Food Crisis in Kenya: Another of President Mwai Kibaki’s Failures: Part 1
Lack of political will to make Kenya food secure is a major factor in the recurring food crisis. Famine, drought and high food prices are prevalent within the crisis, and often result in human and livestock fatalities. President Mwai Kibaki has failed to provide long-term solutions to avert predictable hunger and food shortage, and instead put sections of the country in a state of high dependency on food aid. During his decade of many unfulfilled promises, he declared drought and famine ‘a national disaster’ at least four times.
On July 13, 2004 Kibaki declared that period’s drought which had caused 60 per cent crop failure in five provinces, a national disaster. Up to 4.3 million adults and 1.5 million children would need food aid for the next six months. He then appealed for both local and international food donation and funding. Kibaki said, during that year alone, the government had distributed food worth KSh1.5 billion, and required a further $32 million (KSh2.56 billion) to provide water, sanitation, health and nutrition, agriculture, livestock and education. A shortage of four million bags of maize was also predicted for the next harvest.
That same year, the then Justice and Constitutional Affairs assistant minister Robinson Githae, told Kenyans to diversify their eating habits and start eating ants, rats, donkeys and other edibles, to get rid of hunger as others did elsewhere in Africa. Kenyans felt insulted by his remarks, which reflected a high level of arrogance and asked whether he ate such food. He defended his call by saying: “When you are facing starvation, you should eat anything and everything you can find. Even God will not forgive you if you starve.” Regardless, it was reminiscent of the journalistic cliché – “Let them eat cake”, controversially attributed to Marie Antoinette, who was Queen of France during the French Revolution, and thought to have cared less about her starving subjects. Githae was also perceived as insensitive to cultural and religious beliefs which influence the eating habits of Kenyans. His reaction was typical of Kenyan lawmakers who usually opt for easy answers to the country’s insurmountable crises.
When President Kibaki was delivering his new year’s address in January 2006, he once again declared then-ongoing famine in parts of the country, a national disaster. Up to 2.5 million people would need famine relief, estimated to cost KSh11 billion ($151 million). Prolonged drought had caused crop failure and livestock losses. He appealed to local and international partners to assist Government’s efforts to help those affected. Other areas which required urgent help were the provision of water, healthcare, restocking of livestock, education and provision of seeds to farmers for the next crop season. In the arid eastern and northern parts of the country, more than 30 people and hundreds of livestock had already died within three months of the drought.
In January 2009, Kibaki yet again declared that period’s drought and famine a national disaster, and launched an appeal to raise over KSh37 billion to address the situation. Around 10 million Kenyans were then food insecure and the government would import 7 million bags of maize at the cost of KSh17 billion to mitigate the crisis.
The latest national disaster declaration was on May 30, 2011 when President Kibaki mentioned that due to the persistent drought, necessary interventions be put in place within the relevant ministries to assist affected citizens. It was the usual appeal for relief food. The government would allocate Ksh1 billion for livestock off-take and provide an additional KSh600 million to the Water ministry, to facilitate efficient transportation of water to the people and livestock.
The politics of hunger, drought and famine
Agriculture is the backbone of Kenya’s economy and contributes 24 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) directly. It is also the country’s top foreign exchange earner, contributing around 60 per cent of export earnings from tea and coffee. Kenya’s main staple food is maize, though there are other cereals like rice, wheat, millet and sorghum. Around 75 per cent of Kenyans participate in agriculture, which makes it the most important economic sector in the country (see kenya.usaid.gov). It is therefore preposterous that an agrarian economy like Kenya is constantly undergoing a food crisis.
In his book: ‘Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (1981), Amrtya Sen, the 1998 Nobel Laureate in Economics, demonstrated that “famine occurs not only from a lack of food, but from inequalities built into mechanisms for distributing food.” This means that there are other underlying social and economic factors which lead to starvation within some groups in society, such as: declining wages, unemployment, rising food prices, and poor food-distribution systems.
In the 2010 report of a joint international mission by the African Network on the Right to Food (RAPDA) and Human Rights Organization on the Right to food (FIAN) titled: ‘Kenya’s hunger crisis – the result of right to food violations’, it was found that a number of structural problems contributed to drought and man-made emergencies, which led to famine. However, cases of extreme famine in the past four years were due to periods of failed rains and the impact of post-election violence in 2007. These findings were from a research mission undertaken on September 20-26, 2009. The investigating team visited various parts of Kenya and spoke to community representatives in hunger-prone areas; policy makers; individuals at national and local levels; non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and Community Based Organizations (CBOs). The results indicated a widespread food insecurity situation that left very few communities unaffected.
Some of the underlying structural problems identified by the mission included:
• A high level of inequality in Kenya.
• Exclusion of the poor and vulnerable groups from the social, economic and political spheres.
• Widespread corruption and nepotism.
• A lack of investment in sustainable agriculture.
• A fragmented and contradictory legislative and policy framework.
The above contexts point to the government’s failure “to adhere to its obligations to respect, protect and fulfill the right to food as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and other international and regional human rights instruments” (Page 5).
On January 16, 2006 newspaper reporter Otsieno Namwaya wrote an exclusive article in the East African Standard titled, ‘Kenya: Playing politics with hunger’. He investigated, analyzed and proved that ministers in Kibaki’s administration, their cronies and top government officials, benefited financially from the political economy of famine. This was evident in the licensing of companies awarded contracts to supply maize to famine-stricken areas in 2004, by then-Agriculture minister, Kipruto arap Kirwa. The government’s tendering process had been egregiously flouted in the selection of companies which imported the maize, as noted later in a Parliamentary Investments Committee report. During that period, around 39 people and an unknown number of livestock died.
The 2004 famine-national-disaster declaration which required KSh4 billion was never lifted and in 2005, another disaster was declared by the government, aiming to raise KSh11 billion to fight the famine. Meanwhile, investigations revealed that over one million bags of maize laid idle, some of it rotting, at the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) silos in North Rift, while many Kenyans starved elsewhere. The reason was lack of storage space because the silos were full of the last season’s harvest. There were 450,000 bags at the NCPB branch in Kitale and another 450,000 at the Moi’s Bridge depot.
Farmers were being turned away with truckloads of newly-harvested maize and had to sell them to private companies at throwaway prices. Some threatened to export their maize to Uganda if the government was not willing to buy from them. There were over 300,000 bags of maize stored at two privately owned stores in Kitale and frustrated farmers had to sell at half the regular price which was KSh800, instead of KSh1,600. The government was faulted for being unprepared whenever the time for purchasing maize came. The Finance ministry also delayed in releasing the money budgeted for buying maize. The cost of fertilizer had also risen, making maize production expensive, yet corruption hindered farmers from recovering their money through government purchases.
The then Mandera MP Billow Kerrow, revealed that NCPB officials colluded with some businesspeople so that they could sell their stocks first. It was therefore intentional when they failed to transport maize to silos in the famine-stricken areas. But the Ministry of Agriculture was the worst, because it was responsible for purchasing and distributing maize to various parts of Kenya, yet was not doing so. He also cited political manipulation as a factor in the widespread famine. “There are people who played politics with food in my constituency in the lead up to the [2005 constitutional] referendum. A lot of food was diverted and sold to finance the Banana campaign ahead of the referendum. That is why people are dying for lack of food,” he said.
Then-nominated MP Professor Ruth Oniang’o, claimed that corruption drove the politics of maize and food, with ministers cashing in on the unfortunate situation to make money. “Declaring a famine that has stalked us for the better part of the year a national disaster is so that donors can move in with money. But this is ironical because there is a food surplus. This is abusing the goodwill from donors. It will not be surprising if it turns out that the companies that will be given tenders to either import or ferry maize to the famine-stricken regions at the expense of donors and Kenyan taxpayers, are owned by ministers and senior government officials,” she said. She hails from western Kenya which had surplus maize rotting at that time. To be continued in Part 2.