New maize scandal as Ruto is grilled

Agriculture minister William Ruto arrives at Continental House, Nairobi, on Monday to meet the parliamentary committee on Agriculture. Photo/PHOEBE OKALL

What you need to know:

  • Grain worth Sh276m now being probed as House team quizzes minister for 4 hours

A fresh controversy has broken involving 6,500 tonnes of maize detained at the port by the Kenya Bureau of Standards.

The bureau, which is lawfully mandated to ensure the quality of everything that the public consumes, has declared the maize unfit for human consumption.

But other competent government agencies, including the Government Chemist and the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service, say there is absolutely nothing wrong with the maize.

Now a source close to the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) is alleging that it is all part of a clever plan to sell the maize, worth Sh276 million, at a throwaway price as animal feed.

Political survival

The buyer will almost certainly mill it and sell it as ordinary flour at a neat profit, according to the source, who cannot be named without compromising his position.

The new revelations come as Agriculture minister William Ruto, who is fighting for political survival, was questioned by MPs for four hours at Continental House on Monday—from 3pm to 7pm.

The Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture is trying to get to the bottom of the maize scandal which has rocked the cereals board and put Mr Ruto’s career in jeopardy.

Some of his colleagues in the Cabinet have been asking for his resignation and corruption investigators have been called to investigate NCPB.

Also summoned by the MPs were top officials of Kebs and Kephis as well as Agriculture PS Romano Kiome.

The Kephis team, however, was not grilled on Monday but their interviews were pushed to another day. NCPB was represented by lawyers, their technocrats.

The maize, imported from South Africa late last year, has been lying at the port even as 10 million people suffer food shortages. The price of a two-kilogramme packet of maize flour is retailing at a high of Sh120 in most parts of the country.

Kephis, the Government Chemist and Kebs were on Monday still not in agreement on whether the maize should be released to the consumer, three months later.

Two private companies have certified the maize, part of an 8,100-tonne consignment bought by the cereals board, as fit to eat.

The Nation learnt that NCPB, on the advise of Kebs, had declined to have the maize off-loaded and wanted it shipped back to South Africa “based on the level of discoloration.’’

An MP who was at the meeting said of the fresh twist: “We believe the maize is good for human consumption but somebody somewhere is trying to be clever.’’

The chairman of the committee, Mr John Mututho, declined to give details of the meeting, saying only that Mr Ruto had shed a lot of light on the matter.

He said: “We are investigating the actual trigger of price wars...we now have the hypothesis and it is the one we are testing and will only disclose it in our final report,’’ said the Naivasha MP.

According to Mr Mututho, the bone of contention is 350,000 bags of maize currently in dispute, which he doubted could have triggered a famine and sudden increase in the price of maize.

The MPs are also set to quiz millers to confirm allegations that they were reluctant to purchase maize from NCPB to avoid selling flour at affordable prices.

The team has also lined up Prime Minister Raila Odinga for questioning. He is expected to explain why a Cabinet sub-committee he chairs did not act early to prevent the current crisis.

In a letter to NCPB, a Kebs official, M. O. Miyumo said: “Hatch number three has been rejected based on the level of discoloration and should be reshipped to the country of origin.”

Immediately, the board moved to court to detain the ship for fear of losing the Sh276 million maize. After 40 days, the ship owners had a bank guarantee undertaking to pay the cereals board Sh276 million if the maize was found to be bad.

Kebs changed its mind about sending the maize back to the country of origin. Its managing director, Dr Kioko Mang’eli, advised NCPB to offload the maize and release it as animal feed.

Contacted on Monday, NCPB managing director Gideon Misoi said he was yet to consult with his Mombasa office and Kebs. He promised to issue a comprehensive report on Tuesday.

Said Dr Mang’eli in his letter to Prof Misoi: “The dry shelled maize in hatches number one, two and four shall be released to you ... hatch number three with high discoloration shall be released for animal feed processing.’’

The letter, of December 16, was copied to Mr Caroli Omondi, a secretary in the Prime Minister’s office.

After the meeting on Monday night, the committee postponed a tour of Mombasa port to investigate the issue. They will instead hold a press briefing at Parliament Buildings on Tuesday afternoon.

A source at the Government Chemist told the Nation that the maize was safe, accusing some individuals of plotting to benefit from it.

Documents seen by the Nation show NCPB accusing the shippers who brought the maize of damaging the cargo after a fire on board the ship. However, ship owners deny knowledge of any fire or discoloration of the maize.

“Even if there was a minor dust explosion, there is no reason to believe that the entire cargo, 6,350 tonnes of maize grain filling the entire hold which is 14 metres deep, could be affected.’’

Mr Ruto, who is facing a possible censure motion on his handling of the maize saga, has protested his innocence and said he was open to any investigations. The Eldoret North MP said he would only resign if he was found to have done any wrong.

The source privy to the goings-on at NCPB claimed that big millers and politicians were set to buy the maize cheaply.

“If the maize is sold as animal feed, then processed as maize meal, the individuals stand to make more than Sh300 million while the government, which imported the maize, would lose millions,’’ said the source.

Kebs has said that its findings are final. Dr Mang’eli has accused those asking for a second opinion of having ulterior motive.

An analysis showed only 1,500 tonnes was fit for human consumption, he said.

Results of the analysis obtained by the Nation show that only Kebs, out of several other agencies, condemned the consignment.

Additional report by Kibiwott Koros