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Ministers shift blame over bad sugar scandal

Anthony Mwangi and Mercy Mwai @PeopleDailyKe

The mess surrounding imported sugar scandal deepened yesterday with three Cabinet secretaries whose dockets have been fingered shifting the blame.

Cabinet secretaries Mwangi Kiunjuri (Agriculture), Henry Rotich (National Treasury) and Adan Mohamed (Trade and industrialisation) appeared before a parliamentary joint committee seeking to unravel the intrigues, acts of commission and omission which led to the importation of thousands of tonnes of sugar laced with toxic substances.

It turned out during the first day of the hearings that  the country was flooded with over 400,000 metric tonnes of sugar imported in two months after the National Treasury gave a duty-free window to importers.

The joint Trade and Agriculture committee probing the sugar importation heard that more than 1.03 million metric tonnes of sugar imported was in excess of the country’s needs.

The three CSs, however, appeared to pass the buck to each other.

Kiunjuri, who was the first before the  committee said his ministry was not to blame for the health factor in the imported sugar, instead pointing the finger at the Trade ministry.

Rotich, on his part, said it was not within his purview to give specifications of quantities each importer could import.   

And when he appeared before the committee in the afternoon,, Adan pointed fingers of blame at the Interior ministry, which he said controls the security agencies and was therefore to blame for continued dumping of illegal sugar in the country.

He said the responsibility of determining the need, quantities and gazettement of duty-free importation window does not fall under his docket, adding that his ministry’s role, through Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs), is to inspect and test imported sugar to ensure it meets required standards.

Open floodgates

CS Kiunjuri  told the team chaired by Kanini Kega (Trade committee chair) and Adan Haji (Agriculture committee chair) that during the period from September to December last year, importers brought in 625,000 metric tonnes of sugar, while the period starting January to July only 365,000 metric tonnes were shipped in.

Rotich admitted that his office did not specify the quantity of sugar an importer could bring in, likely opening the floodgates for the excess importation.

“The first phase of the window was opened to all interested parties including millers, but the se cond phase was strictly for the millers only,” he said.

During the heated meeting, members sought to know why no specific quantity of sugar to be imported was regulated like other commodities.

Kiunjuri was put to task to explain why the ministry did not issue the licences to import the sugar to the 12 existing millers, instead of opening the door to the over 196 importers, leading  to the oversupply of the commodity.

The committee also heard that a number of companies which had been barred by Parliament from doing business with the government were allowed to import sugar during the open window.

And Aldai MP Connelly  Serem  claimed that trucks used to transport clinker from the Port of Mombasa were the same ones used to transport the said imported sugar, terming it the genesis of the presence of toxic materials found in it.

Mumias East MP Benjamin Washiali sought to know why raw sugar was imported.

“How much of the raw sugar was allowed and why was it allowed considering that raw sugar is not fit for human consumption?”  he posed .

But Kiunjuri said no specifications on raw sugar were given and could not explain how the importers ended up shipping the same in. 

“There was no licence to import raw sugar that was issued by the ministry and I do not know how it ended up in the country,” he told MPs.

The CS said the ministry was  concerned that the sugar industry was on its deathbed and there was need to resuscitate it.

“Only one of the sugar producers is operating, that is Sony Sugar Factory. The other four namely; Mumias, Kabras, Miwani and Muhoroni companies could collapse any time,” he said.

Adan said the agencies concerned with regulations of sugar do not get intelligence briefs on the issue of illicit trade and explained that contraband goods, including sugar enter through porous borders across the country.

He said the country’s 40,000km of land border is porous thus the potential of smuggling of sugar and other goods.

And although he said some of the border points where control mechanisms are much more developed than in others, he conceded it is possible to have sugar passing some police checks.

  “There is need for a framework of information sharing between security agencies and bodies involved in regulation of sugar imports which can be used to make necessary proactive intervention,” said Adan.

Earlier, the committee ordered Interior Cabinet secretary Fred Matiang’i to appear before it today  after he failed to show up yesterday.

Matiang’i had contradicted Adan, saying the imported sugar contained mercury.

As of Friday last week, 587,668 bags of sugar belonging to 20 companies had been confiscated.

Each of the confiscated bag he said is currently undergoing test by Kebs to ensure it conforms to the required health standards.

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