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To win war on illicit brews, open an economic front

By XN Iraki | July 7th 2015

Why did it take so long for the Government to take action against illicit brews? Why did the Government only act after one Ferdinand Waititu and media personalities from areas ravaged by such brews started the war on this social menace?

The others quickly took over the war, particularly politicians who never see opportunities and fail to exploit. In 2017, expect a few of them to boast of their illicit-brew-fighting credentials. On the other hand, the Opposition is too quiet.

The war on such brews is emotional and must be won. When I visit some parts of this country, I find young men drunk as early as at 7am. Some take brew for breakfast, to “remove the lock,” I hear. When you stop at such shopping centres, young men (rarely women) will borrow Sh100 from you, ostensibly for food, and they are willing to bargain downwards to Sh50. Give it to them and they will be in to the next den. Previously, the most popular illicit brew was chang’aa, but now they are new ones cleverly called ‘second-generation’ alcoholic drinks.

They are highly addictive and have killed more people than terrorism. The young men spend their day hanging around town, unproductive. Most of them have no ‘teeth.’ They are said to be unproductive biologically, something that has made lots of women angry. It is this biological fail that has made politicians wake up. Their voters are dwindling and that could cause a shift in power. Remember, the presidential winner gets 50 per cent plus one. That one could be a drunkard who failed to vote.

Sadly, there are few homes today without tears over a son or brother rendered useless or killed by these brews (I am no exception). Some have joked that illicit brews have made girls the leading export from central Kenya, because there are no quality men to marry them. That might not be a joke. And if it is, please do not laugh. Those not “exported” become single parents which creates another social problem worse than alcoholism (that is for another day).

How did we get there? How can we get out of this rut? There are three factors at work. One is politics. Before the land clashes of 1992 and thereafter, young men from central Kenya and elsewhere could leave their homes, if they had no jobs, and seek opportunities in other parts of the country. Remember areas like central Kenya experienced rapid fall in infant mortality because of early contact with modern health services, leading to a rapid population growth.

Now with the threat of death from tribal clashes, young men prefer to remain at home. With no economic activities, drinking alcohol becomes a full time job. The other factor is profit. Illicit brews and alcohol are profitable. A bottle of beer with five per cent alcohol content goes for Sh300 a litre - three times more expensive than petrol! The same applies to illicit brews, which are made from all sorts of raw materials including elephant droppings.

Government laxity

The third factor is Government laxity. In traditional societies, you could not drink alcohol until a certain age. With modernity however,  everyone can drink alcohol. Add a bit of corruption and you can pay off Government officials to keep their eyes off your unlicensed brews. I would ask loudly, why these brews were allowed in the first place.

Did the powers that be know about the long-term consequences, like reduced population growth and productivity? Was it deliberate? I am not a conspiracy theorist, but on this I am persuaded. How can governments watch as a whole generation is wasted? How comes very few, if any, women take these brews, yet they live under the same economic circumstances as men?

The only other place I found this sort of alcoholism was in the slums of South Africa and ghettos of Mississippi. Some have argued that rational young men can be a political threat, particularly if they are mobilised, so inebriate them and they will not do much.

Needless to say, the institutions that traditionally kept us on the straight and narrow, such as the church and the family, have lost their influence or are mistrusted. Where do we go from here? Policy makers often frame issues in a way they can get the solution they want.

For example, raiding chang’aa dens is easier and more politically appealing than creating jobs for the young men so that they can drink decent brews. It is easier to make sentences harsher for crimes than address the causes of crime such as joblessness. In the case of illicit brews, the best way to win this war is to open an economic front.

If these young men had decent jobs, they would be drinking decent alcohol or be too busy to drink. With devolution, that would have been priority number one. How come no county has mobilised its youth to build roads, markets and other public projects to distract them from vices like alcoholism?

The national youth project, which in my opinion has had some success, is being vilified. How do we shift from distribution mentality to production mentality? We are all fighting to have a share of the national revenue with MCAs beings the latest recipients.

Why not focus on generation of these revenues? It is while generating these revenues that jobs are created! Can we give young men skills that will help them create jobs or get jobs elsewhere in the world? Are we giving our young men and women transferable skills? A good example is that of an engineer or computer scientist, both of whom can work anywhere in the world.

Ever wondered why Kenyan wazungu and Indians do not drink illicit brews? It is not enough to burn or loot chang’aa dens, create economic opportunities for the young men as well. If they are idle and sober, they may turn to crime or illicit sex...still, they will have access to the Uwezo and other funds. But money is not the biggest obstacle in entrepreneurship, it is the quality of the ideas and innovations.

How many counties have a fund for rewarding innovators? If you want to know how to create jobs, and keep men off illicit brews, think of Wal-Mart, which employs about two million people, about eight times the number of teachers in Kenya. Was Bill Gates not 19 when he created Microsoft?

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