyagah — as he told Parliament — had only approved the importation of 1.1 million bags after the 1979 harvest, which had seen the country's production rise from 2.5 million bags to 7 million bags.

So, if Osogo never approved it, who did? According to Nyagah, after that export there was enough maize in the country's strategic reserve to feed the nation up to June 1980. But by February, the strategic reserve was empty. Maize had disappeared at the hands of wheeler-dealer politicians and some State House barons. It was trucked to Zambia in Kenatco lorries.

As a maize crisis hit the country, the Standard broke the story about the maize export and demanded Nyagah's resignation.

However, Nyagah, in a daring move, called a press conference and sought to clear his name. He questioned the whereabouts of all the 2 million bags of maize he had left as a reserve, plus the entire bumper maize harvest. By then, he did not know that he was taking on some new barons who had lined up at State House — a cartel that would ruin the maize sector for good.

Interestingly, the focus never turned to the clique. Instead, it was Nyagah who was the target for another reason. Politics.

Pundits said that Njonjo, conniving with George Githii, his close media ally, had targeted Nyagah to besmirch his character. In the following editorial, the newspaper demanded that Nyagah resign from the Cabinet. But Nyagah knew the forces behind the saga and told the Standard off. He asked the government to come clean to what happened to the bumper crop of 1979.

Nyagah made it known that there were Cabinet instructions to sell 1.1 million bags and that that was what he could account for. "I personally signed for this amount for export knowing very well that we had more than enough maize … therefore, if anything happened between May last year and now, then I am saying it should be investigated,” he said.

But his statement that there was “someone” behind the Standard story surprised many: “They can try to get rid of me through the paper, they can exert pressure on me to resign, but I will not be moved,” vowed Nyagah.

Finally, maize, money and politics made a perfect mix. Also humble pies were served in equal portions. Whatever happened after that press conference is not known. But it can be deduced from political history. Three days later, Nyagah withdrew his statement, saying he had relied on “wrong information”.

As journalist Joe Kadhi put it, “when the minister asked the government to tell wananchi where last year's bumper harvest had gone, many thought he was really a hero fighting for the rights of people.”

But Njonjo was not done yet with Nyagah. On June 30, 1980, as he took over as the minister for Constitutional and Home Affairs, he revisited the maize saga and termed the disappearance a “mystery".

"Someone one day will answer for this. God is always on our side," said Njonjo.

It was after this maize sale that Moi went to the US and negotiated for yellow maize. He also allowed the US to open a new base in Mombasa in return.

Fastforward to 2023, where Kuria and Linturi appear set to have another maize import — perhaps single-sourced. Kuria is on record saying he has added genetically modified maize to the many things that can kill Kenyans.

If a scandal is brewing within Kenya Kwanza, it will come through the maize imports. We can bet on it: it won't be long. Kuria and Linturi have a chance to return from the gates of Apate. Otherwise, it won't be long before another maize scandal emerges.

[email protected] @johnkamau1