Rigathi Gachagua
Caption for the landscape image:

DP’s war on alcohol misplaced

Scroll down to read the article

Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua.

Photo credit: DPCS

I commend Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua for the zest with which he’s gone after alcoholics and the pliers of alcohol – licit and illicit. Let our public servants to go after what ails the society.

However, any phenomena rooted in lifestyle, social behaviour, and economic vectors are very stubborn.

Take cigarette smoking, for example. A careful study of the war against “smokes” in different countries may give Mr Gachagua smart ideas about how to combat the abuse of alcohol. Brute force, tough talk, criminalisation, and prohibition have never worked anywhere in history. The law can be a tool for social change, but only if used intelligently and in conjunction with other social, cultural, and economic interventions. State diktats won’t work.

Let’s start by stipulating a number of irreducible minimums of Kenya’s zeitgeist. This is the bed on which the psychology of Kenyans sits. The first, and most important, psychology of Kenyans is their lack of fear of the state. Kenyans aren’t afraid of the state, the government, or its most senior officials. That seismic shift took place during the long struggle that we call the Second Liberation which culminated in the 2010 Constitution. The Kanu imperial presidency and the state were neutered – castrated – in that epic struggle for freedom.

The scales were turned against the state and in favour of the citizen. No longer can the state simply bark orders and expect citizens to comply like scared little children.

Lately, we have seen scenes in areas that voted for Kenya Kwanza, and UDA in particular, citizens loudly heckling and repudiating governors and other elected officials in the presence of President William Ruto. President Ruto and Mr Gachagua have not taken the heckling well, although it wasn’t directly aimed at them. However, that’s political democracy at work. It’s the sign of a maturing citizenry. A citizenry that can resist the tyranny of the state, or the imposition of harmful policies. Let’s not forget the independence of the Judiciary which at its best can be the cartilage between state repression and the people. My point is that in a democracy you persuade citizens about the wisdom of your policies.

It’s unwise to bulrush citizens, or think that you can bulldoze policies the way the Kanu party state used to do under Daniel arap Moi. That ship sailed a long time ago. Now, let’s talk alcohol. Human beings will drink alcohol anywhere in the world whether governments like it, or not, even in countries with conservative Islamic societies. The larger question is how the state and the people negotiate the cultural and social balance of certain practices.

There’s no doubt that alcohol and drugs can be social vices if used in excess. They can turn whole populations into zombies. We know the pathetic state of the so-called “Indian reservations” in America. Exclusion and marginalisation have destroyed Native peoples.

Native Americans have been oppressed into hopelessness and despair into what some call a slow methodical genocide. As a result, high unemployment rates, lack of opportunities, and investment have left the community in total disarray. Alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence, rape, and all sorts of crime are commonplace. The only way to stop these apocalyptic vices is to rewire the society by investing in the people and empowering them. That’s the only way to restore hope and then limit alcohol and drug abuse. Passing laws to criminalise alcohol, closing bars, and arresting drunkards are sanctions of futility in the face of hopelessness. In Kenya, most alcoholics are folks in various stages of distress, grief, isolation, and social and economic exclusion.

Mr Gachagua has predictably focused his attention on alcoholism in the Mount Kenya region, especially among the Agikuyu. He’s done so for a number of reasons. First, he fancies himself the new “father” of the Agikuyu and larger Mt Kenya region. In his political calculus and self-image as the “ethnic” kingpin of the region, Mr Gachagua sees alcoholism as the cause of depopulation. He thinks the region is losing the “population race” to other groups. Ultimately, he believes alcohol spells the end of the region’s political dominance. Young men are being wasted and unable to sire new progeny. So he’s closing bars. However, closing the establishments will only drive them underground, increase unemployment and raise hopelessness and crime.

Bootlegging alcohol – just as it happened during the Prohibition Era in America from 1920 to 1933 – will become common in Kenya. Criminalising cannabis sativa or weed didn’t reduce its consumption in America. What’s required in Kenya is the creation of a nation of opportunity, especially for our youth. The state and society need to give the youth a sense of economic belonging.

To use Mr Gachagua’s own stilted terminology, Kenya needs to convince the youth – not through empty promises but actual deliverables – that the country belongs to them and that they are true shareholders of so-called Kenya Inc. Otherwise they will drink themselves to extermination.

- Makau Mutua is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Margaret W. Wong Professor at Buffalo Law School, The State University of New York. @makaumutua.