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