Officials should never toy with the health and lives of Kenyans

By Jaindi Kisero
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A recent investigative story by NTV journalist Dennis Okari revealed how shops in Nairobi were selling meat laced with harmful substances. That gave us a rare glimpse into just how consumer protection does not rank as a priority in Kenya and revealed the rot and inefficiency in the institutions charged with food safety.

If we were in a more civilised society, the government would have followed up the story with in-depth investigations and, thereafter, a comprehensive public statement on this very serious matter. Where public health is concerned, public communications is critical.

Today, we complain and whine all the time about rising cases of grand corruption within the government and how the vice has permeated the fabric of society. But the last thing we can’t compromise is what goes into our mouths. We cannot allow corrupt profiteers to toy around with the lives of our people by selling to them food laced with toxic substances.

We need strong regulators with the capacity to quickly investigate allegations of harmful substances in what we eat. They should follow up such a story with an extensive public communications campaigns warning citizens about the poisonous food.

Which leads me to the vexed question about the consignment of 5,400 tonnes of fertiliser that was imported by a Moroccan company, OCP Kenya, and was said to be laced with mercury. Why hasn’t the government issued a statement about the public health and safety issues surrounding this huge consignment? Why haven’t the results of the tests done on the fertiliser been published?

These questions are pertinent because, by the time the government acted, the company had already released to the public 2,000 tonnes of the contaminated fertiliser.

Granted, the fate of the huge consignment, which has been lying at a warehouse in Mombasa for close to two years, is still the subject of ongoing criminal proceedings. Top officials of the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs), who are accused of releasing to farmers fertiliser allegedly laced with mercury, are facing charges of murder.

I will not discuss the merits or not of the criminal proceedings because of the risk of breaching the sub judice rule. But a public statement informing the consumers whether the fertiliser is safe to use has become even more necessary after the Moroccans recently entered into a plea bargain and got the go-ahead to release it into the market.

The deal gave the company unconditional rights to take back the fertiliser from where it has been under lock and key and sell it to farmers.

The plea bargain deal was, indeed, an anticlimax in the saga because the accused persons had been charged with murder — the main allegation being that the top Kebs officials, including the CEO, Mr Charles Ongwae, colluded with the Moroccans to allow fertiliser laced with mercury into the country, thus exposing consumers in Narok and Eldoret to sickness and even death.

I’m waiting to see how the cases against the officials will progress, given that the Moroccans they were charged with have been released unconditionally. It’s all very well for the prosecution to sign a plea bargain deal with the Moroccans, but why has the government ignored the need to inform the consumers and traders about public safety issues around this consignment?

This saga has raised several public policy issues that go beyond the issues in court. First, what is the integrity of the laboratories at Kebs? As you follow the court documents, the impression you get is that lab tests at Kebs seem to change at the whims and interests of individuals.

Well-conducted tests should give ‘reproduceability’ and ‘repeatability’. That does not happen at Kebs — at least going by the court documents. Despite the controversial fertiliser consignment having been tested multiple times by different labs, results have kept changing.

The second public policy question that arises is abuse of discretionary power.

 In corrupt Kenya, you face major risks when you concentrate too much power and discretion in the hands of one bureaucracy, especially where that bureaucracy is run by appointees of a corrupt political elite.

Kebs has emerged as a playground where different factions of the political elite test their influence and mettle. Fights become vicious, especially when the most lucrative contract there — namely, the procurement contract for pre-shipment inspections — is on the cards.

The contracts for the printing of quality stamps — and, lately, for pre-shipment of motor vehicle stamps — are also known to generate a great deal of infighting.

Fights for these lucrative contracts is why turnover for CEOs at Kebs is high.

Kenyans need an explanation about the public health issues around the fertiliser from Morocco.

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