Politics of Ugali: Ruto risks rebellion in his backyard over GM maize importation

Deputy President William Ruto address believers at Nyayo National stadium during a prayer service.

President William Ruto. Politicians from Kenya’s maize-growing belt are up in arms following CS Kuria’s announcement that duty-free maize would be imported.

Photo credit: File| Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Ruto risks rebellion in his own backyard as Kenya Kwanza leaders take the frontline in protests against government plans to import cheap GMO maize

Maize and politics have always gone hand-in-hand since the birth of Kenya as an independent nation.

Protests by politicians from grain-basket regions over the window opened by government for importation of duty-free maize, and the whiff of scandal as a shipload berthed at the port of Mombasa even before duty waivers had been formalised, reads like a story told several times over the past five decades.

Cabinet ministers responsible for agriculture or the dockets responsible for supplies and marketing have invariably been caught up in controversy or scandals around imports and distribution of maize and other commodities.

Indeed, the first major scandal ever recorded in independent Kenya happened in 1965, when the minister for Marketing and Cooperatives, a hero of struggle for freedom Paul Ngei, was suspended by President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta after being adversely mentioned in a national maize scandal.

A Commission of Inquiry, the first also after Independence in 1963, eventually cleared Ngei of direct wrongdoing, although it found that a business run by his wife had been allowed to buy maize directly from farmers, by-passing the then Maize Marketing Board.

Fast forward to the Grand Coalition government in early 2010, when the Agriculture Minister, one William Ruto, was suspended by the Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, to pave way for investigations into a maize scandal touching on his docket.

The suspension was rescinded by President Mwai Kibaki, who nevertheless sacked Ruto a few months later following his indictment in a different scandal.

Odinga and Ruto had gone into the Grand Coalition as firm allies following the disputed 2007 presidential elections. They fell out soon afterwards over a number of issues, but it was the maize scandal that provided the PM an excuse to act.

The two have remained on opposite sides since, and once again it is maize that has given Odinga the opportunity to hit out at the present government.

Even without Raila’s prodding, however, politicians from Kenya’s maize-growing belt across the Rift Valley and western Kenya are up inarms following Trade and Investments Cabinet Secretary Moses Kuria’s announcement that duty-free maize, including GMOs, would be imported to bridge the supply gap caused by drought.

What is notable is that politicians, as well as farmers, are protesting across party lines, with the most strident voices coming from President Ruto’s northern Rift Valley political bedrock.

The brickbats are directed at Kuria and at this stage cannot be interpreted as a rebellion against Ruto or the government. The President will have noted, however, that a region that would otherwise be expected to owe him absolute fealty can rise in protest against unfavourable government policies.

The main grouses are that the government is allowing importation of cheap maize just as the maize-growing region is preparing for a bumper harvest. The upshot will be that local farmers will be unable to sell their maize as millers opt for imports, and traders, who seem to have had an inside track on the opening of an import window, make a killing.

To many, the arrival of a ship loaded with maize just days after Kuria announced that he would be signing a legal order allowing duty-free imports reeked of insider trading.

It seemed to replicate what was common during the free-wheeling days of the Daniel arap Moi and Jomo Kenyatta regimes. Government decisions on importation of maize, sugar, wheat, fertiliser and other critical commod-ities were often tailored to benefit politicians and well-connected merchants who were fed advance information to enable them to make orders ahead of any announcements of import duty waivers.

While the missiles were aimed at Kuria for the import plans as well as his insensitive comments that GMO maize would just add one more item to the things that kill Kenyans, so no big deal, ultimately the focus would turn to President Ruto, who provides overall leadership and direction on government decisions.

Kuria’s Ministry of Agriculture counterpart Mithika Linturi has been the Invisible Man throughout the controversy, with President Ruto on official trips to Congo DRC and South Korea as the storm built up last week.

Away from the public glare, though, it is likely that the President had quiet words on phone with the two CSs, as well as a clutch of policy advisors, to gauge the likely political consequences of the GMO decision and the overall maize importation issue, and to seek ways of defusing the situation.

The President was acutely aware that, while the protests driven by leaders from his backyard such as MPs David Pkosing (Pokot South), Julius Ruto (Kesses) and Senator Samson Cherargei (Nandi), and a western Kenya brigade led by Kimilili MP Didmus Barasa, were directed at Kuria, they could escalate into wider defiance against government as farming community spokesmen and ordinary citizens joined the fray. At their press conference on Tuesday, the leaders threatened to move an impeachment motion against Kuria unless the maize import scheme was suspended to first allow for sale of local maize.

Others at the press conference were Trans Nzoia Senator Allan Chesang, MPs Phyllis Bartoo (Moiben), Timothy Toroitich (Marakwet West), Maryanne Kitany (Aldai), Josses Lelmengit (Emgwen), Janet Sitienei (Turbo) and Abraham Kirwa (Mosop), and Women Representatives Cynthia Muge (Nandi), Caroline Ngelechei (Elgeyo-Marakwet) and Lilian Siyoi (Trans Nzoia).

The list was growing as we went to press, with Kenya Kwanza leaders from the groupings loyal to Prime Cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi and National Assembly Speaker Moses Wetang’ula holding their own caucuses mid-week on how best to pronounce their rejection of maize imports.

The Rift Valley and western Kenya rejectionists are all loyal Kenya Kwanza politicians, but they were pushing a cause that dovetailed neatly into the position taken by opposition chief Raila, as well as a civil society consortium planning to go to court over GMO imports.

Ruto is not going to allow the matter to spiral out of control. Rather than hanging tough, he could be looking for a graceful way out, most likely by he himself announcing suspension of the imports pending further consultation.

Such an announcement would not only still any likelihood of rebellion in his base, but also earn him political points, even if that meant throwing Kuria under the bus.

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