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Monday, May 12, 2014

Kenya must address root cause of illicit alcohol

“She said she had lost her eyesight and then asked me whether I was truly her husband”. This is Mr. Muriithi’s account of his last moments with his wife Ann. Ann, a mother of two, is one of approximately 100 people who died after drinking a toxic batch of illicit moonshine thought to be laced with methanol, a neurotoxic.

Hundreds of people, including Muriithi, a potato trader in Embu, are still hospitalized and with various complications, and scores have been left blind. Silas who was offered a drink worth Sh25 by a friend is now blind. His wife Julia is praying that his eyesight is restored. She does not want to raise their two children by herself. At the Embu Provincial General Hospital, Susan, 26 walked from her bed in the women’s ward across to the men’s ward to console her husband Gachie, 33 who had lost his eyesight. In Kiambu, Wairimu is grieving the death of her husband and two sons, all of them construction workers.

People read different things from the killer brew tragedy. I see a government that failed to protect its citizens. I feel the pain and personal tragedy of the families and friends who have lost their loved ones. It is always a moment of deep national shame when television cameras follow victims to their hospital beds and expose the shambolic state of public health services. Tragedies such as this are a stark reminder of widening inequality and how unbridled greed by a few undermines the effectiveness of public institutions.

But two things worry me to the core. A majority of those killed, blinded or fighting for their lives are aged below 35, most of them raising families of their own. This speaks volumes about the state of our youth and the future of our country. Then there is the story of Kinyua, who earns Sh300 a day from his shoe care business and says he cannot afford any form of entertainment exceeding Sh80 a day. The social and economic circumstances of people like Kinyua, Muriithi, the potato trader and Wiarimu’s husband and two sons, underscore the plight of millions of Kenyans who are employed in the informal sector, which created over 80 percent of jobs in 2013.

Action has been decisive. Fifty-two public officials, including the head of the National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (NACADA) and the Anti-Counterfeit Agency have been interdicted. Furthermore, the government will charge manufactures and sellers of the illicit moonshine with murder. While this is unprecedented and laudable, it is inadequate. In my view such drastic administrative action detracts from the urgent systemic problems, both socio-economic and institutional, which privilege incompetence, reward corruption and widen inequality. Is there a credible strategy to institutionalize accountability in public service and create quality jobs that pay decent wages in the formal sector?

Executive outrage cannot tackle what looks like the norm in our society. In 2010 fourteen people died in Nairobi’s Kibera slum after drinking alcohol adulterated with methanol. In  2005, about 45 people died from drinking illegal alcohol. In 2000 137 people died in Nairobi after drinking alcohol laced with methanol. A further 500 people were hospitalized across the city, with some in a serious condition, and 20 people went blind. In 1998, Eighty-five people died after drinking liquor laced with methanol.

The World Health Organization estimates that about half of all the alcohol drunk in sub-Saharan Africa is produced illegally, with 85 percent of consumption in Kenya coming from the "unrecorded" market. Moreover, Kenya has more than 2,000 brands of illicit moonshine on the market. This is a staggering variance from the 38 alcoholic beverage manufacturers licensed by KRA in 2012.

Clearly, the production and consumption of hooch is pervasive. Moreover, we will never have sufficient law enforcement capacity to control Kenya’s thriving multimillion illicit moonshine industry, especially given the appetite for corruption in the police, provincial administration and the courts. Moreover, the popularity poisonous liquor has everything to do with low quality informal sector jobs.

Unless affordable and safe alcohol is available, the human catastrophe from the lucrative poisonous moonshine industry can only get worse. The government and alcoholic beverage companies must negotiate tax and other incentives to encourage the production of inexpensive and safe alcohol. More importantly, we must tighten regulation and intensify campaigns to encourage responsible consumption of alcohol. 

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