In many parts of southern Nigeria, no traditional ceremony or ritual is complete without a tot or two of locally brewed alcohol or “ogogoro”.
“It’s the drink of the elders,” said Mr Godwin Masi, a 72-year-old bricklayer in the southern state of Rivers. “The gods also accept it for libation in cultural ceremonies.”
Nigerian states have been trying to crack down on the production and consumption of “ogogoro” for months, after dozens of people died earlier this year. Some states imposed a ban on the liquor but enforcement is problematic.
Mechanic Wasiu Adegbite believes any attempt to outlaw the drink is doomed to failure.
“It’s the drink for the poor. With just 20 naira (less than 1 US cent, euro cent), you get the feel you can never get from other drinks,” the 32-year-old told AFP.
“It energises us and improves our productivity at work and enhances our libido. It (a ban) is a sheer waste of time. Let the government focus on other serious national issues.
“Fighting to eliminate ‘ogogoro’ is the least of its problems.”
“Ogogoro” or locally made gin was banned during British colonial times but legalised after independence in 1960.
Since then, there have been several unsuccessful attempts to outlaw the drink.
The latest comes after 23 people died in April from “ogogoro” believed to have been laced with methanol in Ode-Irele town in southwestern Ondo state.
About 40 others then died in June in Rivers state.
“Many of them (the victims) became blind after consuming the highly concentrated liquor,” the Ondo state health commissioner Dayo Adeyanju told AFP.
“Other effects of the liquor consumption are damage to the liver, brain, nervous system and heart. It causes dementia, hypertension and cardio-vascular disease.”
But Independence John, sweating profusely from the scorching heat of a wood fire cooking the liquid in a big iron container, isn’t concerned.
“It is safe to drink,” said the 22-year-old, taking a sip from a 200-litre (quart) drum of “ogogoro”.
“It is not dangerous. After distilling, we sell it in its raw form to companies that repackage and sell them to the public.”
John abandoned schooling in the Ikorodu area of Lagos and took up a new career by joining a team distilling the drink, which typically has more than 20 percent alcohol by volume.
Police often turn a blind eye.
“Policemen come here to collect drinks. We give them to drink. They drink then go back,” he added.
Despite this tacit backing — and protection — by law enforcement, distillers are still guarded about their operations.
In Ikorodu the distillery, ripe with an overpowering, sweet smell of fermentation, is strewn with dozens of plastic drums, a generator, pumping machine and hoses criss-crossing the land outside.
THE MAIN INGREDIENT
Benson Esiekpe said molasses — refined sugar cane — is the main ingredient and is chosen because of its easy availability.
More sugar is then added and the mixture is left to ferment for at least a week.
Then it is poured into a large iron container that can hold up to 8,000 litres.
Logs of firewood are burnt to heat up the liquid.
“We allow the vapour to cool through a cooling process. The vapour comes out in trickles and it takes about 30 minutes to fill a drum of 200 litres,” said John.
“Thereafter the ‘ogogoro’ is ready for sale to companies, not individual buyers.”
WORLDWORLD CONSUMPTION OF ALCOHOL
According to the World Health Organization, about a quarter of worldwide consumption of alcohol in 2010 was from illegally produced alcohol or alcohol sold outside normal government controls.
Deaths caused by contaminated booze are frequent: 100 people were killed by so-called country liquor laced with methanol in the Indian city of Mumbai earlier this year.
Similar cases have been reported in Kenya while in the past, consumers have died in Cuba, Libya, Ecuador and Pakistan. Poverty and lack of regulation have been blamed.
For the boss of John and Esiekpe’s distillery, who asked not to be identified, lack of oversight is not the cause.
He blamed unfair competition from major drinks companies whose inroads into the Nigerian market have changed Nigerians’ relationship with liquor and made it a multi-billion dollar industry.
“I think what is at play here is the propaganda of those who trade in foreign-made drinks and who try to blackmail, run down and undervalue locally-made ones,” he said.
Where once liquor was only taken during ceremonial occasions, there’s been a push for more regular consumption through sponsorship and promotions.
Spirits exporters have also seen a big African boom and analysts frequently cite populous Nigeria — where just over half the people are Muslim — as one of the markets with the highest potential for growth.