Anger mounts over high food costs

November 26, 2008 12:00 am

, NAIROBI, November 26 – Angry residents of Soweto village in Kibera on Wednesday held a peaceful demonstration to demand government action on escalating food prices, barely hours before Parliament disrupted its normal business to discuss the mounting crisis.

The residents intercepted United Nations Habitat Director Anna Tibaijuka as she commissioned water and sanitation projects in the area and demanded that she addresses them.

Waving placards and chanting songs, the demonstrators complained that the cost of their staple and favourite meal, ugali (maize meal) was rising by day.

“A time like this the government should take the responsibility of helping us because we are suffering,” one resident said.

Another resident added: “I get Sh100 as my wage and I’m now wondering what to buy with it.”

A two kilogram packet of maize flour is now retailing at between Sh85 and Sh120 up from Sh48 in December last year. The commodity is also in short supply prompting businessmen to limit the number of packets one can purchase.

The slum dwellers said life was unbearable since their earnings were little to cater for their daily needs.

“We demand that (the price of) maize flour comes down to Sh45 otherwise we will demonstrate all over,” one of the protestors Janet Onyango vowed.

“We will uproot this railway (line) if the government does not act immediately,” added James Ouma.

During Wednesday afternoon’s session in Parliament, Rarieda Member of Parliament Nicholas Gumbo sought an adjournment and termed the issue a matter that required urgent attention.

The Speaker of the National Assembly Kenneth Marende agreed with the MP and directed that the House put aside it’s normal businesses to discuss the issue which he said was of ‘great national importance’.

The scarcity has been occasioned by low supply of maize and Agriculture Minister William Ruto has blamed ‘cartels’ of engineering the shortage.

The Cabinet was expected to discuss the situation which is worsening by day in its meeting scheduled for Thursday.

Addressing the media on Wednesday, Mr Ruto said he would petition the Cabinet at its Thursday meeting for more money to import an additional two million bags of maize. He said instead of the three million bags of maize the government intended to buy in August, only 1.5 million bags were imported.

“We had issues of cost. Initially we had thought that we could buy at Sh2,000 per bag but the cost went up to Sh3,000,” he said.

The Agriculture Minister said he would also persuade the Cabinet to release part of the stock reserved as relief food and expressed confidence that the maize flour shortage would be over in the next few weeks.

President Mwai Kibaki meanwhile has said that the government was closely monitoring the crisis to ensure no Kenyan lacked food.

“We are going to offer relief food. We have been told of the shortage and we will work urgently,” he said.

Prime Minister Raila Odinga said they were working to address the fuel crisis to ensure it doesn’t affect the cost of food. “Kenyans are staring at a situation where staple foods like ugali and rice may join the ranks of luxuries. The trouble is that there are no alternatives,” he said.

Energy Minister Kiraitu Murungi said that the government would introduce price controls in January to ensure the fuel sector does not exploit consumers in the country.

“We cannot stand buy and allow the cartels to exploit and impoverish our people for their own benefits,” he said and added that the Energy Regulatory Commission had prepared modalities for the pricing.

The President, PM and the Energy Minister spoke during the commissioning of Nairobi-Mombasa Petroleum Oil Pipeline pump in Kibwezi but as they spoke, civil rights organisations criticised the government for failing to put in place urgent measures to curb the rising food crisis in the country.

The National Council of NGO’s through Executive Member George Wainaina said the government was not doing enough to address the problem.

He said Kenyans could not wait for three weeks for a permanent solution to the crisis because there are fears the price of maize flour could rise even further.

“It is unrealistic for the government to sit back and watch as Kenyans suffer. Many Kenyans survive on less than a dollar a day yet they are now forced to buy this vital commodity at Sh120 or more. The government should act now,” he said.

At a press conference, Mr Wainaina also criticised the MPs for deleting a clause in the Finance Bill that would have compelled them to pay taxes like the rest of Kenyans.

“It is the highest level of impunity they are displaying in failing to pay taxes. They should be considerate,” he said.

The chairman of the Community Based Organisations Tom Aosa on his part called on the Agriculture Minister to allow millers to purchase maize directly from the National Cereals and Produce Board instead of middlemen to curb the food crisis in the country.

“Why should the government allow brokers in this business yet millers are able to buy maize directly from farmers?” he asked.



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