By Jude Njoku, Jimitota Onoyume, Samuel Oyadongha, Dayo Johnson, Davis Iheamnachor & Imem Idio
It all started two months ago at Ode-Irele, a community in Ondo State where over 20 people allegedly lost their lives after drinking a locally distilled gin popularly called ‘Ogogoro’. The illness leading to the deaths were initially thought to be the Ebola Virus Disease or similar virulent infectious disease.
The dust generated by the Irele deaths had hardly died down when another round of deaths caused by contaminated Ogogoro occurred, this time in Rivers State. The Rivers deaths started at a popular dog meat joint in Woji, a community in the Obio/Akpor Local Government Area of Rivers State where friends of a yet-to-be- unmasked Chikobi celebrated his new chieftancy title.
Although he bears an Igbo name, Chikobi is said to be an indigene of Ogun State. Vanguard Features, VF, learnt that Chikobi brought the illicit gin to the joint operated by one Mr Friday Dickson and his unsuspecting guests who were apparently used to the spot, consumed the locally distilled gin without knowing that there was death in the liquor.
At the last count, no fewer than 71 persons have allegedly died in various parts of Rivers State as a direct result of their consumption of the contaminated gin. In a bid to stem further deaths, the Federal Government through the National Agency for Foods, Drugs Administration and Control, NAFDAC, slammed a ban on further production and sale of the locally distilled gin. But this has not gone down well with both producers and sellers of the favourite drink of most people in the Niger Delta.
Low patronage of joints in Rivers State
Since the confirmation of over 71 deaths in Rivers State following the consumption of a killer Ogogoro, the drink has ceased to be a ‘hot cake’ in most parts of the state. The demand for the local gin nosedived, especially in the places where deaths were recorded. VF visited some affected communities and found out that most shops where the gin is sold, have been closed down as the consumers appear to have taken a summer holiday.
The Community Development Committee, CDC, Chairman in Woji, Dr. Brian Ogbonda explained that since the ugly incident, ogogoro addicts have become more responsible. Chief Brain who is also the Secretary Woji Town Council said: “This is the first time this community is experiencing this kind of ugly situation. But from our investigations, we found out that the deaths were caused by the consumption of a poisonous product.
I can’t establish if it was poison or dangerous chemical. The Deputy Governor, Dr. Ipalibo Harry-Banigo has visited the community to see things for herself. She came to our hall and the families of the victims were invited for the meeting.Also in attendance was the only survivor who is now blind.
“She promised that the state government will do something to help the families of the deceased and the only survivor. She also advised the people to desist from consuming Ogogoro for now. After the incident, many people have stopped drinking, although there are people that Ogogoro has taken over their lives, they cannot stop drinking it, so they are still taking it secretly,” he said.
Healthy lifestyle returns
“Most Ogogoro drinkers in our community are now getting fat because they have stopped drinking the harmful Ogogoro. It drains the blood; that is why anyone who takes a lot of it does not have good health. All the people who have stopped drinking it have begun to come back to life,” he posited. Continuing, Chief Brian said: “Following the incidents, the community constituted an Ogogoro monitoring team, made up of the youth body and the Community Development Committee, CDC.
We tasked them to go round the community and find out those that sell Ogogoro and report them to the police. Immediately this announcement was made, all the sellers went into hiding. Even those who put Ogogoro in roots and sell cannot be seen in the community again. All of them have escaped from the community. We are working with the police although no person has been arrested. But there are those we saw and we told them to vacate or we call the police. Immediately they disappeared.
“Generally, some people are coming back to life, some are beginning to add weight. Some of them that drink and misbehave have all changed. They are now becoming responsible again. We have not seen anybody staggering on our streets again. They have stopped because there is no Ogogoro to drink. I think this occurrence has brought sanity and made some people to responsible again.
“I think that particular Ogogoro was not rampant in the community. It was just brought to only that joint otherwise we would have recorded more deaths because a whole lot of people use Ogogoro either for taking herbal roots or just for luxury,” the CDC chairman said.
Blind survivor happy to be alive
The only survivor among those who drank the gin, Mr. Nelson Okon, from Akwa-Ibom State, said although he is now blind, he is happy to still be alive. Nelson who broke down in tears while speaking to VF said: “God is so faithful for sparing my life. I have a heavy heart to even talk to anybody on what I am facing. It is not easy to be in this condition, but it is well,” he said, as he tried to find the way back to his room.
But his cousin, Miss Precious Asuquo who has been taking care of him since the incident said he (Nelson) is faring well. “He is taking his drugs. The doctor instructed that he should always sleep after taking the drugs. He is taking his medication regularly. When he accepted that he took the gin, we swung into treatment immediately, although he lost his sight totally.
He has already started faking medication before government’s intervention. I asked him to come over and stay with me because of his present condition. He has also submitted his data to the government,” she explained. In Idu-Ekpeye, a community in Ahoada East LGA, six adults allegedly died after consuming contaminated gin, although the Rivers state Ministry of Health put the death toll at four.
The indigenes said they were frightened the more when a respected native doctor (spiritualist) in the area identified as Meeting Olodhi also died after drinking the Ogogoro. Apart from Olodhi, other victims of the contaminated drink were identified as Justice Udeh, Vincent Ogbobula and Ada Philemon. A resident of the community, Mr. Hope Enyiula told VF two more people died after drinking the gin.
The paramount ruler of Idu-Ekpeye community, Chief Grant Owukori who spoke at his palace said: “Olodhi (the native doctor) had hosted a friend from Bayelsa State on May 29. The man volunteered to go to the market to buy a bottle of gin. When the man returned, he came back with a bottle of beer for himself saying that he will not take the gin because of his health.”
Owukori further explained that the guest quickly left immediately he drank the beer on the excuse that he was going to attend a meeting at home. “Later that same Friday, Late Odohi and Udeh began to complain of stomach ache and eye problem. The next day, both of them died. The same Saturday, 30th May Ogbubula died. Monday the next week, Philomena died. Before they died, they all went blind. The community was into confusion because we saw the whole thing as mysterious,” the paramount ruler said.
Kaikai now nocturnal business
“I am worried that inspite of news of death from consumption of Kaikai vendors still sell at night”. These were the lamentation of the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Heath, Rivers state , Mr Somiari Isaac-Harry, as he spoke to the Vanguard on effort by his Ministry, NAFDAC, Ministry of information and security agencies to put a halt to further death from consumption of the locally brewed gin,
He said the death toll still remained at 71, one week after this figure was released. According to him, some of the eleven who survived had visual impairment while a few others were very sick, The Permanent Secretary, Mr Isaac-Harry said the federal government had directed that the survivors should be treated free of charge at the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital.
He further explained that the deaths were traced to methanol, a chemical substance that is very harmful to the body. According to the Permanent Secretary, when methanol dissolves after consumption it destroys several organs in the body. He said the producers had to turn to methanol because there was scarcity of ethanol which they had been using.
“The only thing we noticed is that some of the dealers still sell at night. I wore shorts to Nembe waterside area to see if they still sell. I saw a boy who looked like he drinks the stuff and I asked him if I could get it. He told me that the dealers only sell at night. I observed that they covered all drums used for the business.
“The Kaikai issue for now is under control, since last week Monday till now we have not recorded any incident. The death toll still remains 71. We had 80 cases . Nine survived. Some of the survivors have visual impairment, some are very ill. The Federal Government directed that all those who survived should be treated free of charge at the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital.
Distinction between original and fake ogogoro
Kaikai has the original one that is brewed from Palm wine. Some also use Ethanol. But we heard suppliers say there was shortage of ethanol so they went for methanol. Methanol is dangerous to our health. it forms different compounds that destroy our organs after consumption,” he said.
He said his Ministry was already working with the Ministry of Information, the Police, NAFDAC and security agencies to thoroughly sensitise the people and enforce the ban on the sale and consumption till further notice. Isaac-Harry also advised against importation of ethanol and methanol from India at the moment because of about 100 deaths traced to consumption of alcoholic liquor in Mumbai recently.
“We import a lot of chemicals from India. They should not import any ethanol or methanol from India . I can’t say what killed the people in India but going by media reports that some died from poisonous alcohol, I advise against importation of ethanol and methanol from India for now.
Methanol is for industrial use only. It degrades into Formaldehyde and other components that destroy organs in the body. “, he said. He said his Ministry had intensified sensitisation and enlightenment programs and is liaising with herbal medicine practitioners to also help spread the news.
“The Ministry can’t enforce . So what we do is regular sensitisation. We have been sensitising the people . We have agreed that they should also sensitise at the grassroots level. We have spoken to the traditional rulers council and association of traditional medicine practitioners as part of the sensitisation program. “, he said.
Protests trail ban in Bayelsa State
Expectations that the reported high death toll of persons who took contaminated local gin otherwise known as ‘Kaikai’ in neighbouring Rivers State would triggered panic in Bayelsa State which is about one hour drive from the troubled state, have turned out to be unfounded.
Rather the ban slammed on the product regarded as an integral part of the Ijaw way of life by the Federal Government, and alleged police harassment of the locals who deal in Kaikai, a thriving industry in the state and by extension in Ijaw nation, has provoked anger in the land.
Though the sellers of the product have had to contend with alleged police harassment, the producers and distributors of the local gin in their hundreds last week, took to the street of Yenagoa and barricaded the Ijaw House axis of the Sani Abacha expressway in frustration over the ban slammed on the product by the Federal Government.
Free kaikai for all
Free Kaikai was served residents who joined the protest by the local producers and distributors, ostensibly to send a strong message to the Federal Government and NAFDAC that the product does not kill and that the source of the contaminated gin in troubled Rivers state should be investigated and the masterminds tracked down and made to face the wrath of the law.
Motorists and commuters were stranded on the usually busy road for hours. The quick intervention of the State Commissioner for Culture and Ijaw National Affairs, Dr. Felix Tuodolo however prevented policemen who thronged the scene from swooping on the protesters as he ordered them to vacate the road to allow free passage for the stranded motorists.
The protesters carried placards, some of which read, “Kaikai does not kill, Bayelsa Police stop harassing us”, “We use Ogogoro to train our children in school, local gin doesn’t kill, Gamalin 20 kills”, “Kaikai is used for medicinal purposes,” “Ogogoro is the only legitimate industry in the Niger Delta, banning Ogogoro is like passing death sentence on us.”
The Ogogoro or Kaikai dealers in the state, under the aegis of “Izon Otu keniwemo Oru yo ogbo” through their Publicity Secretary, Jackson Boubara, said they were compelled to stage the peaceful protest on the Sani Abacha expressway to voice out their frustration over the federal government ban on the local gin, the only legitimate thriving industry and means of livelihood of the Ijaw and people of the Niger Delta region.
He specifically decried the high handedness of the police and the arbitrary extortion of ogogoro dealers in the state. Boubara, a 2008 university graduate noted with sadness that the Federal Government’s blanket ban on the production and consumption of the local gin amounts to condemning families involved in the business to death and may push others into criminality.
“The police are capitalising on the ban on Ogogoro to harass and extort money from our members. Every Nigerian knows the product has been in existence even before the Europeans came to our shores. It is on record that it competed favourably with the white man’s gin in terms of quality and acceptability. Hence placing a blanket ban on the product because of the Port Harcourt incident is a disservice to the people of the Niger Delta.
Our members cannot bring the products to town again because of the excesses of the police. We are suffering, we cannot meet our bills. Our children in higher institutions that came home for money cannot return to school because of the ban on production and sale of the product,”he fumed. Boubara appealed to the state government to come to their aid by prevailing on the Federal Government to rescind its decision on the ban of the product.
Another protester, Madam Bolouebi Samuel, a mother of six told Vanguard Features, VF: “I have been in this business for 28years and that is what have used in training my children. My last son is a 200- level medical student and as I speak with you, he is stranded because I cannot raise money for him to return to school due to the ban on the production and consumption of Kaikai by the government.
Policemen are feasting on us by way of harassment and extortion at checkpoints whenever we are transporting the product to Yenagoa. The proper thing for NAFADC to do is to subject our product to laboratory test to ascertain its safety for public consumption instead of the ban which is designed to take away our source of livelihood.”
In his remarks, the State Commissioner for Culture and Ijaw National Affairs, pleaded with the protesters to vacate the expressway promising to take their grievances to the state governor for necessary action. Tuodolo who appreciated the plight of the local gin dealers said it was wrong to place a blanket ban on the product.
Govt should identify source of contaminated ogogoro
He recalled the resistance of the people of the Niger Delta against attempt by the British colonial government to ban the production of Ogogoro due to the stiff competition faced by foreign gin. According to him, several families in the Ijaw nation had relied on the production and sale of the local gin to train their children both at home in the diaspora.
Describing the local gin business as means of livelihood for the people he called on the Federal Government and its agencies to identify the source of the contaminated gin with a view to stopping its distribution instead of visiting the greed of a few on the majority of the innocent and law- abiding producers of the product who over the years, have not been found wanting.
His words, “I know the economic impact of the ban on our people. It is something our parents have been using to train our children over the years. I remember even the White people tried to stop ogogoro because of the competition with the one they drink (imported one) but they did not succeed because our Ogogoro is good.
But to place a blanket ban on ogogoro- related activities I don’t think is fair to our people. From the stories we have heard, there was a source of contamination from somewhere and they should stop that source from producing. I recalled that in 2011, six persons died from eating poisonous beans in Adamawa and beans was not banned completely. The source was identified and stopped.
Also in Plateau in 2008, it happened. There was even a story in 2004 about Indomie, so a blanket ban on ogogoro is not fair to Ijaw people. As a government we will look into your plight. I will take up your complaint to our governor and the authorities so that the good industry of our people is not affected.
Sellers, consumers defy ban
VF investigations revealed that for sellers and consumers of the local gin in the state, it is still business as usual in spite of the ban. Several kiosks and drinking joints where the local gin are sold; continue to bubble, apparently oblivious of the ban. The consumption rate of ogogoro is high in Bayelsa and remains one of the favourite liquor patronised by people of all ages. Besides, the gin is also brewed in the state, which makes the product readily available and cheap.
A popular ogogoro dealer in Azikoro town, a suburb of Yenagoa, Madam Abua claimed ignorance on the ban of the product even as she dutifully went about her daily routine of preparing the different herbs and concoctions for her customers who had started thronging her outlet as early as 6am.
She spoke in pigeon English: “I don’t know whether they ban ogogoro or not, and I no want know, na my business I dey do wey I dey take feed my family. So, if they ban ogogoro, na wetin them want make we take survive?” . On the death of people in Rivers and Ondo states from the consumption of ogogoro, Madam Abua retorted: “Ogogoro no dey kill person, since the time where our forefathers dey drink, how many people die.
The one where they say kill people, I believe say na some people poison the drink.” Pa Eniesekume, a 70 year old man and a regular customer of Madam Abua, who said he has been drinking the local gin since his youthful age, said he could not imagine staying a day without taking ogogoro, adding that in this part of the world, the local gin is a part of their “daily diet”.
The old man who maintained that the illicit drink is the favourite of people of his aged bracket, noted that they prefer it to other alcoholic drinks including beer. “Which time they ban ogogoro? Why them go ban am? Na this thing (ogogoro) dey keep us alive, for me if I no drink am for one day, I fit die o! As a fisherman, we dey take am pursue cold for river. Abeg make government no ban ogogoro because na poor man drink,” he said.
Ban ineffective in Ondo state
Reports from Akure, the Ondo State capital show that the ban placed on the production,sales and consumption of local gin popularly known as ‘ogogoro’ in the state is not effective. It is still business as usual for the sellers and consumers of the product across the state.
Even the product is brewed openly in the riverine area of the state where they are transported to other parts of the state on daily basis in drums. The state government placed the ban on the consumption of the product after over 20 persons reportedly died in Irele area of the state after consuming poisoned ethanol.
The state government said that the toxicology reports about the death of some people in Ode Irele in Irele local government area of the state confirmed that the death was caused by the consumption of Ogogoro -ethanol poison. Health Commissioner Dr Dayo Adeyanju said the state government has intervened by outlawing it’s production, sales and consumption
Result of clinical analysis
“Our clinical analysis reveals the fact that there were no known viruses, while toxicology reports have confirmed our prime suspicion of ethanol poisoning. According to him, heavy concentration of ethanol of about 16.3 percent was found in the system of the affected victims.
The commissioner however said his ministry with other stakeholders and associations are working hand in hand to stop the production, sales and consumption of the locally brew gin in the state saying that particular batch of ethanol had been circulated across the area. VF checks revealed that the state government has failed to give effect to the ban order since it was pronounced.
Residents of the riverine areas whose business is the production of the product do not see any sense in the ban because they argued that the death in Irele has no correlation with the consumption of the product. They further argued that the ban on the sale and consumption of the product cannot stand and that government lacked the political will to effect it because it’s “ like cutting off their economic power”
Some leaders in the Akotogbo, Agadagba, Mahin, Ore, Okitipupa all in the Southern area of the state where the sales and consumption of the product thrive, argued that government ban on the sale and consumption of the product is a” waste of time because it cannot be effected as there is no legislation to back up the order.
According to them, those who consume the product are so used to it that they cannot do without it on daily basis. VF findings showed that government too has not shown any seriousness to give teeth to the order. Even in Akure, hawkers of local gin litters the major streets while the sale of the products goes on unhindered at motor parks across the state.