Death In Bottle: The Ogogoro Saga In Rivers
In spite of fatalities, source of poisonous liquor unknown
Ordinarily sipping locally brewed bootleg whiskey popularly known as Ogogoro in the Niger Delta has for ages been seemingly a harmless indulgence, until it turned into a nightmare that claimed the lives of scores of persons in Bonny island, Bodo, Woji and other parts of Rivers State.
Ogogoro also known as kai-kai, which is commonly made across the Niger Delta and consumed by villagers and even city dwellers, costs as little as N20 per shot (about 30ml), which is why it proves to be very affordable for the poor including laborers, commercial motorcycle riders, fishermen and farmers, since a lot of them just can’t afford to buy licensed brands of liqour.
But on June 1, two strange spates of death-by-drinking Ogogoro of unknown provenance made news in Bonny and Bodo respectively, when some person died from drinking lethal Ogogoro not distilled from palm wine but from substance suspected to be industrial methanol.
Perhaps the first known casualty in the toxic Ogogoro tragedy that rocked the island according to the President, Bonny Youth Federation, Simeon Wilcox, occurred on June 1, at Coconut estate, where five persons died after consuming unspecified quantity of the drink at a popular joint. While people were still grappling with how to unravel the mysterious cause of the tragedy, news filtered in that another three persons had died under similar circumstance at the home of one Mr. Emma, who sells Ogogoro just behind the Bonny General Hospital mortuary.
“In Bonny people take local gin to keep warm just as the Russians do with vodka. It is habitual. People in the Niger Delta drink kai-kai a lot, especially now that it is raining. The reason why the figure is high is because of the raining season, otherwise the figure could have been minimal. We lost a lot of youths due to its consumption and this is because of joblessness. We need the government to be aware that Bonny is still a part of Nigeria. NLNG alone contributes six per cent to Nigeria’s GDP. The Shell terminal exports 30 per cent of Nigeria’s oil export. Yet there is no federal presence,” said Wilcox.
An acquaintance of the late Emma, who pledged anonymity, told The Guardian that he and two other victims took the lethal drink on the eve of their tragic death. He explained that shortly after the other two had left, Emma, who resorted to selling Ogogoro after he was sacked as a security guard at the hospital, complained of severe stomach cramps and blurred vision, when he woke up the next morning. But because no one considered his complain to be life threatening and requiring urgent medical treatment, he was not rushed to the hospital until it was late.
A doctor at the Bonny General Hospital, Onum Ndukwe, who was on call, when Emma was rushed in, said he was already dead on arrival. The doctor said those who brought him to the hospital said he complained of having headache, waist pain and not seeing properly, ironically, they had assumed it was the aftermath of the drink of the previous day. But it was when he slumped that he was then rushed to the hospital after having gone through convulsing, coma and foaming at the mouth, which was the terminal point.
He explained that while the hospital was trying to ascertain the circumstances surrounding his abrupt death, it was discovered that the people he had sat down to indulge in drinking the previous night had also died under similar circumstance, and this aroused the curiosity of health workers.
According to him, having heard of other mysterious death around the community, the hospital pieced Emma’s and related cases together and concluded that it must have been caused by local gin.
“Between the 1st and 4th June, I actually attended to six of the cases brought to the hospital. Unfortunately due to late presentation, we were unable to save any of them. All of them were brought at the terminal stages. At that point, the methanol had already metabolised to its end product. The methanol in itself is not a toxic compound, but when it is ingested it is metabolised into a toxic compound known as formic acid, this is what goes into the brain and causes metabolic acidosis and these are the things that actually kill,” he said.
The doctor said the death toll warrants an investigation to find out if it was not an intentional act to kill people or to sabotage the ogogoro economy. He suggested the lethal drink should be traced to the source, which should not be difficult to track, to prevent the reccurrence of the deadly incident.
Three persons were killed in Finimi and four others including husband and wife, died in Peterside. And in Dema Abbey village, it was said that two people lost their lives, while in Epelema, a husband and his wife with two others were also consumed by the deadly ogogoro. In all, about 35 persons died in Bonny alone.
In Bonny main town, the casualty figure is much higher. On the fateful Sunday, at least eight deaths were reported. A day after, three other persons reportedly died also. And by penultimate Saturday and Sunday, three more persons were consumed.
The Secretary General of Bonny Youth Federation, Clarkson Banigo, who has been actively involved in enforcing the ban on sales and consumption of ogogoro in the island, said in Orosikiri area of the town, three deaths were recorded. He added a security guard, Mr. Ben Banigo, was found dead in his guard house at one of the model primary schools in the community.
According to him, three persons who were identified to be natives of Nkoro in Opobo/Nkoro council, who died after the drink was also recorded and the victims were taken to their hometown for burial.
“On that same day, three fishermen went for fishing in the early hours of the morning. One of them had this toxic alcohol. He drank a little and offered his colleagues to drink but they declined due to the warning that poisonous drink was in circulation. He sniggered at them and replied that he had been taking local gin for ages. At that point, he consumed the remaining content in the bottle. And after a while, he exhibited the symptoms like others, suddenly collapsed, fell into the sea and died,” said Banigo.
FOLLOWING revelation by medical experts and toxicologists that the symptoms displayed by the victims is indicative that they were served methyl alcohol (methanol) mixed with ethyl alcohol (ethanol), an act which some distillers indulge in primarily to reduce the price of production and increase the potency of their ogogoro, the Bonny Local Government chairman, Omuso Abbey and the Amanyanbo of Grand Bonny kingdom, King Edward Asimini William Dappa Pepple III, have set up a taskforce to locate, confiscate and destroy drums and bottles of the local gin (kai-kai) to forestall further deaths.
The King had dispatched town criers to various Bonny communities to warn people against drinking ogogoro. The dealers were also warned to stop selling to anybody pending the post-mortem results from the state’s ministry of health. A commercial motorbike driver, Itoro Etim, said it will be difficult to control consumption due to the rainy season and the attendant cold weather.
Bonny is a breezy island in the ocean with a lot of fishermen, who have atoned themselves to believing that ogogoro keeps them warm.
The secretary general of the Bonny youth federation acknowledged that consumption of alcohol is common in Bonny, particularly among the fishing community, but noted that the idea that ogogoro can cause blindness has created panic in the island and indeed the entire Rivers State.
He said in strict compliance with the King’s directive, the sales and consumption of the product will not be allowed in Bonny for the foreseeable future.
He explained that medical doctors have briefed the leadership of the community that because methanol is cheap, and might have same tipsy effects on the body as ethanol, some unscrupulous ogogoro distillers have decided to be adding methanol to their product to make up the potency. And when they do so, the results can range from slightly unhealthy to absolutely deadly.
According to him, the Bonny Youth Federation, Department of State Security and the Police have started confiscating ogogoro from retailers and wholesalers to preserve lives.
“We arrested one lady, a schoolteacher as a result of one of the death on Saturday. She sold the product to one Mr. Mina Green. People saw when the man came out of that place and I was called. I went there, and asked the woman if she was still selling alcohol, and that she should hand it over to us, but she resisted. We had to put call to the security agents, who arrested her. That day the woman actually sold to the man and she lied about it. At the end of the day, we saw ogogoro in her house. She was arrested because the man died. She is in police custody” he said.
He added: “But one case we are investigating involves an Ogoni woman. We had information that her shop, opposite the Bonny Local Government secretariat, was the main depot in town and when we got there, we found seven large drums and other jerry cans of the product. We gathered that she buys chemical and mix them herself. When she got information that the majority of deaths occurred in the areas she supplied ogogoro, she fled Bonny before we could meet her to ask questions. So, we seized all the products, took samples and sealed up the place.”
Banigo observed that there has been relative compliance with the ban on the sales and consumption of the drink in the island. He attributed this to the arrest of the schoolteacher. In spite of the measures put in place to check the ogogoro trade, the most worrisome thing has remained the inability of the authorities in the State to trace the source of the lethal ogogoro.
Meanwhile, ogogoro addicts now roam around Bonny to get a nip of the stuff, but to no avail.
In same vein, several families in Bodo, in Gokana Local Government Area have been left heartbroken and still in shock after their relations unknowingly took fatal doses of the drink leading to the death of some by asphyxiation.
MR. PETER BEAKO, who lost his stepbrother, Kpoobari Monday aged 39 years, told The Guardian that his deceased brother left home at about 1pm penultimate Wednesday, in company of some friends, to visit one of their friends, whose wife had a baby.
According to him, later in the evening, he called Kpoobari to know his whereabouts and he said he was inside the town.
But by the next morning, Kpoobari, who indulge in ogogoro consumption, called him to complain of his deteriorating health, particularly his loss of vision, the first sign of methanol poisoning caused by formic acid that actually damages the optic nerve. He was said to have also complained about weakening of his body. He did not survive.
In emotional laden voice, Koopbari’s wife, Mrs. Kesiop, said she suspected her husband took Ogogoro, because he was drunk, when he returned home on the eve of his demise. She explained that even before he became comatose, he was unable to reveal to anyone, where exactly he took the drink.
Community member, Mr. Vinyone Franklin said the deadly brew that claimed some lives in Bodo was sold by Mrs. Monica Aalo, who also lost her life, while her husband lost his vision.
He explained that customarily, when a dealer or retailer wants to buy ogogoro, he or she would take a sip to ascertain the potency of the product. It was in keeping with this tradition that late Mrs. Aalo tasted the toxic drink on May 31, that later claimed her life.
The son of the deceased woman, Mr. Barisi Aalo, explained that he was at home that morning, when his mother started lamenting that she had lost her vision and he had to quickly rush her to the hospital. And in the process of the doctor trying to ascertain the cause of her illness, she died.
His father, Mr. Tee Aalo on hearing about the sudden death of his wife, became depressed and decided to take a glass of ogogoro. Shortly afterwards, he too complained about his vision becoming blur. In addition, he became disoriented, having shallow breathing, and sensing that his case was becoming life-threatening, he was immediately rushed to the Bori hospital, where doctors managed to stabilise him.
While Mr. Tee is lucky to be alive, five men, who bought and drank the toxic drink from his wife, lost their lives the same day she died. Barisi said when doctors raised concern that his parents might have taken methanol-tainted ogogoro, he returned home and threw away the four litres his mother had brought two days earlier.
Barisi revealed that his mother usually gets her product from another woman in the community. And when The Guardian visited the home of the sole distributor of the product in Bodo, she was nowhere to be found.
PERHAPS, one of the most tragic case is the death of two brothers, Fidelis and Vincent Kaakien in Bodo.
Their younger brother, Adolphus Kaakien, narrated that Fidelis, who is a mason by profession, returned home in the night of June 1 and complained of aching stomach and some form of medication was administered on him, but the next day, his health did not improve, he was taken to a hospital, but the doctor was not on duty. Determined to save his brother’s life, he was taken to another hospital, where the doctor pronounced him dead. Ironically, four days after, his younger brother, Vincent unknowingly took a dose of the deadly liqour and suffered similar fate as Fidelis. It is obvious that Vincent, perhaps, was not aware that what killed Fidelis was a toxic gin.
“When our eldest brother complained of similar symptoms Fidelis experienced, we were told to give him palm oil that it would bring relief. We gave him a lot of palm oil, but it did not work. By the time we decided to rush him to the hospital it was late. On the 5th June, Vincent also complained of blindness.
After he died, his eyes turned blue. We didn’t do any autopsy because of lack of money. I did not know what led to their sudden death initially, but later I heard in the community that someone sold a toxic ogogoro, which he and others consumed” he said.
Ms. Grace Kaakien, who is grief stricken by the death of her brothers, lamented that Bodo community, where the consumption of liquor is common, has never experienced this kind of tragedy before.
“I was called that my brother, Fidelis was defecating and vomiting, on June 1, when I visited home from Port Harcourt, he was pronounced dead. As I returned to Port Harcourt to consult with other family members, late Friday night when I called home, my mother picked the call and told me that my brother, Vincent has started complaining of weakness of the body and was vomiting.
They said he exhibited the same symptoms as Fidelis. The next morning I called they said he died at about 11:30pm in the night.
My family is in pains and government must track the source of this deadly gin before it claims more lives. More souls must not be lost before they do something about this,” she added.
The Guardian gathered from community people in Bodo, where approximately 24 persons were said to have died, that some of the victims’ death was caused by sheer ignorance because they disputed the claim that ogogoro kills. In a bid to dispute this, they drank the unsuspected toxic ogogoro in circulation and lost their lives in the process.
Mr. Justice Barituka Zua, said the community has passed the information to all the churches to announce to their congregation of the inherent danger associated with ogogoro consumption. In addition, town criers and youth leaders, too, have been dispatched to warn people to desist from selling and consuming ogogoro.
“The health workers are not serious about their job. We have not seen them. We have not heard anything from them. There is no sensitisation going on. We have Bodo General Hospital, but it is not functional. You can hardly find a doctor there. Government should improve health facilities in Bodo, which has three wards. We deserve better government presence here” said Zua.
Rivers State lawmakers have, meanwhile, summoned officials of Ministries of Health and Information to appear before an ad hoc committee of the House to explain the circumstances surrounding the death of the victims and measures put in place to prevent further deaths.
The leader of the House, Martins Amaewhule, who raised the issue through a motion of urgent importance, lamented the loss of over 60 lives in the state and called on the House to ban the sale and consumption of ogogoro in the State. But some of his colleagues opposed the outright ban of ogogoro because of its economy importance, particularly in the local communities where it is brewed and mainly consumed.
The Director, Public Health, in the State, Mr. Nnanna Onyekwere said that no fewer than 60 persons have lost their lives in Bonny, Gokana, Ahoada West, Degema, Obio-Akpor and Port Harcourt Local Government areas amid fears that the death rate might still continue to mount due to ignorance and inadequate awareness in the local areas.
Ethanol, Safe For Consumption, But Methanol Is Not, Says Dr. Onyekwere
The Director, Public Health, River State Ministry of Health, Dr. Nnanna Onyekwere in an interview with The Guardian explained that the shortage of ethanol due to increase in demand of local gin might have lured the producers to use methanol to produce the drink.
He explained: “Naturally, the local gin comes from palm wine, being the natural source of gin after fermentation, but along the line, the palm wine was not able to meet the rising demand as it is being used with different medicinal leaves and roots.
“ So, to ensure continued supply, the producers resorted to industrial ethanol to make up for the shortfall in the market demand. In the retail market, the palm wine gin is more expensive than the industrial ethanol in the production of the local gin.
“ Ethanol is safe for consumption, but methanol is not. Chemically, they may look alike, but serves different purposes. Methanol is used in production of methylated spirit and other strong chemicals.
Continuing he said; “From various samples collected from different places and sent to NAFDAC, we noticed different results which showed that the content was mixed differently, containing different quantities of methanol depending on how it is mixed; sample ‘A’ may have more while sample ‘B’ have less.
Onyekwere said with the findings, the history and the laboratory confirmation, the state is dealing with methanol cases.
He is worried that in spite of public enlightenment, many residents of these communities still consume the local gin.
“Initially, we dealt with Woji and Bonny communities. But now, cases are being reported in Ahoada West, Gokana, Port Harcourt, Degema. There is also an increased rate in Bonny and Woji in Obio-akpor. As at Wednesday, 66 deaths had been recorded”
For him, some of the residents declined the advice because they felt that nothing is wrong with the drink their forefathers drank.
During a courtesy visit to the Ministry of Health, the Association of Local Gin dealers complained that the blanket ban on all local gin was affecting their business arguing their product was not contaminated.
“But as it stands, we cannot differentiate between the good from the bad, so it is better everybody closes shop,” the Commissioner told his visitors.
Ogogoro Economy: Jobs, Revenue Losses At Stake
The ban on the sales and consumption of locally brewed gin popularly called ogogoro or kai-kai in Rivers State will have adverse impact on the economy of some communities in the Niger Delta.
While the reason adduced by the health authorities for the ban of the gin is understood, some dealers in the product have argued that the government’s directives will further worsen the unemployment in the region and further deepen poverty.
An ogogoro dealer, Lerabari Kisi, who resides in Abua, told The Guardian, that for generations the local liquor has been a contributor to the economy of many communities in the Niger Delta and beyond.
Kisi, who described the ogogoro business as a multimillion naira industry that employs thousands, expressed concern about the decision of the government to ban its production, sales and consumption, when it has failed to use State apparatus to trace the source(s) of the lethal brand that has claimed over 60 lives in Rivers State alone in recent weeks.
“The ogogoro business is a huge multimillion industry in the Niger Delta. This industry creates job for thousands of Nigerians, beginning from the point of production, wholesale distribution to retailing. We suspect that there is a deliberate act to destroy the industry by those who poisoned the products and sold to innocent Nigerians in Bodo, Bonny, Woji and Degema.”
“In Abua, we use palm wine to produce kai-kai, which is distributed to other parts of the Niger Delta. There is no reported case of death in Abua and Yenagoa in Bayelsa state, where the sales is a thriving business. This nationwide ban is not good for the economy of rural communities, where kai-kai is produced. We pay taxes to local and state governments. If we are out of business, then they will have to forget revenue collection from us,” said Kisi.
A former university don, who is an expert on the political economy of the Niger Delta region, but who pleaded anonymity, described the government’s ban as hasty. He suspects a conspiracy by some individuals to deliberately sabotage the local gin business in order to force people to patronise more expensive imported gin.
“The nationwide ban for me is a reminiscence of what the colonial masters did when they prohibited the production, sales and consumption of ogogoro, which they described as illicit gin. This was resisted as people kept brewing and taking the drinks secretly. I see this happening again. Ogogoro is used for a lot of ceremonial purposes like burial, marriage, entertainment, herbal medicine and so on, in the Niger Delta. The Europeans were resisted; remember the Akasa war, when they attempted to replace ogogoro with their foreign and expensive gin.
“ There are more drinkers than smokers in the Niger Delta. People will drink when they are angry and when they are happy. So the consumption of ogogoro, which is affordable to all class of people, is popular in the Niger Delta. In my Nembe community, juju priest uses it, fishermen drink it and even travellers at our various motor parks. It is a thriving economy in its right. Just imagine how much money has been lost in the past one week. We should be careful so that we don’t play into the hands of the importers of foreign gins” he said.
He urged the government to put in place mechanism for the standardisation of ogogoro production. He urged the universities to consider offering services to the brewers that will help eliminate all toxic substances in the ogogoro that people consume.
According to him, failure to standardise the production and government’s insistence on a total ban of the product will force it to go underground and that will be dangerous.
Family, Friends Lament Death Of Ogogoro Drinkers
Joseph Akpan, 57, was one of those, who lost their lives after consuming a local gin, popularly called Ogogoro or Kai-kai at Woji, a community in River State.
Akpan, an engineer, it was claimed became addicted to consuming the local gin after he lost his job in 2006.
The victim, who left behind his wife, Mrs. Pauline Akpan and four children is said to have died refusing to tell loved ones he had consumed the contaminated gin.
Akpan’s widow said: “ I am a professional nurse and qualified midwife, I was in church last week and they called me to come and attend to someone, who was dying close to my street, without knowing that my husband was involved.”
“But when about five deaths were recorded, I asked my husband severally if he patronised the bar, but he denied. So as people kept dying, he complained to me about stomach pains, and few minutes later, he could not see again. We took him to the church, but he kept complaining saying his stomach was burning like fire. Thereafter, suddenly he vomited and that was the end”
She regretted her husband did not disclose early that he consumed the alcohol, probably if he had, he would have been saved, as one, Mr. John Chima survived the incident because he opened up early.
In an emotional laden voice, Mrs. Akpan, who is highly bitter about the experience, felt the producers of the poisonous drink were evil, heartless, wicked.
She said: “I can’t sleep since then, the sudden death of my husband is too much for me to bear, no sign at all, we have been together for 21 years, it is not easy staying alone with the children now.”
She disclosed that though she is a professional nurse, she is not in any employment, calling on government and well meaning Nigerians to assist her get a job in order to train her children in school.
Relatives of Miss Otunahia, a young lady, also a victim in Woji, said, they have been devastated by the sudden death of their daughter and sister. Her Uncle, Frank Obilor said the family has been devastated by the unexpected loss of their sister and daughter
“It is difficult to believe that she has gone this way and we will never see her again achieve her dreams and goals” Obilor said, calling for thorough investigation and prosecution of any one found guilty.
A survivor, John Chima said he went to buy N200 recharge card and the seller could not provide his balance of N300, so he stepped into the logal gin shop to take a mixture of medicinal leaves (Otazi) for his running stomach.
He said few hours after; he started having some negative sensations, which forced him to inform his in-law and sister.
Chima was immediately rushed to a hospital where he was given a drip that flushed out the substance.
Secretary, Woji Council of Chiefs, Chief Adele Ejekwu, whose house is behind the local gin dealer shop, narrated how two persons he assisted with accommodation drank the substance and died in less than one hour.
He disclosed that there was panic in the community as irate youths set ablaze the shop of Friday Dickson (aka Etiaba), owner of the shop where the local gin was bought and consumed.
Ejekwu told The Guardian that the shop owner reported himself to the police after several reports of death following the consumption of the local gin.
The Secretary Council of Chiefs however disclosed that the community became calm, after the community king, Eze Prof. Leslie Nyebuchi Eke, addressed his subjects urging them to maintain calm and be conscious of what they drink and eat.
Ejekwu however urged the Ministry of Health to ensure it traces the source of the producer of the local gin for prosecution.
He described those who produced the gin as heartless and wicked saying they knew the impact of what they did
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