- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 25, 2006

NAIROBI, Kenya

With the rains having failed for yet anoth- er season, many herders are bringing their emac- iated cattle and goats into this bustling capital to graze on the sprawling, manicured lawns of Nairobi’s central park.

Their presence is a sign that the drought that has pushed at least 3.5 million Kenyans and their livestock to the edge of starvation has come to Kenya’s seat of government, which seemed buffered from the suffering by its high-rise office buildings, leafy suburbs and neon-lit restaurants.

“The government knew this was happening. It had been predicted, but the government cares more about politics than it does for feeding its people,” said Ben Ole Koissaba, a leader of the Masai, one of Kenya’s largest cattle-herding tribes.

Nature and politics have conspired to exacerbate drought conditions that have caused severe food shortages for an estimated 12 million people in this parched region of East Africa, which also includes Ethiopia, Somalia and Djibouti, countries prone to drought and famine.

Despite millions of dollars in foreign aid every year, large-scale irrigation projects to buffer against droughts have been hampered by conflict, political instability and corruption. Even though shifting weather patterns and shorter rainy seasons contribute to increasing food insecurity in much of Africa, some analysts blame politics and poor governance for Kenya’s crisis.

The lack of development and irrigation projects in the northern reaches of Kenya has turned droughts into national emergencies, stranding millions of people who depend on food aid to survive drier-than-normal seasons.

By contrast, countries such as Botswana and Namibia face persistent drought but have managed to steer clear of the famines and severe food shortages that plague much of sub-Saharan Africa.

“There is a real lack of planning, so we have to start asking ourselves difficult questions: Should herders abandon their way of life? Should Kenya move into a more industrial economy, like India or China?” said Nancy Mutunga, director of the Early Warning Famine System in Kenya.

She said the current crisis was part of a “cycle of drought and food emergencies that must end if Kenya and East Africa is to move out of poverty.”

Unlike other drought-hit African nations, Kenya has relative political stability, no looming threat of armed conflict, and even a bumper harvest in some areas, where grain stores are filling with nearly 69,000 tons of surplus corn, much of which is being exported to neighboring countries.

International donors are slower to respond, especially with the United Nations and relief agencies stretched thin in the past year by natural disasters in other parts of the world.

“We don’t want Kenya to become another Niger, where, in 2005, donations only increased when people started dying after months of appeals for contributions,” Peter Smerdon of the World Food Program told the Associated Press in Nairobi.

It wasn’t until this month that Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki declared the drought a national emergency, ordering the country’s farmers to sell the government all available supplies of corn, Kenya’s food staple, and appealing for at least $150 million in food supplies from international governments.

The appeal comes after the government ignored more than a year of warnings from aid groups of food shortages amid one of the worst droughts in a decade in Kenya. At the time, Mr. Kibaki and his political allies were busy crisscrossing the nation to win support for a constitutional referendum that would have broadened their political powers.

As herds of cattle, camels and goats started to thin and feeding centers in northern Kenya began filling up with malnourished children, the government shelled out more than $40 million for the referendum, which most Kenyans predicted would fail — as it did.

As the government struggled to recover from the November referendum, it was dealt another blow.

Television images began showing the gruesome effects of the drought: desperate mothers holding their emaciated children, herders walking past rotting carcasses of cows and camels, and crowds of people shouting for help from a seemingly deaf government.

As many as 40 people, including 13 children, died of dehydration and lack of food, brought on by the drought. At least 38 Kenyan and Ethiopian herders have been killed this week in skirmishes over water and grazing land, and at least two Kenyans were killed trying to protect their farms from marauding elephants that abandoned their refuge in search of food and water, said Kenyan wildlife officials.

The scramble to buy available food and divvy it up for those suffering from hunger has attracted both Samaritans and hucksters, and has put the Kenyan government in competition with the most unlikely opponent: aid groups.

Kenyan police have arrested 24 merchants on charges of stealing donated food and selling it. Authorities recovered about 500 bags of beans intended for food relief that were being sold by grocers, many of the bags still marked “Not for sale.” In Garissa, about 185 miles northeast of Nairobi, Kenyan police were busy dismantling a food-aid cartel.

The government’s efforts to buy bags of corn from farmers are being thwarted by U.N. agencies and nongovernmental relief groups, which are offering farmers higher prices and instant cash, which farmers prefer to the credit vouchers offered by Kenya’s perennially cash-strapped government.

Still, farmers in western Kenya have been waiting for weeks to sell surplus corn to the government.

Opposition politicians have accused some officials in Mr. Kibaki’s government — rated among the world’s most corrupt by the watchdog group Transparency International — of profiteering from the crisis by awarding food-supply contracts to the politically connected.

“In my constituency, a lot of food was diverted and sold to finance the campaign ahead of the referendum,” said Billow Kerrow, a Parliament member whose region is one of the worst-hit by drought. “There are people who played politics with food, and that is why people are dying.”

Distributed by the New York Times News Service

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