Govt, Counties brew illicit rules to block bar licenses

I once read somewhere, you can tell a society’s values by what they chose to dedicate their tallest and grandest buildings to, and in Kiambu town, they mean business in every sense of the word.

Kiambu town is squashed together over a little dirt in the middle of a sea of tea and coffee. It’s inhabitants huddled so close together that the town has learned the value of every inch of space.

We got lost in the directions that sent us to a petrol station, the only one I have ever seen that uses the same entry point as an exit. We found ourselves on a spine road the width of a foot path before we were directed back.

Our host told us we could get parking, but it turns out he ushered us to place our car behind his, just inches off the main road.

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Corporates and residents

The storey buildings with facades reaching out for space crowded into each other, with electric wires dangling over our heads like skipping rope darting into the buildings where household clothes hung side by side with display signs. Corporates living next door neighbors to residents.

The man I meet is not used to people and he talks like a man who would rather let his employee speak for him or the law, which he carries in a red Uhuru bag.

“The law says that even if you have applied for a license and the old one has run out you can still trade until you get the license processed. When you have appealed a land dispute does it not stay as things are until the court can cut the case? Why is it that with this business I have appealed and now they do not allow me to operate? They come and arrest us,” the balding man said.

He did not want to be named for fear of repercussions, but said the police collect fines of up to Kes20,000 from owners found operating without a license.

Where are the licenses

Central Kenya counties are on a state sponsored mission to reduce alcoholism in the region that has been reputed to bear the largest brunt of alcoholism and proximity to the country’s capital. Kiambu County with a gross county product of Kes553.3 billion, is the biggest economy outside the capital Nairobi but has been plagued by high rates of alcoholism and unemployment.

But Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua has declared war on the industry in Central Kenya with a provincial forcefulness that has seen the county, legal and police bureaucracy find illegal ways of making the business illegal.

The battle was first couched as war against counterfeit. Ironically, one of the first decisions by the Kenya Kwanza administration was to authorize the reopening of 26 alcohol manufacturers that had been shut for reasons ranging from the use of counterfeit stamps and failing to meet standards, as well as conflicts with the Kenya Revenue Authority over unpaid taxes.

Then the county waited for the annual license renewal to execute mass denial of licenses. According to the bar owners I spoke to, they were first required to host a contingent of officials for inspections, anything from public health, the police, county officials, local administration; they numbered more than ten.

They would then ask for some palm greasing, as much as Kes20,000 for the numbers. Then a few weeks later some would arbitrarily get their licenses denied.

One bar owner confessed he was told his employees did not have health certificates which he believed was impractical for his business that hired cheap help on the go. Another said he was told his bar was in a residential area. He explained that another bar just within the same area had gotten licensed, why, was that not in a residential area? He posed.

Operators say county enforcement officers visited their outlets and used various compliance criteria including location in residential areas, lack of health certificates of attendants and health issues to deny them licenses.

Using broad brush

The bar owners claim the governments simply wanted to close 2000 bars in Kiambu and a thousand in Murang’a.  But as expected the use of loose legal ways to address a complex problem leads to bureaucratic corruption and favouritism.

The bar owners claimed officials had teamed up with their rivals to conduct a vicious territory grab creating a culture of extortionist bureaucracy. It did not take long after I left there that the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission arrested the Head of Liquor Licensing in Githunguri Sub County, Kiambu for allegedly demanding bribes and issuing threats, validating their claims.

According to the report by the Star Newspaper, Kiambu Enforcement Officers, including the suspect, went to the complainant’s business premises and found her employees stocking beverages and undertaking stock-taking for the day. The officials then accused the complainant of opening and operating a bar before the stipulated time. They then confiscated the keg liquor pump.

The alcohol industry in Kenya almost operates like the American prohibition. The government taxes the industry then imposes restrictions which are then used by authorities to extract informal levies, all at the cost of the hapless consumer. As the Kiambu arrests now start dragging consumers along the web of crackdowns, one of the bartenders tells me it is driving their customers away into hideouts, where illicit brew the government is trying to fight is found in plenty.

Flawed charges

“The government is the biggest beneficiary of the alcohol business, it takes the biggest share of the sale, Kes120 on every bottle, the brewer takes Kes60, logistics takes kes20 and we take Kes40 at most. The same government gets vat on the sale, turnover tax on the establishment and then they seize the stock as forfeiture,” Kiambu County Bar Owners Association chairman Richard Kagiri recited almost like he has done countless times before on camera in lobbying against arbitrary arrests of his members.

But his are old tools against a new disregarding force. His appeal for the rule of law to the letter for an administration that talks shop. According to Mr Kagiri the county laws under which the judiciary is admitting charges on his members are flawed since they are yet to be gazetted as required by the constitution.

He said that there are 11 petitions in the High Court awaiting hearings and rulings. He questioned the legality of the Alcoholic Act 2018, saying a decision must be reached before the county implements the law because it is yet to be gazetted.

But in Kiambu where the bars are tucked away from the main street like alcoholic children hidden away from the visitors view, the fact that they are out of sight seems to make residents here ignore the plight of the communally admonished business. Trouble is, the bar owners have a point, it is difficult to criminalize business and not create a lecherous bureaucracy that will slowly but surely find its way into the high streets.

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