Kwame Owino's Institute of Economic Affairs, IEA, argues that alcohol regulation is a health issue and not a law-and-order problem. Setting the provincial administration on the illegal brewers, he argues, misses the point, going for symbolism instead of effectiveness. He is partly right. Alcohol regulation is not just a law an order matter; it is a standards one, a public health one, a cultural one and, in Kenya, a deeply political one.
Eastern Africa's written history is patchy but we know that alcoholic beverages are a seminal part of the cultures of the peoples of Eastern Africa. With the arrival of the settlers and the colonial government, British sensibilities surrounding alcohol were imported into East Africa - high class and low class varieties; distillation; "modern" brewing; licensed production; offences related to alcohol production, distribution and consumption. These British sensibilities - this British culture - survived Independence because, and I agree with the IEA on this, of a spectacular lack of imagination among Kenya's policy-making classes.
Ironically, it is to a modern imperial power that we are to find our best example of what to do when it comes to our alcohol problem. In 1920 the United States of America ratified the Eighteenth Amendment which imposed a nationwide ban on the sale, production, importation, and transportation of alcoholic beverages. In 1933 the Twenty-third Amendment revoked the ban. In the intervening fourteen years, the United States had cause to learn many lessons on the pernicious effects of prohibition, the most important being that had it not been for prohibition, the rise of organised criminal syndicates may have been slower and less bloody and the corruption of the offices of state, including the Presidency may have been a bit tempered.
In Kenya there is an unofficial prohibition on the production, distribution, sale and consumption of traditional alcoholic beverages, whether they are distilled, like chang'aa, or brewed, like busaa, despite the repeal of the laws that made their production, distribution, sale and consumption illegal. Together with the traditional traditional alcoholic beverages have been lumped the so-called second-generation alcoholic beverages which are, apparently, alcoholic beverages produced on license after Kenya Breweries Limited's near-monopoly was broken some time in the early 2000s and Kuguru Foods nearly went belly up trying to take on the behemoth.
Our version of prohibition is political in nature; it has nothing to do with law and order or the public health. It is a cudgel to keep one political agent in the ascendancy and not another. It is why the President saw nothing strange in placing responsibility for the anti-illegal drinks drive on the rather dubious shoulders of elected representatives. He miscalculated, though; many of the men and women he gave this responsibility to have benefitted greatly from alcohol, either as distributors of the behemoth or as underground distillers and brewers, one step ahead of the forces of law and order. He set the fox to guard the hen-house.
It is only on the maturity of the political institutions that a relatively simple problem like the production, distribution and sale of alcohol will be regulated with the objectives of protecting consumers, increasing revenues and creating employment. The President is not confident that Kenya's political institutions are mature or that they are on their way to maturity. He is therefore relying on institutions that are tried and tested: a statutory and regulatory framework from the colonial era and a provincial administration built to enforce them.