IT did not start yesterday. It has been a long running battle between Ogogoro sellers in Benue State and the state government which has passed a law forbidding the selling of illicit gin alias Ogogoro in any part of Benue State.
Talking of Ogogoro reminds one of the Izons in the Niger Delta, who, apart from being a home to the Black Gold under their ancestral lands, had also been the nationwide brewers of local gin derogatively called ‘Illicit gin’ by the former imperial masters, who did not want a competitive product from the indigenous peoples against their Majesty’s Gordon’s Gin.
In 2009 and 2010, hordes of Ogogoro sellers whose life line had been the selling of Ogogoro in far away Northern states had made brisk businesses and had become very wealthy. Some of the Ogogoro merchants, who had five to six wives stationed in most towns scattered across Benue, Gboko, Oturkpo, Makurdi and such like cities have their consignments of drums and drums of Ogogoro, a business they had long time ago invested in massively.
The long roaring Ogogoro business was torpedoed when the Benue State government passed a law forbidding the consumption of the so-called illicit gin within the confines of Benue State. The law was enacted two years ago by the Benue State House of Assembly in gazette Benue State of Nigeria Gazette No. 30 Vol. 34 23rd July, 2009- Supplement part A. 2009 No. 4. The law prohibits possession, sale and consumption of local illegal gin [ogogoro] and for purposes connected therewith. The date of commencement of this seemingly selective and perhaps, outrageously discriminatory law was July 17, 2009 and was enacted by the House of Assembly of Benue State of Nigeria as follows:
“This law may be cited as the local/illicit gin [ogogoro] Prohibition Law, 2009 and shall come into force on July 17th day of July 2009”. In this law, Governor means the executive governor of Benue State. Local illicit ‘gin’ means intoxicating spirit in liquid form commonly known in the state as ‘Ogogoro’ or whatever name so-called. ‘Offensive weapon’ includes cutlass, gun, knife, matchet or any other object capable inflicting a cut or wound; and state means Benue State of Nigeria.
The core point of the illicit gin or ogogoro prohibition law according to Item 3: is “No persons shall process, distil, brew,manufacture,possess, transport or consume local or illicit gin within the territory of the state”.
The penalty for any breach of the above law in Item 4  states categorically thus : “Any person who processes, distils, brews, manufactures, transports or facilitates the processing, distilling, brewing or manufacturing or transporting or sells or offers for sell or possesses or is deemed to be in possession of local illicit gin commits an offence and shall on conviction be liable to a fine of N50,000 or three years imprisonment or both. Alternatively, five years imprisonment without option of fine for a subsequent offence”.
The other side of the coin is any person who consumes or attempts to consume any quantity of local /illicit gin commits an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine of N20,000 or six months imprisonment or both; or one year imprisonment without an option of fine, for a subsequent offence.
The law has one exception and it states thus: “The possession of local or illicit gin shall not amount to an offence under this law where it is in possession of an authorised government official for scientific or research purposes or is otherwise permitted by law.’
The draconian aspect of the Benue State anti- illicit gin, alias ogogoro, law does not spare the owner of a premises. “An occupier of premises who unlawfully permits or causes the premises to be used for the purpose of storing, concealing, processing or dealing in the local gin, commits an offence and shall on conviction shall be liable to a fine of N10,000 or six months imprisonment or both.
With the past two years many Deltans of the Izon extraction who deal mainly in the Local gin or Ogogoro business were forced to return to Delta state in very large numbers like fleeing refugees from the Ogogoro prohibition law and came knocking if the Delta state government could dialogue with the Benue state to temper justice with mercy.
And like temporary refugees, they became the problem of the Izon sons and daughters in the corridors of government in Asaba, the delta state capital. For three days running they literally begged for transport fares to return to their bases in Benue state. When asked why do they want to return to Benue when their lifelines had been truncated severely the Illicit Law? And why can’t they engage in some other forms of businesses that are legal and stress free?
The women and men who came retorted this way. Some of have lived in Benue for the past fifty years while most o their siblings have intermarried with Benue women with children into the bargain. When I asked they could not turn to selling of beer, brandy and other forms of hot drinks permitted by law, they answered in unison ‘ The Ogogoro business is so lucrative that to compel to veer into other forms of hot drinks would mean a great loss of revenue and their entire livelihood would never be the same again.’
In an earlier interview with this columnist when they came to Asaba two times to solicit for support, the leader of the Izons in the Middle Belt, Chief Pius Embimowei Orounabofa from Tuomo, in Burutu local government, of Delta, said ‘several years back attempts to pass this seemingly obnoxious law in Benue prohibiting the selling of Ogogoro or illcit Gin was contemplated but was opposed under past Governors, like Rev. Adasu, George Akume and even in the days of the legendary late Aper Aku, until the coming in of Chief Gabriel Suswan, the current Governor of Benue State.’ Chief Pius Orounabofa, the leader of the Izon ethnic group had lived in the Middle Belt for the past thirty years and was awarded the chieftaincy title of ‘Ezonebidouowei ONE’ of the Middle Belt, which interpreted means the man who is always in search of good things for the Izon nation.
The current Ogogoro war from reports reaching me had gone to court in Benue state and that the Matter has gone on an appeal in Jos plateau state whether the state or any state government has a right to ban within its territory the selling of local gin otherwise nicknamed Ogogoro.
It is slightly disconcerting to hear in this day and age that the selling of Ogogoro or illicit gin can be banned by a state government thereby depriving the livelihood of millions of Nigerians from a particular section of the country who are guaranteed the freedom of movement to do business that is not inimical to the health of other Nigerians, who over the years since the colonial masters left our shores.? It is to most onlookers, a tragic travesty of how not enact a law that disinherits fellow Nigerians that who over the years brewed and distilled Ogogoro from raphia palm trees.
One would like to recall a scenario when Chief Tai Solarin was alive and regular columnist in the Daily Times of yester years and in one of his columns titled Solarin Ogogoro when the police in the 1970s were harassing Ogogoro sellers and transporters across the length and breadth of this country and dared the Police to arrest him and put him in detention. From that day Ogogoro had a field day in all parts of Nigeria without let or hindrance.
While the legal war persists in the legal chambers in the Plateau, the Izon in the Middle Belt had appealed to Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan on the legal issues in the Ogogoro war in Benue when he was the Vice President and promised to discuss the nitty –gritty of the Ogogoro war in Benue state. Not much has been heard of the Benue law banning brewing and selling of local gin and in some extreme cases, all monies and properties derived from the proceeds of Ogogoro business might be confiscated by the Benue state government.
From the look of things the Ogogoro war might signal an endless battle in some other parts of Nigeria where any House of Assembly can wake up any morning and decide to pass a law that seems to run counter to humanitarian feelings, and patently questioning the right of Nigerians to decent business activities.
The irony of the law is that if Ogogoro can be used for scientific research without any untoward effects why can the selling be seen as a illegal and banned. It is an obnoxious law from the point of the majority of the dealers in this money spinning business.
If other alcoholic beverages like beer, brandy and whisky can have free ride in Benue why not an indigenous brew, if properly brewed and bottled can be likened to Nigeria’s equivalent of Vodka that has become the most prized hot drink in Russia, exported to all parts of the world to earn the Russian government foreign exchange.. My plea to the Benue state House of Assembly is to rethink and review its law and let Gabriel Suswan also give a human Face to this law.
Mr. WILLY BOZIMO, a journalist, wrote from Asaba, Delta State.