Mercy Mwai @wangumarci
Agriculture Cabinet secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri appears to be clutching at straws as he is being swept away by the raging maize scandal towards a cul-de-sac.
His frustrations were evident at yesterday’s grilling by the National Assembly ‘s Agriculture committee when, in response to question, he said: “If you ask me whether I need to be a minister or retain my dignity, I will retain my dignity and walk home”.
Kiunjuri’s body language spoke of a man almost at his wits end trying to cope with the pressure from his boss, President Uhuru Kenyatta, and demands from angry and hungry farmers, who have yet to be paid for the maize deliveries to the National Cereals and Produce Board(NCPB).
The President has demanded answers from the CS on why maize importers and cartels were paid millions of shillings at the expense of genuine farmers.
For Kiunjuri, it has been a slippery path since his appointment to the sensitive docket that has been the playground for cartels keen to reap from where they never sowed. Some maize farmers, mostly from the North Rift, rejected him saying they wanted one of their “own”.
His declaration before House committee chaired by Mandera South MP Adan Haji that he will fight for his dignity rather than cling to the Cabinet post contradicts his previous determination to stay put despite the pressure on him to throw in the towel over the maize scam.
It also comes amid alleged lobbying to have Kiunjuri replaced by a former governor from Rift Valley in what could be killing two birds with one stone — balance the political equation in Jubilee and get a more abrasive hand to confront the deep-rooted cartels in the maize sector.
The CS, who had been summoned to shed light over the status of maize in the country, told the MPs that he will not let his dignity to be scarred by the mess in the sector.
He said he is a victim of a smear campaign waged on social media by malicious people, but vowed to face them head-on.
“Anyone who wants to attack my person as Mwangi Kiunjuri, please know that I am ready to defend myself,” he said.
The CS insists the scandal did not occur under his watch but during the tenure of his predecessor Willy Bett who has since been posted as Kenya’s High Commissioner to India. Kiunjuri also sees an ethnic angle in his troubles.
The first time Uhuru scolded Kiunjuri was during the opening of the Nairobi Agricultural Society of Kenya (ASK) show on October 4 when he told him in Kikuyu that he would be in trouble if money meant for maize farmers is paid to cartels.
The President was at it again during Mashujaa Day celebrations in Kakamega, when he told him “to ensure the culprits of the maize scandal are punished or carry the cross yourself”.
Yesterday, Kiunjuri revealed that EACC had blacklisted 62 farmers and companies that supplied maize to NCPB, adding that of the 152 individuals whose names were forwarded for investigation, the anti-graft agency only expressed interest in the 62.
And following the clearance by EACC, he assured the committee that the Sh2.1 billion that is owed to the farmers will be released by Treasury in the next two or three days to offset farmers’ debts.
In the letter to the Strategic Food Reserve Trust Fund (SFRTF) tabled before the committee, EACC said the 62 companies and individuals are under investigations.
Those under probe include Celestine Chepchirchir, who supplied 219,236 bags of maize to Eldoret depot and was expecting to be paid Sh385,734,006, Stephen Maiyo, who supplied 144,955 bags to Kitale stores and is demanding Sh255,048,485 and Caroline Chepchumba, who delivered 126,962 bags to Kisumu depot and is expecting to be paid 223,383,501.
Others are Paul Kipyego Marus, who 68,622 to Ziwa depot and has been demanding Sh120, 738, 882; Alice Wanjiku Githaiga, who delivered 50,993 to Bungoma depot and is demanding Sh98,672,202 and Shem Ithangu, who supplied 34,121 at a cost of 59,990,735 to Moi’s Bridge.
The companies that are under probe include Nairasha Estate that supplied 28,499 bags at a cost of 50,617,015, New Progressive FCS, 84,826 bags to Eldoret depot and is demanding Sh149, 247, 892, Oldonyo, Ndovu Estate, 15,951 bags to Narok depot and is demanding Sh28,329,971 and Sosiani FCS, 16,152 bags for Sh28,346,160.
The narrowing down to 62 suspects comes after the ministry wrote to the EACC and the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI), inviting them to investigate payments for maize deliveries.
Two weeks ago, an angry Kiunjuri while distancing himself from the scandal, appeared to shift blame to DCI and EACC which he accused of failing to take action against the suspects. But the next day, DCI boss George Kinoti refuted his claims and pointed an accusing finger at EACC.
The blame game continued with EACC spokesman Yasin Amaro absolving the agency, insisting that they had undertaken the necessary investigations to take the suspects to court.
In May, MPs from the Rift Valley, including Nandi Hills MP Alfred Keter, his Moiben counterpart Silas Tiren and Trans Nzoia Women’s Rep Janet Nangabo, called for his resignation, blaming him for the losses incurred by farmers.
And speaking in Kisii county in the same month, Deputy President William Ruto called for swift action on the people involved in the maize payment scam.
“How can one supply more than 200,000 bags to the National Cereals and Produce Board yet he or she has no land? Such a question needs an honest answer,” he said.
Hundreds of farmers in Rift Valley, Western and Nyanza regions are stuck with thousands of bags of maize in stores.
The price in the open market has dropped to below Sh2,000. The government has now announced that NCPB will start buying a bag at Sh2,300 for the Strategic Food Reserve.