Famine an indictment of counties and national leadership

There has never been a serious demonstration of goodwill to institute long-term solutions

In Summary

• Famine is designed within government corridors and institutionalised by power brokers 

• Corruption has taken over the leadership in the creation and timing of famine through its predatory tendencies.

Turkana county officials distributes relief food to residents of Kakwanya,Turkana Central hit by current drought
Drought Turkana county officials distributes relief food to residents of Kakwanya,Turkana Central hit by current drought
Image: Hesborn Etyang

Kenya is once again in the annual cycle of famine shame.

It has become a ritual that the country must gruesomely go through every year.

At every turn of this period, fingers point to corruption and meddling by government officials. It is particularly debilitating and devastating to children and women.

What many forget is that this situation was designed within the government corridors and institutionalised by power brokers and apparatchiks.


Of particular interest to Kenyans should be the situation that unfolded in 1964-65, occasioned by different circumstances, which led to the suspension of Paul Ngei as the Minister for Cooperatives and Marketing.

Ngei, an independence hero and one of the Kapenguria Six, was accused of meddling with the Maize Marketing Board and smuggling the crop leading to shortages in 1964-65. A report by a commission appointed to look into shortages found that he manipulated State agencies handling maize distribution in the country, particularly the Maize Marketing Board, the predecessor of the National Cereals and Produce Board. It was noted that Ngei — who also chaired the board — oversaw ‘unfairness, inefficiency, corruption and black marketing’ in the distribution and marketing of maize throughout Kenya.

It is said to be the first major scandal of the Kenyatta government. The surplus maize would have safely seen Kenya through the shortages of that year, but the country had to rely on yellow maize imports from the US. The Commission also found that Ngei was arm-twisting the board into allocating maize to companies run by his wife, Emma Ngei – Emma Stores and Uhuru Millers.

“We find that Mr Ngei allowed his interest in his wife’s business to come into conflict with his duty to a statutory board to the certain detriment of the latter,” the Commission said in its 1966 report.


Another maize scandal resurfaced 43 years later in 2009, this time dragging in the name of the then Minister for Agriculture, William Ruto, now the Deputy President.

Ruto refused to resign over the allegations that thousands of bags of maize from strategic reserves might have been inappropriately allocated. Raila Odinga was also be dragged into the scandal, with his Permanent Secretary, Mohamed Isahakia, and chief of staff Caroli Omondi, both from the office of the Prime Minister, adversely mentioned in an audit report that also recommended for investigations into their conduct.

As the current crisis rages on, top NCPB officials remain suspended and face various charges. What is for a fact, however, is that over the years, no one has been jailed for these crimes.


Corruption has taken over the leadership in the creation and timing of famine through its predatory tendencies. Cartels have taken advantage of a weakened government food production and distribution network.

This system has suffered sustained battering from saboteurs from within government, who work with buccaneers from business circles.

The first decade of independence saw intense investment in extension services, especially in agriculture. The private sector was given incentives to invest in large-scale farming to anchor commercial food production. On the other hand, smallholder farming in the villages benefitted from the extension services for food security. Kenyans were generally on the path to self-sufficiency in food production and nutrition security. The government supported sustainable agricultural productivity and environmental protection. The cooperative movement was borrowed from Israel and established to promote economies of scale in smallholder agriculture. The grain boards were formed to ensure the national strategic reserves were always at optimal levels.

However, these two approaches to food security were infiltrated by cartels and soon became the bastions of corruption. Agricultural production suffered so much that many Kenyans abandoned small-scale farming. Farm inputs became increasingly scarce and of questionable quality. The few that continued began to suffer from the artificial inefficiency of the distribution networks. Deliveries to NCPB were no longer being paid, and when paid, the prices were way below production costs. The intention was to give the cartels free passage to importation licences. Cereals would be imported duty-free and the government was forced to buy the same at exorbitant prices. When the cereals eventually hit the supermarket shelves as unga, they are highly priced and lives are already lost. The government once again is forced to subsidise the cost of the staple food ostensibly to cushion wananchi. Double jeopardy at its worst.

In the meantime, Kenyans are engaged in the usual Ping-Pong blame game. The government says the hunger situation has not reached disaster levels, and no one has died. On the other hand, media is awash with reports of deaths attributed to famine. Dozen government officials have been quoted as claiming that the government strategic reserves are full to the seams. Devolution CS Eugene Wamalwa says the government has almost four million bags in its stores. What does not come out clearly is why this abundance in the face widespread starvation. The pictures of emaciated Kenyans in the front pages of local media is an indictment on the cross-sectional leadership at the counties and in Nairobi. Similar situations have previously been used to rob government coffers of foreign currency reserves through stage-managed imports.

There has never been a serious demonstration of goodwill to institute long-term measures to stop this cyclic and endemic annual catastrophe. Reports that between five and 26 people have so far died of hunger are heart-rending. Yet the fact that there is no official position on whether deaths have occurred and how many on account of the famine situation is criminal and immoral. This is especially when there are reports of colossal loss of public funds meant for sustainable agriculture through irrigation.

The Arror and Kimwarer dams saga joins the Galana-Kulalu white elephant projects. Kenyans are wondering whether the Big Four agenda that has food security as its major pillar is not under threat. The government can only stop this shameful state of affairs by holding the bull by the horns. It must rid the agricultural production process of blood-sucking cartels and punish them punitively. The next stage would be to invest in the use of modern technology to increase productivity and assure effective and efficient distribution.

The population is currently more literate than it was at independence and therefore should benefit better from a robust extension service network. Otherwise, at this rate, we might be at the international doors with begging bowls once again as citizens await the next year’s ritual.