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What became of multibillion crooked cooking oil deal?

By Gabriel Melonyie

A seven-month investigative report by Brian Obuya titled “Crooked Cooking Oil Deal,” aired by NTV on June 17, 2023, unravelled a web of corruption implicating high-ranking government officials in what appeared to be an orchestrated tax evasion, resulting in significant losses of taxpayers’ money.

The report exposed the dubious involvement of companies linked to these officials, which were awarded tenders as intermediaries for supplying various commodities to the government, including maize, beans, rice, sugar, wheat, soya, fertilizer, and 125,000 metric tons of edible oil. It shed light on glaring inconsistencies in documentation, revealing the disregard for procurement laws and the facilitation of massive tax evasion through wrongful application of the law by the Kenya Revenue Authority and the Kenya National Trading Corporation.

Despite possessing an unspecified number of secret documents supporting the allegations against these institutions, the report failed to prompt timely accountability for those in power, leaving lingering doubts about the credibility of the information presented against the perpetrators and the professionalism and integrity of those tasked with holding them accountable on behalf of the public.

On November 28, 2023, approximately five months following NTV’s investigation, reports emerged in the media indicating that Pamela Mutua, the chief executive officer of the Kenya National Trading Corporation, was interrogated by detectives concerning her alleged involvement in the scandal. Furthermore, bank officials from an unnamed institution were allegedly involved in guaranteeing the funds and were subjected to questioning. Additionally, the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission, under the leadership of director of investigations Paschal Mweu, was noted to have been actively seeking original copies of 26 documents dating back to 2022.

On November 30, 2023, the EACC revealed that the embezzlement of taxpayers’ funds in the edible oil scandal could potentially reach Sh30 shillings, almost double the previously reported Sh16.5 billion. Government officials implicated in the scandal were described as uncooperative and unresponsive to inquiries from the Senate Committee on Trade and Investment. Consequently, the EACC stated its intent to seek information directly from suppliers involved in the scam to gain clarity.

Notably, KMTC awarded Multi Commerce FCZ an Sh8.12 billion tender for vegetable oil supply, and Shahena Company Limited was contracted for jerricans worth Sh1.33 billion. KRA facilitated the importation, while the National Treasury issued a circular specifying the quantities of edible oils to be imported. However, three administrative documents that were said to be under investigation contained varying entries, indicating discrepancies in the reported information.

On December 1, 2023, six months since the expose aired, KTN News highlighted the disappearance of Sh9.3 billion worth of edible oil. This revelation underscored significant discrepancies in the handling of public funds and assets, pointing to potential mismanagement and corruption.

On January 25, 2024, KTN News reported that parastatals had borrowed an additional Sh34.2 billion from commercial banks in the 12 months leading up to October 2023, indicating a heightened cash demand by state-owned enterprises. Notably, during this period, KNTC secured Sh24 billion with backing from KCB Bank to facilitate duty-free imports of food products, contradicting the previously reported figure of Sh16.5 billion.

Amid the ongoing probe, Mutua, the chief executive officer of KNTC, was reported to have completed her three-year contract since January 20, 2021. She was no longer an employee of KNTC, further indicating the gravity of the situation as she failed to seek another term six months before the lapse.

Ongoing investigations by agencies such as the DCI and the EACC suggested that the NTV expose may not have uncovered all aspects of the scandal or provided sufficient evidence to prompt immediate action. Furthermore, the EACC’s estimation that the embezzled amount could have been as high as Sh30 billion indicated that the initial investigation may have only scratched the surface.

Government officials implicated in the scandal were reportedly uncooperative and unresponsive, hindering the investigative process and indicating potential systemic barriers to uncovering the truth. Additionally, the revelation that Sh9.3 billion of edible oil had gone missing underscored significant discrepancies in the handling of public funds and assets, indicating that the initial investigation may have overlooked crucial information regarding the extent of financial mismanagement. While the initial investigation raised awareness of the issue, the follow-up stories highlighted the need for further scrutiny.

As Kenya grapples with entrenched corruption and abuse of power, the role of investigative journalism in driving accountability and transparency cannot be overstated. It is incumbent upon the media and government institutions to prioritise and support investigative reporting as a cornerstone of democracy. The difficulty in holding powerful government officials to account underscores the complexities of exposing corruption at the highest levels of government.

Transparency and public disclosure of evidence are crucial to holding wrongdoers accountable and restoring public trust. The prolonged investigation raises concerns about credibility and integrity, emphasising the importance of swift action to uphold justice. Delays in holding officials accountable perpetuate a culture of impunity, making it essential to act promptly to deter future misconduct. Acknowledgments are extended to journalists, activists, and whistle blowers for their relentless efforts in pursuing truth and accountability.

Gabriel is a media analyst at MCK.

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