Why State has a mountain to climb in war on killer brews

Killer brew

Some of the victims who lost their sights after consuming illicit brew in Kangai village, Kirinyaga County.

Photo credit: Courtesy

Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua faces a gargantuan task in his war against killer brews in Mt Kenya. The toxic alcohol, which the DP claims has killed 26 people in the past two weeks, is being peddled by powerful figures with the protection of unscrupulous security officers and local administrators.

And they are unwilling to relinquish their vice-like grip on the illegal trade, reportedly hiding behind court orders, threats against political figures of impeachments and campaigns to undermine their popularity, and threats of demotions, sackings or transfers against national government administrators.

In Murang'a, County Commissioner Joshua Nkanatha announced the arrest of a former police officer in Gatanga Sub-county “who has been involved in the counterfeiting and sale of popular alcoholic brands.”

Murang'a South Deputy County Commissioner Gitonga Murungi told the Nation the killer brew cartel has been intimidating his officers “but I have told them we have the support of the whole government machinery, including the President.”

In Kirinyaga, four police officers were arrested on Tuesday last week on allegations of stealing a consignment of methanol that was stored at Kiamaciri Police Station, which they later sold to the owner of an unlicensed bar, leading to the deaths of 23 people.

“We have no sacred cows, and whoever dares to stand in our way will face the law. This is a war sanctioned by State House and we dare not fail,” Central Regional Police Commander Lydia Ligami told Nation.

Maragua MP Mary wa Maua said, “the fight against killer brews is complicated because some law enforcers are part and parcel of the problem.”

It is an assessment the Deputy President wholly agrees with.

“Some of our officers are only good at collecting bribes. That is why these substances keep on cropping up in the market,” he said on Thursday last week as he accompanied President William Ruto on his three-day working tour of Murang'a, Nyeri and Kiambu counties.

Pundits are now warning that the war against illicit brews and the complicity of the security establishment is a challenge that will be difficult to overcome.

“Confronting [the illicit brew cartel] is tricky. Until such a time when the society will own the war through serious activism, fighting it from a political angle will be hard and costly," said former National Agency for the Campaign Against Drug Abuse (Nacada) chairman Joseph Kaguthi. Past attempts by politicians to fight the menace, he noted, did not yield positive results, citing former president Uhuru Kenyatta in 2015, former Kiambu Governor Ferdinand Waititu in 2018 and former Naivasha MP John Mututho in 2012.

The political aspect of the challenge is one governors are all too familiar with, as one of them admitted to Nation: “I have an assembly with over 10 bar owners. Some of my political rivals own bars. About 50 of my friends have invested in the sector. How do I fight such a group?”

“National laws are adequate to fight the sale of illicit brew, but the national government keeps coming to us for help, pressuring us to pass by-laws that are inferior to national statutes and setting us up against the people,” the county boss, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, added. But Mr Gachagua isn’t backing down, vowing to take down the cartels whatever the political cost.

“If ensuring that we are rid of these merchants of death, who masquerade as investors, will make me lose popularity, so be it. I cannot be a bystander when killer brews continue to wreak havoc among our productive population,” the DP said.

While Mr Gachagua has singled out the courts for criticism for “issuing orders permitting the continued sale of harmful brews”,  judicial officers have an axe to grind with politicians.

In a June 15, 2023 court users committee meeting in Murang'a town, judicial officers complained that politicians tarnish their names without proof of their complicity in the trade.

“Court cases are founded on what police officers put on charge sheets. We in the courts do not charge suspects. We only take their plea, consider prosecution and defence arguments and on, the strength of the evidence, make rulings,” said a magistrate.

The magistrate revealed that some charges are deliberately made weak, witnesses haphazardly assembled and often hostile, and exhibits tampered with to ensure the cases collapse.

Nacada boss Anthony Omerikwa said the war could easily be won if all stakeholders agreed to work together.

“We should roll out concerted and coordinated efforts to fight the vice. There is enough political goodwill to win this war now that both the President and his deputy have publicly declared their commitment,” he said.

Kikuyu Council of Elders Chairman Wachira Kiago said rising rates of murder, suicide, depression and family breakups are linked to alcoholism. Thika West acting Deputy County Commissioner Philomena Nzioki blamed the trend on the proliferation of unlicensed bars.

Central Regional Commissioner Fred Shisia pledged to implement the government directive to the letter.

“We are optimistic that the communal shame of children murdering their parents to inherit family wealth and waste it on buying drugs and alcohol will stop,” Murang’a Senator Joe Nyutu told the Nation.

He said alcoholism and drug abuse have bred a unique scenario in Mt Kenya region “where we are even witnessing unheard of crimes of children murdering the elderly on suspicion of being witches while the agenda is to seize family property to be sold to fund their addictions”.

The senator accused some security officers of abetting the vice by offering the illicit brew cartels protection.

“We must rescue the Mt Kenya region from those who package death in bottles and sachets and who have turned our men into a laughing stock,” Kenya Cultural Centre Board Chairman Kung’u Muigai said. He rubbished claims that the killer brews were being sold by outsiders “to reduce our voting numbers”.

“It is our own people who are brewers, bar owners, transporters and employees of unlicensed bars,” Mr Kung’u said. “Alcoholism is causing the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru to rapidly lose their population to a point where we are projected to be relegated to third position nationally in voter numbers within the next 15 years,” he added.