ULTIMATUM: Release our consignments or suffer consequences, Ugandan traders send warning to South Sudan over impounded food

Almost one month after 62 trucks carrying maize flour and other grain products from Uganda were impounded inside South Sudan on grounds that the foodstuff was of poor quality, emerging details suggest there could be more to the story.

Almost one month after 62 trucks carrying maize flour and other grain products from Uganda were impounded inside South Sudan on grounds that the foodstuff was of poor quality, emerging details suggest there could be more to the story.

KAMPALA – Ugandan grain dealers under their umbrella body, the Nation Millers Association have stopped food export to South Sudan over the trade crisis at the Nimule border, where more than 70 maize-laden trucks have been stranded for nearly two months after the Ugandan northern neighbor raised quality concerns.

The South Sudan National Bureau of Standards (SSNBS) impounded a number of Ugandan trucks loaded with maize grains, maize flour, and wheat on allegations of failing to pass the test for contamination with aflatoxin.

Mary Gordon Murotat, the SSNBS Executive Chief said her agency would proceed to destroy the impounded food items from Uganda that her country claims tested positive for high aflatoxin at the border town of Nimule.

“Between the month of April and May, we tested 384 trucks, and out of those trucks 321 passed and 63 failed, so 63 are going for destruction,” she said.

Two weeks ago, South Sudan officials at the Nimule border point confiscated at least hundreds of tons of food items deemed unsuitable for human consumption.

They said samples from the shipment were confirmed with high aflatoxin after the grains were subjected to several laboratory tests by the National Bureau of Standards.

“In those trucks that we have mentioned that have Maize, Sorghum, or whatever grains that have been tested and failed have to be destroyed,” she stressed, adding that “We detained the trucks for a very good reason because of the level of aflatoxin, especially B1 which is very dangerous and it causes cancer if it accumulates in your body”.

Gordon added that the truck drivers will be released, and the poisonous grain dumped according to certain procedures and standards to protect the environment.

“The government has decided to dump and destroy them accordingly, but the procedures for the dumping will be followed according to standards,” while saying that “the truck drivers will be released.”

Ugandan traders and officials have since protested the move.

At a press conference in Kampala, the Ugandan traders said they strongly disagree with the decision to destroy up to 2400MT of Maize flour worth more than UGX10 billion saying the sampling exercise, testing, and dissemination of confirmatory results weren’t transparent.

“The number of samples (27) claimed to have been taken isn’t representative enough to generalize results on the entire consignments of over 74 trucks under detention,” traders said in a joint statement read.

“UNBS staff were denied access to take samples by South Sudan authorities, therefore we wonder the rationale for refusing Uganda to take samples for its own analysis, and yet this is a matter of Uganda’s economy,” Richard Sserwadda, the chairperson of National Millers Association said, adding that:  “the very maize which was processed into maize flour for export to South Sudan, it’s the same maize exported as grain for other markets like Kenya DRC, Rwanda not excluding our local market where many S. Sudanese in Uganda form a significant percentage and non has ever imported food from South Sudan but rather feed daily on the very food their authorities back home are claiming to not fit for human.”

Traders said the act of dumping/destroying food will taint Uganda’s image in the regional food market yet Kampala has proved to be a food basket in the region.

“This is, therefore, to inform South Sudan’s Authority that in four days if our detained trucks will not have been unconditionally released, we will lay down our tools as processors/exporters, transporters, and drivers of food items to South Sudan.”

Uganda’s attempts to independently verify the claim have been met with surprising indifference by its northern neighbour.

“We have not received any cooperation from South Sudan authorities and have now referred the matter to our political leaders because the claim of quality appears to be a scapegoat,” Mr David Livingstone Ebiru, who heads the equivalent agency in Uganda, said.

Mr. Ebiru, the chief executive of the Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS), said that a “political solution” may now be the best bet for resolving the matter.

But a ministerial-level political solution has already been tested without much progress. The direct intervention by Uganda’s First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for East Africa Affairs, Ms. Rebecca Kadaga, has not broken the deadlock.

It may yet require the involvement of President Museveni and South Sudan leader, Salva Kiir, who are known to enjoy generally cordial relations.

In the meantime, the unfolding stand-off is raising hard questions about Juba’s commitment to East African Community protocols on the free movement of goods between partner states.

In a phone conversation with this website, Irene Kiiza, a Senior Public Relations Officer, at the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Cooperatives, the government is still engaging authorities in Juba to help reverse the decision.

“We have written to them but we haven’t reached a conclusion.  The Ministry of trade and the Ministry of East African Community Affairs wrote to the government of South Sudan on the matter,” Kiiza said.

She added that proceeding to destroy food would go against the EAC trade protocols. Both Uganda and South Sudan are signatories to the EAC trade protocols.

Ms. Kiiza said most of the vehicles impounded by South Sudan were certified by UNBS.

Previous engagements 

After the unsuccessful meeting, PSFU chief executive officer, Mr Stephen Asiimwe, said the matter appears to be bigger than earlier thought.

“It looks like something not just about the contaminated maize … They claimed that our products are substandard, and that is why we travelled with the UNBS on board,” he said.

It has emerged that South Sudan authorities declined to have samples sent for laboratory analysis, raising more suspicions given that the trucks were impounded by third parties not known to be responsible for clearing goods at the border.

Mr Ronny Mulongo, an official with PSFU, said it had been agreed that “the impounded trucks and their drivers are released to come back to Uganda because the truck drivers entered into the deal as transporters”.

By Monday, June 5, the issue seemed to be deteriorating into a full-blown trade row.

Ms Edith N Mwanja, the Permanent Secretary at Uganda EAC ministry, wrote to Mr Andrea Aguer Ariik Malueth, under-secretary of the equivalent South Sudanese ministry requesting release of the vehicles.

“Allow the truck drivers to offload the maize flour in a particular designated area and South Sudan Bureau of Standards continues with their investigation into the quality of the maize flour. Release both the trucks and drivers to come back to Uganda,” her June 5 letter said, noting that the truckers are stuck in an isolated area 7kms inside South Sudan.

Ms Mwanje also offered the use of the UNBS laboratory facility in Gulu, which was approved by Trade Mark Africa. But nothing appears to have come of this proposal.

The information black-out extends to border officials like Mr. Nyol Majok, who declined to speak to the media.

A day after Mwanje’s letter was dispatched to Juba, Mr. Ebiru sounded very frustrated by Juba’s apparent reluctance to engage over the matter.

“They have so far failed to provide evidence or share any information to that effect,” Mr. Ebiru told reporters.

The UNBS head explained that any concern about aflatoxin contamination must be proven scientifically through “analysis of samples in an accredited laboratory with proven competence and capacity”.

Most of the suppliers affected had their goods certified by UNBS in line with agreed EAC standards.

According to UNBS, suppliers certified under an EAC mutual recognition agreement are not supposed to be subjected to fresh assessment by the importing country.

“It is, therefore, erroneous on South Sudan’s part to impound certified products from a member state of the EAC like Uganda,” Mr Ebiru said.

What is even more baffling is that a UNBS team sent to take samples for independent analysis were denied access to the impounded convoy.

Exporters of grain from Uganda are advised to always obtain their stock from UNBS-certified companies to avoid falling foul of other country restrictions.

Mr. Ebiru said the government should also begin to regulate the quality of all commodities being exported from Uganda to “mitigate the possibility of poor quality products being rejected by export markets, which tarnishes the image of the country”.

UNBS recently established adequate quality assurance infrastructure, including at decentralized testing laboratories in Gulu, Mbale, and Mbarara, he said.

EAC maize export troubles

In March 2021, the Kenyan government banned Uganda’s maize exports. The Agriculture and Food Authority (AFA) in Kenya said the maize contained mycotoxins, particularly aflatoxins, which can cause cancer.

In the same month, Kenya also banned maize imports from Tanzania after discovering the presence of similar contamination.

Regional trade in maize is becoming problematic despite EAC partner states being co-signatories to agreements on free movement of goods.

Recently, Tanzanian authorities stopped more than 200 trucks from ferrying maize into Kenya from Tanzania at the Namanga border.

Meanwhile, maize exports from Uganda to Kenya, which would have filled the huge gap, have dropped due to demand in the more lucrative South Sudan market.

The reported difficulties with Tanzania further expose Kenya, which has only been able to import 2 million out of an expected 10 million bags of maize, which is the country’s main staple food.

Daily Nation reported that new guidelines issued by Tanzania’s Ministry of Agriculture, require foreign firms seeking to import maize from Tanzania to open and register local offices in Dar es Salaam first.

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