July 16, 2024

Reps’ Drunkard Democracy

Reps’ Drunkard Democracy
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I had thought that our lawmakers in Abuja cared only for big cars, big bucks and big boobs. I never knew they also have deep love for alcohol – dry gin – and would do anything to protect it from the ravages of restrictive laws. And, because the standards of public and private morality have fallen terribly low, I feel we had better talk now before our democracy becomes synonymous with kaikai, with shekpe, ogogoro and ogwofy.

“No man’s life, liberty or property is safe while the legislature is in session…” is one very popular quote found in an 1866 New York court decision. The judge was Gideon Tucker. Given what we see daily here, I wonder how many Nigerians will say today that the judge lied.

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There is this agency called NAFDAC which first barged in on our consciousness when adorable Dora Akunyili was its boss. That woman fought many wars – the one we knew she lost publicly was her long battle with cancer. May God continue to rest her beautiful soul.

The agency she nurtured is never short of wars. It was created to be constantly in the trenches. Some destinies are that wired. And, it has forever been that for NAFDAC. Because of ogogoro, the agency, this moment, faces a low-intensity battle from one of the chambers that make laws for our country.

Whether gin or jenever, spirit drink was at a time here famously called ‘fire-water.’ And, as that name predicts, uncontrolled liquor is fire, it burns the body and chars the soul.

So, on 21 May 2010, at the 63rd World Health Assembly in Geneva, the 193 member-states of the World Health Organisation adopted what they called “global strategy to reduce the harmful use of alcohol.” Nigeria was there, it participated actively in the deliberations, and it signed, pledging its commitment to that policy. The subsequent alcohol-in-sachets ban by our government was an activation of Nigeria’s fidelity to that commitment.

On February 1, 2024, NAFDAC announced that it had started the enforcement of the ban of alcohol sold in sachet or in less than 200ml PET bottles. If that agency and, particularly, its Director General, Prof. Mojisola Adeyeye, thought the announcement was the end of those small stuffs, they were mistaken. The agency, mid last week, told the press that it was being ‘advised’ by the House of Representatives to lift the ban. It said several meetings had been held on this between them and the lawmakers.

Something is not clear to me here. The Green Chamber can soak itself in green bottles, our health authorities have not said it shouldn’t. The people who have crossed the river of fortune to the opulent side called the House of Representatives do not drink what NAFDAC banned. Indeed, what they drink no one dare ban. So, of all the existential problems besetting Nigerians, the priority of the National Assembly is Sapele water retailed in abject packs. Are the lawmakers in sympathy-bed with the poor drinkers or with the affluent merchants?

I am shocked that our Reps do not care that official statistics say abuse of alcohol (especially gin in small packs) accounts for 50 percent of road accidents and for 29 percent of deaths in Nigeria. I am also curious to know why a House presided over by a northern Muslim speaker will be making a strong case for easy access to strong drinks. Where the speaker hails from, alcohol sale and consumption have been illegal there since Uthman Dan Fodio’s Jihad of 1804. But NAFDAC’s press statement said the last pro-alcohol-in-sachet meeting of Thursday, June 13, 2024 was at the instance of the speaker and it held in his office with his Chief of Staff standing in for him!

Sometimes you watch drunk bus drivers and tipsy okada riders doing suicidal, homicidal spins. You see them poor and broken and you wonder how they fund their regular inebriation. The answer is in the cheap cost of alcohol in sachets and in small bottles. It is the affordability and the accessibility and the havoc it wreaks that the ban targets.

Because pure water costs more than dry gin in sachet, you can’t use cost to convince the guzzlers to stitch their throats against the burns of the fire they drink. We’ve always had alcohol abuse challenges in this country. There was a time under the British when gin functioned as convertible currency. In one instance, some unscrupulous government officials were accused of accepting gin as payment for fines. Today, there is an epidemic of drunkenness, even among children.

“Children who drink alcohol are more likely to use drugs, get bad grades, suffer injury or death, engage in risky sexual activity, make bad decisions, and have health problems,” NAFDAC’s Director-General, Professor Adeyeye, said in February this year while explaining that the ban was focused on controlling unrestricted underage access to alcoholic drinks. She said “It is a response to the growing concerns about the health risks associated with excessive alcohol consumption, particularly among the youths who are the primary consumers of these sachet and small bottle alcoholic beverages.”

I thought lawmakers are leaders and leaders exist to protect the led from all forms of harm – including from affordable spirits.

On September 1, 2005, BBC’s Africa Live opened a discussion on whether home-brewed alcohol had a place in modern Africa. It mentioned Ogogoro in Nigeria, Umkomboti in South Africa, Nsafufuo or Muratina in Ghana and Chang’aa in Kenya. The BBC got varied and very interesting responses from across the continent. The one from Nigeria particularly interests me. One Owolabi Kayode from Nigeria told the BBC that: “In Nigeria among the lower classes, local brew has become an integral part of their every day diet. As early as 0700 in the morning you find people at the bus park taking their usual ‘shot’ as they call it. The most painful part of it all is that the bus drivers also ‘mark register’ with the sellers. Hence, I am of the opinion that it does more harm than good to the society, as these drinks cause more health problem to these folks.” You and I know that what that fellow told the BBC 19 years ago was very true then and it is truer now. If there is any variation between what was in 2005 and what is now, it is just that spirit in sachet has largely displaced local brews.

History is a beast. It repeats itself in very ghastly details. Long before independence; in fact, long before amalgamation, the white man was torn, as our lawmakers are today, between stopping our people from destroying themselves with cheap liquor and protecting the business interest of white importers of spirit drinks.

From the last decades of the 19th century to the first two decades of the 20th, a robust campaign against the liquor trade was met with equal response by the importers. Pro-liquor government officials argue that “drink produces an amount of revenue which cannot be surrendered without a complete dislocation of finances.” The abolitionists sneered at what they called the “moral bankruptcy” of the officials. The British House of Commons took a hard stance against this drink pejoratively called ‘fire-water’ on 24 April, 1888. The 1890 Brussels Conference of the European Powers in Africa had time to also consider the matter. It banned the spread of liquor sale to “where it had not yet been established” – northern Nigeria. Lord Lugard, in a confidential memo dated 8 April, 1916 described the liquor trade as “a sterile import which does not improve the standard of life or add to the well-being and comfort of the people.” The colonial government subsequently tried all tricks to tackle the gin trade. It imposed higher import duties, it didn’t work. It ordered a reduction in the quality and ‘strength’ of the drinks; the drinkers drank heavily still. Then in January 1919, the government “prohibited the importation of spirits into Africa. This was effected in Nigeria by the Customs Tariff Ordinance (1916) of 25 March, 1919”.

I suggest that our lawmakers read Ayodeji Olukoju’s ‘Rotgut and Revenue: Fiscal Aspects of the Liquor Trade in Southern Nigeria, 1890-1919’. I drew the above from there, and from Richard M. Bird’s ‘Taxing Alcohol in Nigeria’. I also drew strength from other related sources. During his time, the white man chose the side of humanity – he took measures that disincentivized buying alcohol cheap and drinking alcohol heavy. Our current lawmakers can help protect the law by not getting our democracy drunk. They will do this by pocketing their lift-the-ban advice. It is a poisonous brew.

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