Kenya 2022: The electoral politics of maize-meal shortages

By Jeff Otieno

Posted on Tuesday, 2 August 2022 20:20
Maize subsidies will not be reinstated, says Kenya's President William Ruto, hitting consumers hard. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Kenyan staple unga - maize meal - is disappearing from supermarket shelves ahead of the 9 August elections, raising questions whether the trend is mere coincidence or sabotage.

Has the ‘unga crisis’ become a new political tool in the country’s elections?

This is not the first time that unga has played a big role in politics. One afternoon in May 2017, then-cabinet secretary for agriculture Willy Bett organised a press conference in his office to unveil two-kilogram packets of subsidised maize flour.

Bett asked the reporters covering the event live to zoom in on the printed words ‘GOK @Sh90’ on one of the packets “so that viewers at home can see”.

“The imprint means that this is a property of the government of Kenya and must retail at KSh90 ($0.76) and not a shilling more,” he said.

It was two months to the general election, and President Uhuru Kenyatta’s administration was feeling the heat over the increase in the price of a 2kg packet of maize flour, which had skyrocketed from KSh90 to KSh160 ($1.35).

Subsidy scheme

Fearing that the politics of maize flour would cost the ruling Jubilee party votes at the ballot box, President Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto quickly cobbled up a KSh6bn ($50m) subsidy programme to lower the price of maize flour – the country’s number-one staple food.

The government facilitated the importation of maize from Mexico and subsidised the cost of producing the flour to  enable retailers sell the product at KSh90.

At the time, the Jubilee government was facing heavy criticism from the Raila Odinga-led National Super Alliance (NASA), a coalition of four opposition parties that was gaining in popularity.

“The opposition should stop playing politics with the  livelihoods of millions of Kenyans,” Ruto said at the time in defending the subsidy programme. “The Jubilee government has taken similar measures previous governments took when faced with drought.”

State House meeting

Fast forward to 2022, and history is repeating itself. On  20 July, President Kenyatta paraded millers in front of State House to announce a KSh8.5bn ($70m) maize subsidy  programme that saw the price of  a 2kg packet of unga decline from KSh205 to KSh100.

However, this time around it isn’t opposition leader Odinga making noise about the policy but President Kenyatta’s estranged deput, Ruto. Since 2017 Kenyatta and Ruto have fallen out, with Kenyatta putting aside his differences with Odinga in 2018 through a handshake that shook up Kenyan politics.

“The handshake between Kenyatta and Odinga is to blame for the rise in the price of unga. It forced the government to abandon its ‘Big Four’ agenda, one of which was food security,” Ruto said minutes after the head of state unveiled the programme. The deputy president argued that the decision was too little, too late.

The politics of unga

The politics of unga has played a role in elections since the early 1980s when Kenya was still a single-party state. With the introduction of multi-party politics, unga has become even more dominant in general elections as politicians outdo each other in using the staple food to woo voters, mainly in the arid regions and urban areas where food insecurity remains a major challenge.

“In the 1980s and 1990s, the Kenya Africa National Union party perfected the art of distributing maize as relief food to secure votes for President Daniel arap Moi and his favoured candidates,” says John Charo, a political analyst. Then, there was no shortages of the product, as it was readily available in shops, supermarkets and open-air markets.

Unga crisis trends

In the recent past, a pattern has been observed where every election has attracted an ‘unga crisis’. In fact, in his remarks at State House, President Kenyatta alluded to this, adding that it was time to seek answers.

  • In July 2012, eight months before the March 2013 election, the price of a two-kilogram packet of unga shot up from KSh70 to KSh130;
  • In May 2017, three months before the August elections, the price increased to a high of KSh189; and
  • In July this year, one month ahead of the general election, it shot up yet again from KSh100 to KSh205 – the highest since independence.

According to President Kenyatta, traders engineer the price rises, hoarding maize during elections to dictate prices and also allow their favourite politicians to exploit the situation to win elections.

“If one of them acts unethically by hoarding his products, the other benefits by politicising this irresponsibility. If the politician gets his votes out of it and the miller gets his profit, it is the common man who carries the burden of this mischief,” Kenyatta said during the State House press briefing.

Cheap staples

The Ruto-led Kenya Kwanza team has sought to benefit from demonstrations by angry Kenyans in various parts of the country demanding cheap unga.

Agriculture cabinet secretary Peter Munya concedes that he had to seek the president’s help to stem the unga politics that was fast becoming a security issue.

“Ruto and his brigade were busy inciting the public against the government. We had to do something to shut them up,” says Munya.

Recurring drought

Unethical practices aside, the cabinet secretary blames biting droughts in East Africa, the 2019 locust invasion, the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, and the disruptions in the global supply chain of food and fertiliser for the situation the country finds itself in.

“We have been having a drought for the last three seasons and the demand for maize shot up, prompting prices to increase. The drought has affected the entire East Africa region, including Uganda and Tanzania, where we import most of our maize,” says Munya.

He adds that the country was forced to turn to Zambia for the grain, incurring higher transport costs in bringing the consignment to the port of Mombasa.

Dependence on imported maize

According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), maize production in the country declined by 12.8%, from 42.1m bags in 2020 to 36.7m bags last year. To bridge the deficit, the treasury opened a three-month window for importation of  up to 540,000tn of white maize – a new record for dependence on produce from outside the country in a single year since 2017, when the country imported 1.33m tonnes. With average yields of 1.6tn per hectare, Kenya is trailing other maize producers in the continent.

“Ethiopia for example, is twice as productive, at 3.7tn per hectare. The country has managed to attain high productivity through improving access to extension services, use of modern inputs and improving rural infrastructure,” said agricultural economist Job Shiundu. Shiundu says unlike Zambia, farm sizes in the country have declined to “uneconomical sizes”.

“Kenya’s soil quality is fast declining, smallholder farmers are continuing to plant unsuitable varieties and have low use of complementary inputs,” the agricultural economist said, adding that the problem is worsened by limited access to water for irrigation and prevalence of pests and diseases.

Political gimmick?

Many analysts say the move is to defend against Ruto’s attacks rather than address the root of the problem. He has been the most vocal politician on the issue.

“Uhuru’s move amounts to an individual who rearranges furniture in a house which is already on fire. What will happen is the individual and the furniture will still be burned eventually,” says Kitile Naituli, a political analyst.

Civil rights activist Daisy Amdany concurs, saying the programme is a gimmick by the government to win votes. “They want to be seen as a caring government. These issues should have been forecasted way ahead of time.”

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