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Drunks, brewers, and chiefs: Politics of illicit brews and the curse of colonial laws


Illicit brew den in Nairobi's Mathare slum. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

The screams tore through the morning calmness. I sprung from the floor where I sat.

I dashed toward the noise and commotion. I knew it must be one of the regular estate fights. Yes, it was. Muthoni, our neighbour was in combat with baton-wielding policemen.

The officers had attacked her mother, beaten her up, and broken her furniture. Muthoni arrived just when they were dragging her toward their vehicle. She ordered them to release her at once.

They flung the bruised woman to the ground and turned to Muthoni. What followed, is what we used to relish in Kungfu movies. With an elbow strike; a cross punch; a powerful sidekick, three cops were down.

We excitedly retold that moment when the corrupt cops were humbled. Although she was our neighbour, Muthoni remained a mystery. No one knew what she did for a living. She would visit her mother occasionally, then disappear. She was always polite and kind to us children.

My entire childhood, in Nakuru's Kivumbini estate, was marked with blood, tears, and pain visited upon us by policemen and corrupt chiefs. Every week, they would enter our estate, break down doors, rough up adults, and demand bribes.

They always claimed to be fighting illicit brews. Since we had an alarm code, adults would melt away whenever it was sounded. In our playfulness, we were ever alert. As we engaged in football, car racing, and other sports, we strategically surveyed the key entry points into the estate. One boy would suddenly shout "Kindoo" ...and another would respond; "Kondoo" ...a warning sign that 'they were coming'.

By the age of six, I was already a regular guest of the state. During some raids, the policemen would fail to find our parents. Children would be rounded up and taken to Bondeni police station. We would be kept in filthy cells with adult criminals.

The cops would use us as bait to lure our parents. Once the adults realised that they wouldn't kill us, they never again turned up to secure our release. Eventually, tired and frustrated, they would set us free.

Since colonial days, poor Kenyans have suffered in the name of the fight against alcoholism. Violence, discrimination, and primitive methods have been used to fight brews. They have all failed miserably.

Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua is today leading a crusade against illicit brew. He has led meetings attended by a team of leaders from the Mount Kenya region and the provincial administration to discuss ways of fighting the vice.


Police officers destroying Illicit brew at Eldama Ravine in Baringo County. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

I smile when I see the joke that most politicians have refused to see. Since colonial days, the government has been using the same method to fight illicit brews and alcoholism.

It also dawned on me that out of Kenya's five presidents; three; Jomo Kenyatta, Mwai Kibaki, and Uhuru Kenyatta; hailed from Mt Kenya region and they loved alcohol - two of them enjoyed smoking.

Daniel Arap Moi and William Ruto hailed from the Rift Valley. Like Moi, Ruto is an enemy of alcohol and smoke.

Traditional brews have been around for centuries. They have always been used for serious occasions. In the days of yore, they were taken only by elders. The brews were used to appease angry and confused ancestors and gods. They played a key role in dowry negotiations. They became critical in celebrating births, weddings, victory, or a great harvest.

From muratina among the Kikuyu to Mijikenda's Mnazi, and Busaa in Luhyia-Land, local brews were brewed meticulously. It was always a carefully thought-out scientific process.

Before he became Kenya's first President, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, had already found himself in deep trouble for his love of alcohol. He imbibed so much and defied church orders not to marry his first wife Grace Wahu the traditional way, that he was eventually excommunicated from the Church.

Elders too were disappointed in him. Then, he was employed as a City Council of Nairobi meter reader. Jomo would walk around with a cigarette and pen dangling on his earlobes. He not only loved booze, he was a chain smoker.


Chiefs and assistant chiefs raise hands while declaring to fight illicit brews as directed by then Embu County Commissioner Abdullahi Galgalo at Baraka Park in Siakago town. [File, Standard]

Jomo built a hut for Wahu. The hut became a drinking joint. His biographer Jeremy Murray Brown writes in Kenyatta, that: "the hut doubled as a shop, which he called Kinyatta Stores, a rickety place of fun never before seen in Kikuyuland. It was a major attraction for broke Europeans and Asians who frequented it for a shot of Nubian gin, Chang'aa. It had trendy music and women"

Kinyatta Stores was based in Nairobi's Dagoretti area. Jomo sold Nubian gin, (chang'aa), to rich Africans and broke Europeans and Asians. Primitive colonial laws didn't allow native Africans to sell or drink bottled beer. Many therefore went for traditional brews.

Jomo is not the only head of State to have been addicted to alcohol. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who took America out of the Great Depression and World War II loved alcohol. During his tour of duty at the White House, there was always a Happy Hour with a martini in his hand. He would mix stiff cocktails for friends and guests.

President Lyndon B. Johnson loved whiskey, sunshine, and sex. In his stupor, he fought against racial segregation during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Meanwhile, John F. Kennedy also loved drinking and women. Richard Nixon while under the pressure of the Watergate scandal drank himself silly.

Barack Obama enjoyed his cigar and varied choices of drinks from; beer, wine, and martinis to margaritas. He brewed his own beer using honey. He became the first president to host a White House brewing session. Sam Kass, Obama's former senior advisor for nutrition policy played a key role in the brewing session.

Jomo Kenyatta loved muratina. He smuggled bottles of VAT69 into the presidential limousine and would jokingly say that VAT stood for "Vatican" while 69 was the Pope's direct line. Jomo's Ichaweri home had a well-stocked bar that was frequented by friends and leaders such as Finance Minister James Gichuru.

The first Head of Civil Service and Secretary to the Cabinet Dancun Ndegwa says in his memoir, Kenyatta Struggles that: "Jomo Kenyatta didn't mind his ministers and their drunken ways. Gichuru, for instance, was such an addict that during his Budget speeches in Parliament, he would be given "alcohol breaks".

In 1966, during the official opening of the Central Bank of Kenya, Gichuru drank himself silly. He blacked out at a bar in downtown Nairobi, while in possession of the President's speech.

Geoffrey Kareithi, who took over from Ndegwa, says that Jomo struggled with gout, a condition closely associated with beer and nyama choma. On some days, he would be completely immobilised, requiring medication and bed rest.

Charles Amber, Professor of History at the University of Texas at El Paso, traces the pains I endured growing up to the British in their efforts to control native alcohol consumption. He captures this in an essay titled; Drunks, Brewers, and Chiefs: Alcohol Regulation in Colonial Kenya; 1900-1939. The enforcement of the 1890 Act of Brussels, banned the export of spirits to East Africa.

The colonialists used alcoholism as an oppressive weapon against Africans while allowing drinking among white settlers. Amber says that periods of alcohol regulation coincided with heightened political and social unrest. Colonialists believed that Africans couldn't provide the required labour if allowed to drink.

After Kenya gained independence from the British, the African elite embraced the colonial restrictions. The leaders took the bottle but suppressed, punished, and demonised the poor for taking chang'aa. They drank beer and sipped wine in clubs and bars while the poor hid in chang'aa dens.

Moi took charge as Kenya's second president in 1978. He immediately launched a massive war against alcoholism. It pained him that there were more drinking holes than there were schools in most parts of Kenya.

During Jomo's time, municipal authorities in towns such as Nakuru, operated busaa bars where elders would gather at certain hours and enjoy regulated drinking. Moi, however, has been accused by some of "silently allowing alcoholism to thrive in central Kenya while he fiercely fought it in other parts of the country."

A retired administrator says that: "I believe Moi used illicit brews as a silent weapon against the Kikuyu. They drank freely, at times with chiefs and DO's supervising them. Some Kikuyu leaders boasted that the government feared them. However, after 24 years of reckless drinking, the damage to the community is irreversible."

Moi's Head of Presidential press service Lee Njiru says in his book; The President's Pressman that: "As a teetotaler, President Moi could not stand the State House Comptroller, Gitau, an alcoholic. Gitau actually accelerated his removal from the State House. Instead of realising that Moi loathed alcohol or excessive use of it, Gitau continued with his bad habit. He actually increased the rate of his drinking sprees. And he became careless with his tongue."

Njiru says that: "One day, Mzee Moi was being entertained by choirs and traditional dancers, at State House, Nakuru...then the unthinkable happened. Gitau walked across the arena and in front of the presidential chair where Mzee Moi sat with other VIPs and said: "You have banned corruption. That's OK. Where do you expect public officers to get money from to contribute to your Harambee projects" he asked Moi as he staggered across the floor. Moi did not answer him, but security officers escorted him out of the arena. Gitau was lucky. Instead of being sacked, he was redeployed"

Moi then unknowingly appointed Andrew Limo arap Ngeny to replace Gitau. Ngeny's first undertaking was to set up a secret bar on one side of the upper floor of State House, Nairobi. Ngenyi had a man called Ameda, an expert in mixing alcoholic drinks, who Lee Njiru says: "had been inherited by Mzee Jomo Kenyatta from the last colonial governor Sir Patrick Renison. Ameda, always carried a cherished bottle opener with the British Coat of Arms embossed on it."

Bungoma Governor Ken Lusaka who once served as District Commissioner in Eldama Ravine, where Moi was constructing a church, says that alcohol lovers really suffered under Moi. "As DC you never knew when the head of State would come visiting. We were forced to stay sober and always carry a Bible" he says in his forthcoming autobiography.

Moi grew up in a strict Christian family under the African Inland Church (AIC). He never smoked or drank. The only time wine touched his lips was during meetings with global leaders where a toast was required. He would toast wines such as; Black Tower and Spanish Rosily. Moi's personal physician Dr David Silverstein said at Moi's burial that he also: "Loved sacramental wine from Israel. It was referred to as "Dawa ya Mzee". Otherwise, Moi strongly believed that alcoholism brought about poverty.

Uhuru's Time

They say an apple doesn't fall far from the tree. When Jomo was drinking at his Ichaweri bar with his ministers, his favourite son Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta must have been keenly watching. Jomo struggled with ill health, a bad heart, and gout. Uhuru became Kenya's fourth president. He too was a chain smoker and loved alcohol. Many have said that he literally staggard through his presidency.

A powerful orator, like his father, time management was always a challenge for Uhuru. There were times he couldn't meet delegates. A clergyman told me that at one time, Uhuru kept church elders waiting for hours. When he eventually emerged with his red-shot eyes, the elders stood up and politely walked away.


Administrators and Security personnel led by then Nakuru OCPD Samuel Obara and Nakuru Town East AP Commandant Barnabas Kimutai destroying several liters of Kangara at Flamingo Estate in Nakuru on June 7, 2018. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Uhuru Kenyatta drank more than other presidents. Is it any wonder that alcohol and cigarettes were listed as "essential products" alongside food and medical supplies during the Covid19 lockdown and curfew?

Jomo had a bar in his Gatundu home. Uhuru erected one at State House Nairobi. I have talked to numerous leaders; former governors and members of Parliament who were regularly hosted at the State House bar.

Patrick Gathara, in an article published in The Elephant, recalls a meeting in July 2015, between Uhuru Kenyatta and MPs from Central Kenya. The meeting, held at State House Nairobi, discussed the problem of alcoholism in the region. "We must agree that we have a problem that needs immediate action. Agenda number one is pombe (alcohol), number two is pombe and three is pombe," he told the leaders.

Uhuru said that Kenya was in the throes of a drinking crisis fueled by the availability of cheap, illicit alcohol. He ordered a crackdown on illicit brews. The police and overzealous leaders; "moved from door to door closing all outlets selling illicit drinks". Then hell broke loose, and wild mobs went on the rampage, 'implementing the presidential directive'. Many businesses were destroyed. The biggest brewer in Kenya, East African Breweries lost over Sh 250 million in the first week of the madness. The court ruled Uhuru's orders as being unconstitutional.

Uhuru was fighting a crisis he had created. His government raised taxes on Keg, a low-end beer. Its affordability had gotten many off dangerous illicit drinks. After the tax increases, many returned to second-generation alcohol; cheap, low-quality, highly potent spirits produced by unregulated manufacturers.

By November 2015, a report by the Inter-Agency Task Force on Control of Potable Spirits and Combat of illicit brews, which was established to enforce Uhuru's directive said that: "There were 200 registered alcohol makers, only 10 per cent of whom were actually considered fit to do so"

In 2010, Alcoholic Drinks Control Act repealed the Chang'aa Prohibition Act, which made it illegal to produce or consume traditional liquor. The colonialists messed up the issue of alcohol by criminalising drinking among poor blacks.

In 2004, President Mwai Kibaki reduced duty on malted beer. In 2006 his government eliminated it altogether. Kibaki, himself a lover of alcohol, wanted to offer people a clean and affordable alcoholic drink. EABL's sorghum beer, Senator Keg, fell in price. However, the higher alcoholic content of the illicit brews, remains a major attraction to the poor.

In 2010, the government was forced to legalise chang'aa. The poor now had a wide, legal, and safer choice of alcohol to choose from. Then, Uhuru Kenyatta's administration eroded Kibaki's gains by restoring the excise tax on sorghum beer.

President William Ruto's government has intensified the war on illicit brew.

Even as the government vows to intensify the war, it fails to realise that after 60 years, crackdowns have failed to solve the challenges of illicit brews and alcoholism. To avoid modern Muthoni's humiliating corrupt cops, the government must stop its drunken stupor approach to alcoholism.

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