Thursday, February 5, 2009



By Alex Ndegwa

It came fast and furious. And by the time ‘The Bullfighter’ was through, several heavyweights were reeling.

The House literally became a war theatre as Ikolomani MP Bonny Khalwale charged that Agriculture Minister William Ruto was culpable in the maize scam.

But the Eldoret North MP was emphatic that he was innocent, even as Budalang’i MP Ababu Namwamba sensationally dragged the First Lady Lucy Kibaki’s name into the murk.

Later in the evening, the Presidential Press Service was on the quick to defend the First Lady, saying she had never traded in maize. It added that the allegations were careless and meant to divert attention from "a serious matter of availability and affordability of food".

It was a day of drama, that began with Tourism minister Najib Balala being put on the spot over a tourism promotion event at the Masai Mara in which an audit revealed several irregularities. The minister was hard-put to explain the presence of "councillors from his constituency" at the event, but the minister tactfully answered that they were from across the country without going into details Names of those alleged to be behind the maize shortage were dropped at every opportunity.

The PPS statement defending the First Lady against Namwamba’s claims added: "The First Lady has never engaged in any acts that may compromise the public good and has the options of seeking redress against the wild and unfounded allegations of Hon Namwamba."

Irregular sale

On his part, Ruto fought vigorously to clear his name.

Khalwale had claimed that companies associated with two MPs, whom he did not name, were among those involved in the illegal sale of maize from the strategic grain reserve.

Maintaining his innocence, Ruto said: "Maize is not a contraband product and it is traded freely. There is no wrong for an individual to purchase maize from NCPB. The only problem would be if the maize was not paid for. There is not a single bag that was picked that was not paid for."

Khalwale had claimed that the minister and his personal assistant influenced allocation of maize to "briefcase millers", including the two MPs’ firms which he identified as Nasada and Eliana.

They were among hundreds of purported millers who benefited from what he termed as irregular sale of maize by the National Cereals and Produce Board to Southern Sudan, leading to a deficit of one million bags from the strategic reserves.

He claimed Nasada belongs to an MP "who is seated in this House", and taunted: "May the MP associated with this company stand up?"

He also named Mr Jackson Kibor as among those whose companies got huge allocations.

Khalwale and Ruto had been heard in near silence, but the peace in the House was broken when Lucy’s name was mentioned.

Justice minister Martha Karua protested and asked Namwamba to substantiate his claims. She also challenged the authenticity of the document, prompting Deputy Speaker Farah Maalim to rule that all documents tabled in the House would be verified before they were accepted.

Khalwale, who is also the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, reserved heavy jabs for Ruto.

Prominent personalities

He tabled documents that he said proved his claims that the minister used his influence as Agriculture minister to secure maize that cost taxpayers millions of shillings.

Khalwale accused the minister of issuing notes to influence the allocation of maize to companies allegedly connected to close associates and prominent personalities.

Similar letters, he claimed, were issued by the Special Programmes, Treasury and Agriculture permanent secretaries.

Khalwale, the Parliamentary Accounts Committee chairman, said the Clerk to the National Assembly had written to the three PSs to appear before PAC, but they had declined.

"They probably feared to shed light," he said.

Khalwale claimed Ruto misled the House by saying NCPB had 1.6 million bags of maize last June instead of 2.6 million.

The difference — one million bags — he claimed, had been irregularly sold to individuals and exported to Southern Sudan.

Khalwale questioned why Amaco, an insurance firm associated with Ruto, was involved in a gunny bags’ deal worth hundreds of millions of shillings with an Indian firm yet its core business was insurance service.

On Amaco, Ruto said it was a private enterprise in which he had shares "in the same way I have shares in Kenya Airways and Safaricom". He did not say why the insurance firm was contracted to procure gunny bags for NCPB.

He, however, said: "If there are actions done by the company, the managers should carry their own cross. If it is proven to be criminal, they should face the law like any other individuals."

While tabling documents, Khalwale questioned why the Agriculture ministry ordered NCPB managers to release maize to briefcase millers.

Khalwale tabled a letter signed by "the minister’s personal assistant", a Mr Simotwo, and which was allegedly prepared on the minister’s letterhead.

He claimed that the board was instructed to allocate maize to companies linked to prominent personalities.

Among the top beneficiaries, he claimed, were Mombasa Maize Millers (696,000 bags) and Mafuta Farm (100,000 bags).

Others are Kitale Industries (142,000), Western Region Millers (50,000) and Silo Agencies (30,000).

Khalwale wondered why the minister had not sent home the NCPB MD, marketing manager and chief accountant.

But Ruto said investigations had not been completed.

The minister said he had outlawed maize exports and had turned down a request for maize by the Government of Southern Sudan.

"If there are criminal elements engaged in the vice, they should be pursued and punished," he said.

Grain reserves

The minister explained that as of June 30, last year, the country had 1,656,852 bags of 90kg.

On April 1, commercial maize bags were 841,620 bags, and 2,171,375 bags in the strategic grain reserves.

"The position as at June 30 is that there were 1.6 million bags, which we have since enhanced by buying from local farmers 647,927," he said.

Ruto said the NCPB Act allowed sale of maize to anyone, including millers and individuals.

"There was nothing wrong in him writing notes because I write notes everyday to request people to assist others and I am yet to be told it is criminal," said Ruto

Nominated MP Amina Abdalla did not get the Speaker’s permission to make a personal statement as debate on Ruto’s ministerial statement was adjourned.