Chang'aa brewery

Police and administration officials at an illicit brewery along River Chania in Nyeri town on April 1, 2020.

| Joseph Kanyi | Nation Media Group

Inside the multi-million chang’aa underworld of Murang’a

What you need to know:

  • Illegal distilleries and the attendant criminal networks in Murang’a constitute a national security issue.
  • Other ills attributed to the industry include diseases and unexplained deaths, which saddle families with huge hospital and interment bills.

Their criminal network is so organised they could as well be running a government of their own. Operating along river banks in Murang’a County, the shadowy distillers of chang’aa, an illicit brew commonly consumed in low-end urban settlements and villages, are so discreet and their networks so elaborate it is singularly hard to stop them. 

With tentacles spread as far as Nairobi, Thika and Kirinyaga, the gangs that protect this multi-billion-shilling underworld are ever ready to kill with crude weapons to protect their turf.

When they are not pooling resources to influence replacement of security officers, the gangsters who protect the brewers and the potent brew swim across swollen rivers to escape police dragnets. 

They are to be found along River Chania in Gatanga, Mutoho and Maica Ma Thi in Murang’a South, as well as River Tana in Kiharu where, in a single day, it is estimated they brew on average 15,000 litres of chang’aa worth Sh4.8 million.

Former Nyumba Kumi security initiative chairman Joseph Kaguthi told the Nation they computed the industry’s worth in Murang’a in 2019.

The estimate, arrived at in a partnership with the National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (Nacada) as well as the county security committee, came to slightly less than Sh2 billion. 

“The figures translated to an industry along the four river banks that is worth Sh1.8 billion and which is home to radicalised, illiterate and semi-literate non-skilled youths who will kill at the least prompting to protect their turf,” he said.

Security threat

Mr Kaguthi said the highly intoxicating stuff has a ready market in local shopping centres and villages. The rest is transported and sold in Nairobi, Thika, Kirinyaga and Nyandarua counties.

According to an intelligence report dated February 16, 2021 and marked ‘Chang’aa, the security threat’, the illegal distilleries and the attendant criminal networks in Murang’a constitute a national security issue.

The network “is home to lost dreams among the youth who, once indoctrinated into it, end up wasting their lives away. It degrades social values, leading to crimes such as rape and defilement, breeds social and economic gangs and is a source of criminals for hire for politicians. It affects education and in general pushes the society into a cyclic wave of poverty running across generations,” the report reads in part.

Other ills attributed to the industry include diseases and unexplained deaths, which saddle families with huge hospital and interment bills.

In Gatanga, chang’aa from the banks of River Chania is sold mostly in the lower zone of the constituency, especially in Ithanga, Kenyatta Farm and other random spots.

In Murang’a South, the industry thrives in Kiamitei village, where youths from Gathuri in the neighbourhood of Sabasaba town treat it as their source of livelihood.

In the same constituency, there is Maica Ma Thi village, where most brewers belong to a gang called Jeshi ya Gaica – now under serious onslaught by security agents that has left it considerably weakened.

Distillery gangs

According to Central Region Commissioner Wilfred Nyagwanga, “the war against these distillers is complicated since the terrain and settings are hostile and in some instances require joint operations with officers from Kiambu and Kirinyaga counties”.

Brewers along Rivers Chania and Tana swim into Kiambu and Kirinyaga counties respectively once police officers from Murang’a raid their dens.

This complicates police operations, as the land across the river is normally the security jurisdiction of another police division.

Mr Nyagwanga says the government has upped its game and officers are now using sniffer dogs and drones in joint operations with colleagues from other police divisions and stations.

To survive the onslaught, distillers have created gangs to handle various aspects of their illicit business – distillation, packaging, transportation and general security.

More gangs run the market centres, where they handle seizure and control of estates and villages. They also “protect” retailers.

According to Mr Michael Ndambiri, who brewed chang’aa along River Chania for 10 years before he reformed in 2018, the network is so intricate it shadows the government in terms of organisational structure and mode of operation.

Fight against illicit liquor

“For instance, in Gatanga, we had an elaborate network complete with a hierarchy of command. We had our version of assistant chief, chief, assistant county commissioner and a deputy county commissioner, all of who reported to the equivalent of the government’s county commissioner,” he said.

Mr Ndambiri revealed to the Nation that the work of every commander in the hierarchy was to engage his equivalent in the area government “for purposes of creating a rapport that would lead to a compromise where the profits would be shared in exchange for immunity from arrests”.

He says chiefs would get Sh1,000, assistant chiefs Sh500, assistant county commissioners Sh3,000 and deputy county commissioners Sh10,000 per week under the protection racket.

“These are the government officers tasked with the fight against illicit liquor. But since they cannot arrest the offenders without help from armed officers, police station commanders would be enticed with Sh5,000 per week,” he says.

Mr Ndambiri, however, clarifies that the network works only with police and other officers who are willing to play ball, otherwise the illicit brewers get it rough.

The network, he adds, is made all the more powerful and well-oiled by partnering with businesspersons who trade in items that are directly related to chang’aa brewing.

Bungled operations

“In every chang’aa brewing zone, there are suppliers of molasses, urea fertilizer, boilers, coils, jerry cans and other equipment used in brewing, packaging, storage and transportation of the brew. Whenever anyone in the network got arrested, we would be able to bail out colleagues through this network,” he said.

Former Nacada boss John Mututho said several sample tests on seized area chang’aa revealed presence of cholera-causing bacteria, owing to use of storm and sewer water in distillation.

There were also traces of chemicals related to fertilisers, hard drugs to make the stuff more potent as well as benzodiazepines, which are used to treat mental illness but are widely abused for their intoxicating effect and can induce paralysis and stroke.

So powerful are the distillers that, by use of cash, they are in some instances able to influence recruitment of chiefs, assistant chiefs and also instigate transfer or retention of other security officers in their zones.

In some cases, corrupt police and administration officers differ on how to collect and share the loot, leading to bungled operations.

Some 10 Gatanga sub-county administrators are on the spot after they were accused of occasioning the drowning of two youths whom they claimed to have nabbed in a chang’aa den in Rubiro village.

Asked why they carried out an operation without the help of armed police officers, who are empowered by the law to execute arrests, the chiefs, in statements filed with the area Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI), said they feared the police would leak information on the impeding operation to the brewers. 

Chang’aa network

Mr Ndambiri says once corrupt administrators get their share, police stage another raid and get their own from the brewers.

“I can show you about 20 brewing suspects who were arrested by the police, asked to pay cash bail of between Sh10,000 and Sh100,000 and, instead of being arraigned, the police pocketed the cash and the matter was forgotten,” he said.

In extreme cases, problematic officers are hunted down by the industry gangs. In some of these cases, affected officers revenge, sometimes leaving some brewers dead.

Former Murang’a County Commissioner Mohammed Barre admitted that for six months, the chang’aa network in Maica Ma Thi in Murang’a South is believed to have been pooling resources to influence replacement of the chief of Ichagaki location.

“This vacancy had been occasioned by the forced retirement of Mr Mohammed Ali Mzee owing to some integrity issues…It is in the search for his replacement that there started emerging claims that criminals associated with the chang’aa network were trying to install one of their own,” he said, adding that “eventually we were able to demonstrate to them that they were flogging a dead horse”.

Area Deputy County Commissioner Mawira Mungania said he heard rumours that the networks intended to have someone from the chang’aa gangs made the new chief “with as much as Sh500,000 being cited as their war chest”.

Former Murang’a Deputy County Commissioner George Natembeya – now Rift Valley Regional Commissioner – told the Nation that the chang’aa merchants along River Tana, who are mostly clustered around Gwa Thamaki and have connections with distillers along Maragua River in Kiharu sub-county, are very problematic.

“They are even armed with crude weapons and ready to attack officers. Their business peaks when the water levels on Tana River are murderous in volumes and tides…To arrest them, one requires specialised patrols, complete with professional divers since most of them (brewers) are expert swimmers,” he said.