Fireworks over sugar as MPs reject report

Customs workers destroy contraband sugar at the Mombasa port on Saturday, May 12, 2018. /JOHN CHESOLI
Customs workers destroy contraband sugar at the Mombasa port on Saturday, May 12, 2018. /JOHN CHESOLI

MPs yesterday rubbished preliminary findings by a joint committee on the sugar saga, terming its report as “shallow and inconclusive”.

The joint committee on Agriculture and Trade was tasked by the House to investigate claims of importation of contraband sugar, tax evasion and to confirm if the sugar in the market contains mercury, copper and lead.

Both sides of the House were united in their outrage and frustration with the committee’s report.

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House Speaker Justin Muturi was repeatedly required to calm down angry MPs who were protesting the committee’s slow progress and shoddy report. He, too, took a few jibes at MPs whom he rapped for ‘molly-coddling’ individuals summoned to appear before the committee. He said the objective of the investigations was lost when members started “hugging and kissing,” those whom they had called to grill.

“Instead of (MPs) working in the committees, you have been hugging and exchanging pleasantries during parliamentary work. Parliamentary work is not done through hugs and kisses…no that is not the way work is done,” Muturi blasted the panel.

Muturi’s remarks on the work of the committee — essentially the crux of parliamentary oversight work — was applauded by fellow MPs in the wake of claims that some are being being compromised by subjects of their inquiry.

Immediately the committee co-chair Kanini Kega (Kieni) tabled the report, the House erupted into fireworks with lawmakers accusing the committee of treating Kenyans to a charade.

MPs who spoke against the report accused the committee, also co-chaired by Mandera East MP Adan Ali, of failing Kenyans by tabling a simplistic report that did not answer the critical questions raised.

They were particularly incensed by the committee’s recommendation that the impounded sugar tested negative for heavy metals, yet still concluded that more tests were underway.

Leader of Majority Aden Duale fired the first salvo, accusing the members of doing a shoddy job for 10 days at the expense of taxpayers.

Duale questioned the practicality of a recommendation by the committee that all the sugar in the country be tested.

“It is ridiculous that all the sugar including, the one Duale’s mother is consuming in her house, undergoes testing. It can’t happen that every kilo of sugar in our country must be tested,” the leader of government business in the House protested amid cheers.

Duale said the committee had lost a glorious opportunity to end the anxiety among Kenyans by failing to assure them whether the sugar on the shelves is safe for consumption.

“Parliament doesn’t act in vain. Parliament has the teeth to bite. It is very sad that this afternoon we don’t have a definite answer whether the sugar we consume has mercury or not,” Duale said.

“We also do not know if there was tax evasion, and if there was by who and by how much,” he said, suggesting that the committee had failed to net the sugar barons who imported sugar outside the duty-free window last year.

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Minority leader John Mbadi shared Duale’s sentiments, warning that the country’s economy was ailing due to anxiety over sugar.

“When I went home last week, people were asking whether they should take sugar or not. You know sugar employs thousands of Kenyans. The economic implication is that many Kenyans are not buying sugar,” said the Suba South MP.

He accused the committee of shying away from interrogating powerful people in government, including Interior CS Fred Matiang’i, on his initial claims that the sugar had mercury and copper.

Like Duale, Mbadi termed the report a joke of the highest order which doesn’t qualify to be tabled even before a county assembly.

“This matter did not come just like that, there are some Kenyans who told us that this sugar we are taking has some mercury, and the committee should have zeroed in on these people and asked them, ‘Where is this sugar that has mercury?’” Mbadi said.

“If those people were supposed to deliver sugar with mercury and without mercury, then the committee should have determined that the sugar that was being spoken about doesn’t have mercury,” he added.

The committee tabled the report in response to Samburu West MP Naisula Lesuuda’s request for an update on the progress of the investigations to end consumer anxiety.

Kega defended the report, saying it was dictated by time constraints after the House rejected the panel’s request for time extension.

He also said the committee was not a technical team and was relying on government agencies to provide the information sought.

“It is really unfortunate and unfair to us. I stood here and asked for at least 30 days to conclusively bring the report. The Leader of Majority is the one who said no.... unless you are looking for a specific answer because you have some interest it is very unfair to even condemn us,” the Kieni MP said.

His co-chair, Ali, said the government agencies conducting the tests have been receiving a ‘plethora’ of samples daily and therefore it would take time before conclusive results are released.

“We are telling Kenyans that so far the samples that have been tested do not manifest traces of mercury in them,” he said.

Muturi directed government agencies dealing with sugar to provide evidence indicating that sugar in the country is safe within 10 days after MPs resume from a short break.

“Present it to the committee dealing with the sugar. We want to know if the sugar is safe whether it is from the village. Address the issue of safety,” he said.

Pleas by Kega to allow the committee present a complete report in two weeks were met by jeers from the members who were dissatisfied with the 11-page interim report.

The committee held 12 sittings with various government agencies and other stakeholders and visited various warehouses across the country and at Mombasa port.

The report found complicity on the part of the government agencies, including Kebs, KRA, AFA and the Ministries of Agriculture, Trade and Treasury, in performance of their mandates.

The committee interviewed a number of sugar importers, Cabinet secretaries for Agriculture, Treasury, Trade and Interior.

In its recommendations to the House, the committee said the government should enforce a complete ban on importation of raw and bulk sugar.

“The Kenya Revenue Authority should recover the applicable duty from entities that imported sugar during the duty- free window,” it says.

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