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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Why Booze Crackdown Is Really About Power, not Power Alcohol



John Mututho is at it again. The chairman of the National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse and author of the Alcoholic Drinks Control Act (better known as the Mututho Laws) is pushing for amendments to that would, in his words, see the state “control the primary production process”. This, in his view, would be the long term solution to dealing with the problem of illicit liquor.

The desire to control alcohol production and consumption is not new in Kenya. It has existed from pre-colonial times Most traditional societies closely regulated it, with drinking being the exclusive preserve of male elders. There were dire warnings about the consequences of youthful indulgence which was perceived as a threat to the existing social organisation of power.

However, with colonialism, the regulations took on a distinctly racist and classist character.  Mututho himself acknowledged as much last year in a presentation last year at the 68th World Congress of the International Organisation of Good Templars held in Thailand. In it he traces the problem of alcohol abuse in Kenya to 1902. Serious alcoholism problems were experienced in present day Murang’a County which led to the British appointing the (in)famous Wangu Wa Makeri to assist in eradicating it. While in 1908 colonial settlers successfully resisted passage and later, implementation, of laws meant to domesticate British restrictions on their consumption and trade in booze, they had no trouble enacting the Chang’aa (local spirit) Prohibition Act to control alcohol production and consumption among the natives. These regulations and attitudes were to be the basis of alcohol control efforts in Kenya for over a century.

Colonialism seriously undermined the power of elders both through the appointment of low level bureaucrats as chiefs and the introduction of wage labour, which gave the youth independent means of procuring or producing their own hooch. This very independence however worried the new powers. In the essay Drunks, Brewers and Chiefs: Alcohol Regulation in Colonial Kenya, 1900-1939 Prof Charles Ambler, Professor of History at the University of Texas at El Paso, dates British efforts to control native alcohol consumption to the earliest days of the colonial enterprise. Enforcement of the 1890 Act of Brussels, which banned the export of spirits to East Africa, while “consistently and forcefully keeping such liquor out of the hands of Africans” did little to restrict consumption among white settlers.

following decades saw enactment of laws criminalizing drinking by Kenyans under 30, public drunkenness and restricting access to raw materials, especially refined sugar, used in the manufacture of booze. This was despite the paucity of evidence for an “epidemic of drunkenness” and probably having more to do with colonial insecurities. “Drinking made Africans both unpredictable and dangerous in the process eroding the veneer of obeisance that made control possible … and permitted one or two British officials to rule vast districts with apparent ease.” Significantly, as Ambler goes on to note, periods of rigorous alcohol regulation coincided with heightened political and social unrest.

Another motive for controlling alcohol use among the natives was the colonial economy’s requirement for local labour and the perception that Africans could not hold their liquor. "Greater attention was focused on the role of drinking in discouraging young men from engaging in wage labour." From early on, restrictions on African drinking hours sought to impose an industrial regime on previously agricultural societies. In the article, Alcohol Licensing hours: Time and Temperance in Kenya, Justin Willis writes: “Regulation began with the prohibition of all-night drinking, then moved to the imposition of more detailed daily and calendric rhythms, driven by the perceived need to regulate the leisure time of waged labour.”

At independence, these laws and attitudes were adopted, and in some cases enhance, by the ruling African elite who kept for themselves the privileges formerly reserved for the whites. Jomo Kenyatta, who once traded in Nubian gin –a euphemism for Nubian chang’aa- in Dagoretti, had no qualms about further restricting drinking hours though, as in the colonial era, enforcement was and continues to be, sporadic.  

However, combined with the enduring colonial distinction between the approved settler booze and illegal native liquor continued, the laws have produced not just divergent drinking cultures among the urban workers –with the former consumed mainly by the middle-class in legitimate enterprises after working hours and on weekends and the latter by the poor pretty much throughout the day in illegal dens. Like the colonial settlers whose drinking was not adjudged to interfere with public order and thus required little regulation, the elite can drink to their hearts’ content at any time of the day in private clubs without courting opprobrium.

In the 90s, as donors turned off the taps and the economy went south, the government turned to excise taxes on beer in a bid to plug the hole in its finances. Following the 1992 elections, taxation on bottled beer rose to 153 percent per unit. With per capita incomes shrinking throughout the decade, this had the effect of driving legitimate booze out of reach of ever increasing numbers of people, including in the middle-class.

Into this void stepped a new kind of alcoholic beverage. According to Willis, in a 2003 article titled New Generation Drinking: The Uncertain Boundaries of Criminal Enterprise in Modern Kenya, what came to be known as second generation drinks “disturbed an established boundary between the formal and informal sectors, and between legitimate enterprise and criminal endeavour”.  Although packaged as ‘modern’ drinks, they were classed as ‘traditional’, and attracted excise tax of just 10 percent. In terms of alcohol content, ‘power drinks’ were four to five times cheaper than the fare from the market monopoly, EABL, and successfully competed for the lower end of the market.

Despite periodic bans, the drinks have continued to be sold. As evidenced by the current “crackdown”, government agencies continue to issue confused and conflicting statements about the legality and safety of the drinks. As noted above, many are licensed and produced on an industrial scale in premises whose locations are well known.

Beginning 2004 the Kibaki government begun to reduce duty on non-malted beer, eliminating it all together in 2006. The aim was to offer people on the lower end of the market a clean and affordable alcoholic drink. Prices for EABL’s sorghum beer, Senator keg, did indeed fall and compare favourably with most “illicit” brews and, EABL claimed, capture half their market. But this was no silver bullet. Among the poorer customers, the higher alcohol content of illicit brews still made them more attractive. In the end, the government was forced to legalize chang’aa in the Mututho Laws of 2010. This gave the poor even more choice of legal and safe alcohol.

But, as Muriithi Mutiga noted, in a typically self-defeating move following the 2013 elections, the Uhuru administration restored the excise tax on sorghum beer, more than doubling it price overnight. According to EABL, the price increase cut sales of Senator keg by 80 percent as Its poorer customers trooped back to the shadowy worlds of chang’aa and second generation drinks.

The current hoopla about boozing is merely a continuation of a centuries-old experiment in social and political control couched in the language of a patronizing concern. The echoes of the official terror of drinking as an obstacle to control can also be heard if the oft-repeated description of youthful protesters as drunk or drug-addled. In fact, as Willis further explains in his piece titled Protecting Young People: Alcohol, Advertising and Youth in Kenya which explored the failed 2004 attempt to ban alcohol advertising, much of the angst over alcohol rehashes the arguments of traditional elders afraid of losing their authority over a newly liberated youth at the dawn of colonialism. Far from reflecting the realities of alcohol consumption, control efforts have instead been held hostage to inter-generational struggles over the cultural and traditional foundations that privilege the power of elders and the foreign influences said to undermine it. In other words, as was feared by the colonials, inebriation prevents those in the lower ranks from accepting their proper place in the pecking order.

Today, the de facto criminalization of drinking by the youth and the poor is producing effects that are diametrically opposed to Mututho’s declared aims. Alcohol control policies have mostly not been informed by accurate assessments of the prevailing situation or informed predictions about their effects on actual drinking habits. Ill-advised bans and taxes have driven the approved booze out of reach of the poor while at the same time driving most of the trade in cheap liquor underground and making it much more dangerous. If Mututho is really interested in stopping killer brews, he should stop dispensing the Kool-Aid and instead take a long hard look in the mirror.

This is an abridged version of an article appearing in the August issue of The Platform magazine

Monday, August 03, 2015

Preaching Wine, Drinking Water: Kenya's Drunken Myths


Does Kenya have an alcoholism problem? Going by media reports, one would be forgiven for believing that the country is caught in the throes of drinking crisis fuelled by the availability of cheap, illicit alcohol. Almost daily we are treated to dire warnings of an entire generation being lost to booze. The situation, particularly in the former Central Province is said to be so bad that President Uhuru Kenyatta issued directives to Members of Parliament and the citizenry “to move from door to door closing all outlets selling the illicit drinks.”

The result has been widespread destruction and looting of business premises by rampaging mobs under the guise of implementing the directive. And though the President has attempted to walk back his fierce talk by urging that property is respected, the damage has already been done. And impunity for those involved is the order of the day, with at least one MP -the infamous Moses Kuria, who else?- saying on national television that Mr Kenyatta’s directive had provided “the leeway to go out there and use our own formula,” adding  he had no regrets to make for the razing down of at least two factories in his constituency.

The dubious legality of the President’s actions aside, Kenyans appear to be preaching wine and drinking water. There is little publicly accessible data to support the idea of a widespread crisis of intoxication among the country's young men. According to the WHO’s Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health 2014 which cites data from 2010, nearly 8 in 10 Kenyans aged 15 and above had not had a drink in the previous 12 months. This figure includes the half of all similarly aged males who were lifetime abstainers and another sixth who appear to have given it up. In all, nearly seven in ten males and nine in ten females over 15 were teetotal.

In fact, Kenya would be the East Africa Community’s designated driver, given that between 40% and 45% of Tanzanians, Rwandans, Burundians and Ugandans are boozers.

Among those Kenyans who partook, only 7.4 percent had taken more than 60 grams or more of pure alcohol (roughly the equivalent of three bottles of Tusker) on at least one occasion in the previous 30 days. These figures do not show young Kenyans drinking themselves into an early grave.

Also in 2010, the country’s National Authority for Campaign against Alcohol and Drug Abuse conducted a study of alcohol consumption in the central region. It found that more than two-thirds of those surveyed were lifetime abstainers. The prevalence rate measured by use in the past 30 days, was higher than the national average, but not by much (about 5 percent). However, compared to 2007, the prevalence rate among men aged 15-64 had shot up by 11.5 percent. Clearly, more men had taken to drinking. However, when broken down into the several districts, the data revealed that consumption in some was much higher than in others, indication localized problems, especially in Muranga.

Sure there are localized pockets of crapulence in the country and the folks there require help. However, it does not seem accurate to assert a generalized or nationwide epidemic of alcoholism. Neithwr is it illegal to be an alcoholic. We should not treat such people, and the legitimate enterprises that are licensed to sell booze, as if they were criminals.

Illicit brew presents an entirely different problem. It is important that we define what is illicit. It certainly does not appear that the trade in the much maligned second-generation alcohol is actually illegal. When the Kenya Bureau of Standards suspended 385 brands, it also acknowledged that they were legal, with its Managing Director saying the concern was with counterfeiters.

Undoubtedly, adulterated and bootleg hooch has caused many deaths over the years. But even here, things are not as straightforward as they seem. Chang’aa, a major target of the current crackdown. But across the country, it takes many forms and is not always illegal or dangerous. In a recent article in the Star, John Githongo avers that chang’aa brewed in a western Kenya pot is much safer and of much better quality than its central Kenya counterpart. It is also consumed much more widely consumed with little of the ill-effects. It also bears reminding that though most chang’aa is made illegally, its production and sale can be a legitimate enterprise. The 2010 Alcoholic Drinks Control Act repealed the Chang’aa Prohibition Act, which made it illegal to produce or consume traditional liquors.

The fact that all chang’a, along with the nebulous category of second generation booze, appears to be treated as if it were dangerous and illicit bespeaks both of the confusion at the heart of the current clampdown, which is compounding, not solving, the problem. 

Simply put, the government must recognize that Kenya does not have a drinking problem. It has a policy and regulation problem. It is the policy regime that creates perverse incentives for the adulteration of drinks, that is killing many. This will only be cured by an enlightened, rational, evidence-based approach that prioritizes, not prohibition, but affordable, legal and safe booze for the poor. In short, the best way to deal with Kenya’s alcohol problem is for the government to sober up.
This is an abridged version of an article appearing in the August issue of The Platform magazine

Friday, July 31, 2015

Political Cartoonists Are Our Canaries


In his column for the Daily Nation, Peter Mwaura, the paper’s public editor, has on more than one occasion taken issue with my cartoons. In his latest offering, he accuses me of being unethical, of contravening both the law and the editorial policy of the Nation Media Group, as well as malice for the above cartoon that situates a defiant Moses Kuria in President Uhuru Kenyatta’s pocket shortly after he was caught on camera telling armed youth to attack critics of the National Youth Service. Mr Mwaura believes that including the President’s name in the image is the equivalent of “dragging the name of an innocent friend or acquaintance in an act or charge of crime”.

Mr Mwaura appears to premise his piece on the complaint of one reader. It is important, at the outset, to note that I welcome criticism of my work. It is always humbling when someone takes the time to critique and offer feedback. Not for me the “positivity” crap that seems to be all the rage in the press and on social media, urging us to always wear our rose-coloured glasses. However, the issues Mr Mwaura raises need to be addressed as they go to the very heart of editorial cartooning and, more broadly, to the freedom of expression.

Let’s dispense with the obvious. The cartoon was examined and accepted for publication by my editors at the Daily Nation, and, as far as I know, the Media Council of Kenya, the body charged with enforcing the code of conduct, has not raised any issue with it. So I think I am probably safe on the counts of violating the Media Council of Kenya Act and NMG policy.

But beyond that, it is important to distinguish editorial cartooning from reportage which seeks to render factually information to the reader and is constrained by the requirement of accuracy. The former belongs to the twin genres of media commentary and political satire. Cartoons are about opinion and caricature. In their paper, Censorship and the Political Cartoonist, Dr Haydon Manning and Dr Robert Phiddian, both of Flinders University, write that “cartoons are a part of opinion-formation in liberal democracies that enjoy … a special licence to make exaggerated and comic criticisms of public figures and policies. Cartoonists are employed by newspapers principally to entertain readers and to provoke thought; often they are the part of the paper least disciplined to an adherence to any editorial line.”

Thus Mwaura is partly right when he says editorial cartoons are no laughing matter. In seeking to make their point, cartoonists employ biting satire and abandon fairness and objectivity.  In 1988, the US Supreme Court, noted that “the appeal of the political cartoon or caricature is often based on exploitation of unfortunate physical traits or politically embarrassing events - an exploitation often calculated to injure the feelings of the subject of the portrayal. The art of the cartoonist is often not reasoned or evenhanded, but slashing and one-sided.”

And make no mistake about it. Political cartoons will offend. No one likes to be skewered or to see their favorite politician or deeply held belief caricatured. Yet this is exactly what cartoonists should seek to do. Not just reflect society’s beefs but challenge society itself and its most cherished institutions. A good cartoonist, like a good journalist, does not pander to his audience. “No political cartoonist is worth his salt who misuses his valuable space by drawing inoffensive, pretty pictures about the news,” wrote Scott Long, an American cartoonist, in 1963. “A political cartoon is a weapon of attack to be used against the evils and the follies of society. It is potentially the strongest weapon in modern journalism.”

So when Mwaura demands that a cartoon “[not] convey inaccurate information or offend good taste” he is asking to neuter a medium which does not report the news, but comments on, distorts and lampoons it. Such a prescription would destroy the soul of political cartooning, reducing it to a series of anodyne, tasteless, valueless “pretty pictures about the news”. However, a bigger issue is at stake. And it revolves around the ability of the public to hold the powerful to account.

To do this, unfettered debate and expression on matters touching on them must be encouraged. In a democracy, political statements like “the government has failed” or “Jubilee is corrupt” must be protected. If we were to require everyone saying such to provide proof beyond reasonable doubt, public opinion, one of democracy’s most potent weapons, would be eviscerated. Public figures have inordinate influence over our common affairs and the cost of that is they will be exposed to greater public scrutiny. They thus can expect to relinquish, though not entirely, some of the protections enjoyed by ordinary folks, hopefully compensating for that by growing extra layers of dermis.

One could therefore rephrase the issue thus: Is it wrong or unethical to express the opinion that Uhuru Kenyatta (or his government) is protecting Moses Kuria? When expressed that way, it becomes clear that the challenge is not just to cartoonists, but to all within society. As Manning and Phiddian say, political cartoonists are the "canaries sent down the mine shaft of public debate to discover how fresh the air is there, how safe for freedom of speech."