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Don’t drink and die!

By Greg Odogwu

Nigeria is once again under the deadly grip of yet another Grim Reaper’s instrument. This time, it is what movie buffs could tag as Season 2 or Part 2 of the Odo-Irele (Ondo State) mystery deaths. As of yesterday (Wednesday), media reports had it that the death toll of victims who consumed the locally brewed gin, Ogogoroor kai-kai in Rivers State had risen to 71.

To me, the troubling part is the obvious reality that for this number of deaths to have been confirmed, there must have been countless unreported deaths from ogogoro in many other places, and of course at other times before now. I commented as much in a previous article I wrote on the Ondo deaths.

Ogogoro in bottles

Ogogoro in bottles

Nevertheless, the home truth about the whole incident is that Nigeria’s regulatory infrastructure needs a serious upgrade. Being a country with a lot of poor and underprivileged people, our regulatory agencies should focus on making sure the basic aspects of national livelihood are safeguarded. Issues concerning food, water, beverages, drugs and environmental safety should be at the core of all governance thrust. But they are not.

Here we are in a country where a whole family eats a meal of cassava or beans, and never wakes up the next morning. The incident is reported in the media, the government officials shed crocodile tears, the regulatory agencies send out template press statements, and everybody goes home. The government buries the case. The next six months, the same incident recurs in another part of the country. The same parabola ritual is repeated. And nobody is held responsible for not coming up with an original intervention strategy going from the previous emergency.

Nigerians keep dying from the same poison all the time, and the government keeps repeating the same drama! No nation can survive like this.

With the Ondo State incident earlier in the year, and the panic it struck into the hearts of the ordinary citizens, by now the National Agency for Food, Drug Administration and Control and the National Orientation Agency would have invented nationwide publicity strategies for a national intervention to stop Ogogoro consumption, going by the scientific observation that every locally brewed gin is not healthy. There should have been a blanket investigation into production processes. This should not preclude the “certified brands” whether they had been given the so-called “NAFDAC number” or not.

In fact, just as cigarette has a warning on it, home brewed gins should also have boldly pasted on them, “Drink and Die!”

In the Rivers State Ogogoro deaths, Dr Roland Obed Whyte, the state’s Director of Disease Control at the Ministry of Health, was reported as saying that the number of deaths was spreading faster than anticipated because the brewers of the local gin were now introducing ethanol, methanol and formalin (chemical sometimes used for embalmment) in the brewing process which are very dangerous to the body.

The truth is that if the regulators were doing their job, it is not after the deaths that they would have discovered that the gin contained these toxins. Periodic tests of the drinks according to international best practices would have shown them long before now.

It is obvious that food and beverage regulation over here does not go beyond paying for certification or renewal of NAFDAC numbers. Just as we in Nigeria pay for vehicle road worthiness test without government officials actually checking how roadworthy the cars in question are. We all know that you can just go to any traffic authority with your papers and money, and your car will be certified road worthy for another one year. The car may be emitting tons of carbon from its exhaust pipes, but nobody went to check.

This is exactly how I think the “organised” local distillers (ogogoro makers) in Nigeria get – and renew – the so-called NAFDAC numbers. Nobody tests the chemical contents of their brew; nobody supervises their cottage factories; and nobody enforces the environmental integrity of their operation. The industry is left on a cruise control, and the practitioners have over the years developed a “pay and pass” mentality.

However, I must also point out that the government must tread with caution. A blanket ban on ogogoro production may turn out to be counter-productive. It will instantly create a thriving bootleg industry among the grass-roots, where incompetent and corrupt government officials will eventually identify as a new zone for making illicit money via the “enforcement of the ban on local gins”.

On the same hand, it will create unemployment, as the few gainfully employed cottage industries shall be chased out of business. And it will also automatically encourage smuggling.

What about dog meat, which reportedly was also responsible for some deaths in Rivers State? This also shows that we lack a robust environmental health regulatory structure. Tragedy reportedly struck in Rivers State as five people mysteriously died after eating dog meat at a popular inn at Woji, Obio/Akpor Local Government Area of the state. A similar incident occurred last August in Cross River State when a man, his two children and two other people died after eating dog meat in the village of Uchenyim, Wanikade, North Ukelle areas of the state.

In Nigeria, many do not know about Environmental Health Officers because the government is not keen on empowering them to work. They were the wole wole of yester years who monitored every nook and cranny of the society to ensure that citizens were safe from such unfortunate incidents as the death-from-dog-meat we are seeing today.

The government has also neglected the use of publicity to sensitise the populace on vital issues that affect their health and environment. The National Orientation Agency has the duty to direct the perception of Nigerians towards such issues like the dangers of ogogoro consumption just as it did during the Ebola Virus Disease outbreak.

Perhaps, the lack of spirited publicity given to the issue of death from ogogoro has just supported the arguments from certain quarters that the EVD was given a forceful national fight because it was a disease that concerned both the rich and the poor. This school of thought argued that if Ebola happened to be a disease that was restricted to poor neighbourhoods – for instance cholera, polio – the rich would not have bothered to own the fight.

But as for ogogoro, it is a poor man’s drink. The rich Nigerian can never be seen patronising those local brews. In fact, in our society today, it has become a class affair to have all the wine and spirits in one’s bar imported. I have visited a friend once, and he brought out a gold-looking bottle and gleefully announced that because I was his special friend he wanted us to open, pop and share his latest vintage spirit, collected straight from America. When I said I preferred a softer drink, he laughed aloud and shrieked, “Greg, have you ever drunk a $3,000 spirit in your life? This is your golden opportunity for such a treat, right here in a golden (brand name edited) bottle!”

So, tell me, how can this fellow, and other Nigerians like him, ever catch the methanol poisoning bug?

Methanol is formed in very small amounts during fermentation, the process by which alcohol is made from plant products. Commercially made spirits are very safe because manufacturers use technologies specifically designed to ensure methanol is separated from the ethanol. But home brewed systems are not technically advanced, which makes separation difficult. So, home distillation to make spirits like ogogoro is unsafe and a serious health risk. It is the duty of government to protect ordinary Nigerians from these deadly risks. And in carrying out this duty, it has to be creative, proactive and patriotic.

Greg Odogwu is a Seasoned Columnist, activist and Environmentalist with an unequalled passion for renewable energy revolution in Africa.

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