Only Festus Mwangi Kiunjuri, the Cabinet Secretary for Agriculture, can leisurely walk into a room full of journalists an hour-and-half late and still be audacious to say: “For once, I am not late.”
Mr Kiunjuri was to hold a press conference at Kilimo House on Wednesday last week at 2pm, only to turn up at 3.30pm. The packed boardroom got stuffier with every minute that he stayed away.
Journalists, who had been standing for the entire time, fidgeted, idly re-arranged their equipment or shot anxious glances towards the door.
And then the CS walked in, donning a smile.
But his falsehoods never ended with the ice-cracker. The gist of the entire press conference was drowned by one spectacular directive: That all supermarkets should sell a two-kilo packet of unga at Sh75.
The Government would take action against those traders who violate the directive. “As much as it is a free market, every responsible government must ensure that it protects its people,” he said.
Cornered on how exactly the Government would enforce such an arbitrary directive, Kiunjuri, who has refused to shed his political demeanor even after joining Cabinet, took refuge in empty epithets and impractical theories.
He emphasised that the Government would take “necessary action” against such traders who continued “exploiting Kenyans,” without highlighting even a single action that would be taken.
“Kenyans still remember that not long ago unga was retailing at Sh90,” said Kiunjuri with exasperation, adding that last year’s subsidy programme which saw the price of unga retail at Sh90 was a gentleman’s agreement.
“Even this is going to be a gentleman’s agreement,” he said.
The former two-time MP for Laikipia East Constituency has a penchant for trying to pass off popular politics as good policy. He seems to suffer the after-effect of his 10-year stay in political jostling that has refused to go away.
He is a stark reminder of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s turn-around on his promise to fill his Cabinet with apolitical professionals. Kiunjuri replaced Anne Waiguru as the Cabinet Secretary for Devolution.
Hear this from him: “I tell people about Jubilee’s success and some see hyenas eating sugarcane. Just see what you want and remain outside the government,” he is reported to have said in 2017.
“My work as a CS is to defend all Government projects and execute my mandate of making the Jubilee Manifesto improve Kenyan lives, which will enable President Kenyatta to seek re-election when time comes.”
If the Cabinet were a choir, then Kiunjuri would be its soloist, singing his party’s anthem the loudest. While at official engagements, he is always eager to finish reading the official statement and revert to his familiar territory: politics.
Once at a function in Nairobi last year, Kiunjuri spent quite some time painstakingly reading the wrong speech, before he was gently tapped by an aide and handed the right one. It must have been one of his longest days.
As a policymaker, Kiunjuri’s first reaction to any criticism has been cynical rather than pragmatic. In early 2017, then as Devolution and Planning Cabinet Secretary, while unveiling the survey on Kenya’s economic performance for 2016, sat with other dignitaries pensively reading people’s mind.
The truth is few people in the amphitheatre at KICC were palpably optimistic about the growth numbers. Their fears would be confirmed after the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics Director General Zachary Mwangi started taking them through the highlights of the survey.
Mr Mwangi inadvertently painted a bleak picture in which the growth of most sectors of the economy, including agriculture and manufacturing, either slowed or stagnated.
However, he said Kenya’s GDP in 2016 had ‘grown’ by 5.8 per cent, up from a revised growth of 5.7 per cent in 2015. “This is a lie,” retorted one reporter.
And when Kiunjuri stood to speak, it was as though he had heard the reporter. “Now, there are those who are going to start questioning these numbers, we will fight them,” he thundered.
No one has perfected the art of flip-flopping like ‘Son of Gerald.’ You will believe in the adage “numbers don’t lie”, until you hear his numbers. He gives different figures for different occasions. For him, numbers have to be straight-jacketed into a political narrative.
Last year, as a debilitating drought swept across the country pushing millions of Kenyans to the edge of starvation, he insisted that the country had enough reserves of maize.
He gave his own number of the people affected by the drought, different from those offered by organisations such as the United Nations.
Even his latest prices of maize in different parts of the country differ from those of RATIN, a regional market information system developed and hosted by the Eastern Africa Grain Council.
To think that Kiunjuri, presiding over the country’s largest economic sector, is willing to desecrate market economy’s Holy Grail – the law of demand and supply – without clearly identifying a case of market failure is just scary.
Many expect the Government to restructure a failed subsidy programme, one which has been counterproductive in benefiting large, rich farmers at the expense of the majority of poor, small-holder farmers. But will Kiunjuri rise to the occasion?
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