Kenyan politics: food prices to rise; more stories from 2008

There is lots of daily “news” in the Kenyan presidential race, naturally.  What of this will matter six months from now?  Obviously it is hard to know, but one current headline that is more likely to impact the day to day lives of most Kenyans is the drought in the United States and the accompanying huge drop in the U.S. corn/maize crop.  From the Financial Times, “Food crisis fears as U.S. corn soars”:

.  .  .  The US is crucial to supplying the world with food: the country is the largest exporter of corn, soyabeans and wheat, accounting for one in every three tonnes of the staple grains traded on the global market.

Prices for this year’s corn crop, deliverable in December, have jumped 44 per cent in a month, wheat has rallied 45 per cent, and soyabeans 17 per cent.

The rise in grain prices has inspired comparisons with 2007-08, when a price surge triggered a wave of food riots in more than 30 countries from Bangladesh to Haiti, and 2010, when Russia banned grain exports, setting off a price jump that some have argued helped to cause unrest across the Arab world last year. . . .

For the immediate present, the Kenyan headlines dwell on former Raila Odinga aide Miguna Miguna’s book launch, of Peeling Back the Maskwith sections being serialized in The Nation.  The basic notion seems to be the argument that at this stage of his career Raila is just another Kenyan politician who is not any more careful than the usual suspects about the company he keeps or the people he brings into public positions.  A large point may be that the book, published in London, was launched this weekend in Kenya itself.  This means that Kenya has come a long way on free speech in campaigns; it also means that the Prime Minister does not in fact have equal clout in government or chose not to use it if one compares the treatment of this book to others in recent years.

Initial serialization does include an interesting story of how ODM reached over Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer’s head to appeal to Secretary of State Rice through Sally Kosgei when Frazer was said to recommend formalizing a “qualified endorsement” of Kibaki’s claim to a second term in January 2008.  This is reportedly the background of Rice’s direct intervention to further push the “power sharing” negotiations in February 2008. Those in Nairobi at the time will remember that Ambassador Ranneberger was immediately advocating “power sharing” once the initial U.S. congratulations on Kibaki’s “victory” were withdrawn.

Does KSh4,500 for a bag of maize approach a “tipping point”?

There are a lot of good things happening in Kenya that are helping to lay the groundwork for a positive future.   Right now, however, the combination of the plummeting shilling and high inflation focused especially on basic food items and other household necessities, along with an especially severe regional drought is causing suffering and raises questions for the intermediate future as we head into another election year.

Increasing numbers of refugees are flowing to Kenya from Somalia due to drought aside from the fighting, in a situation in which Kenya is already well beyond current capacity under existing refugee arrangements.

The basic situation of high and inflating cost of food staples, drought and refugees is “the usual crisis” in Kenya–its not less severe because it doesn’t get solved but we all somewhat get used to it as “background” and pay more attention to “the next new thing”.  Now however, it is getting worse.  Will Kenyan politicians continue to see this as a challenge primarily for Western donors while focusing on the election?  Is there a “tipping point” where this moves out of the background and disrupts the usual course of things in Nairobi, for better or worse?

“Severe food crisis hits region”, IRIN Global

In Kenya, rising inflation rates have also adversely affected poor households’ ability to buy food. Prices of the main staple, maize, have tripled from about 1,300 shillings (US$14.4) in January to 4,500 ($50) for a 90kg bag.

Recently, the government announced the removal of tax on imported maize in a bid to cushion consumers. But millers say rising global maize prices mean the measure will have little impact on the commodity’s prices locally.

“The problem has been compounded by the fact that the Kenyan shilling has been on a free-fall, trading at an all-time low [about 90 shillings to the US dollar] not experienced in the country for almost two decades. I do not see the cost of maize dropping any time soon,” said a miller who requested anonymity.

The recent March to May “long rains” in Kenya were poor for the second or third successive season in most rangelands and cropping lowlands, with many of these areas receiving 10-50 percent of normal rains, noted the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET).

The consequences include declining water and pasture, and subsequent livestock deaths. In the predominantly pastoralist north, a low milk supply has contributed to malnutrition levels soaring above 35 percent. The GAM rate in northwestern Turkana has hit 37.4 percent, the highest ever in the district.

Nationally, at least 3.2 million people are currently food insecure – up from a projection of 2.4 and 1.6 million in April and January, respectively.

Even in Kenya’s coastal region, thousands are food insecure, says the Kenya Red Cross Society’s (KRCS) region manager, Gerald Bombe.

“There is a need to import maize and distribute food and water to the hardest hit areas,” added Kevin Lunani, a local leader in the coastal Kisauni region.

Figures I read recently would place Kenya as the largest recipient of U.S. aid outside the greater Middle East/North Africa and Afghanistan/Pakistan–in other words greater than any other country in Latin America, Sub Saharan Africa or elsewhere in Asia, for the 2008-2011 period.  I don’t have time to dive into the numbers for serious comparisons, but accepting the general point that Kenya is a particular favorite as a major target of aid for the U.S. we need to ask whether we are accomplishing what we want to accomplish.

Today’s Corruption News–Education Funds, Rift Valley Railroad, Maize & More

Kenya’s papers today feature lots of corruption stories.  The press should be congratulated for doing a better job of sticking with some of these issues, in some part I think due to the renewed energy and courage shown by civil society.  A certain level of moral support from the donor/diplomatic community probably helps as well.

The KACC has recommended charges against eight officials for a portion of the missing Free Primary Education funds headlines the Daily Nation. The downside of course is the KACC can only recommend–action is in the hands of Attorney General Wako, famously subject to a visa denial for travel to the US due to his record of de facto support for impunity, as announced in last fall’s “tweet” from the US Ambassador.

And speaking of the Attorney General and the Rift Valley Railroad concession scandal, the Daily Nation also reports that Wako, Head of Civil Service Francis Muthaura, Transport PS Cyrus Njiru and Finance PS Joseph Kinyua have been called to appear before Parliament’s Public Investment Committee to answer as to why they disregarded the Committee’s advise that the concession be terminated.  Again, it is positive to see the Parliamentary committee, like the KACC above, push forward in its advisory capacity–but frustrating to have to wonder whether impunity will nonetheless prevail.

And more on the outstanding maize scandal that we have written of previously from the Standard, with more here. PriceWaterhouseCoopers, after being hired at the instance of PM’s office, has issued a report said to recommend that the KACC re-open its investigation, and in particular look at high officials including the PSs in both the PM’s office and in William Ruto’s Ministry of Agriculture. The Daily Nation covers the PwC report here.

The coverage of the report on the maize scandal is a good example of why you have to read both major Kenyan daily papers–as well as the Star if you are in Kenya since it isn’t fully on-line yet.  The Nation may have a degree of journalistic polish that the Standard sometimes lacks (and perhaps less stories that are specifically messed up), but the Standard has a bit more “guts” in some cases–in this case naming the names of the officials in the PwC report rather than, for example “two permanent secretaries”.

Following up on another outstanding matter, the games going on to control the Kenya Airport Authority, the Standard reports that the President’s associate George Muhoho is finally retiring, next month, at the end of the irregular extension of his term granted him by fiat of the Minister of Transportation Ali Cherau Makwere, who’s election has now been voided.