Gulu trailblazing ordinance on alcohol control should be supported

Last Monday, the Gulu District Council Hall was full to capacity. A council meeting was in session. In the meeting hall was a team from the Ministry of Trade and Industry whose mission was to persuade or cajole the district council to suspend the implementation of the Gulu Alcoholic Drinks Control Ordinance. The ordinance regulates the production, sale and consumption of alcohol especially those packed in sachets below 250 mls.

Traditional leaders, civil society representatives, religious leaders and opinion leaders were packed in the Council Hall. All they were focused on was to give moral support to the councillors so that they don’t succumb to the pressures from Amelia Kyambadde.

“If the producers responsible for the production of agricultural products are unproductive due to alcoholism, how will northern Uganda become the bread basket of Uganda?”, one traditional leader asked. Civil society activists were hoisting placards reading “Health before profit”.

The Minister of Trade and Industry Ms Kyambadde, presumably after intense lobbying by the manufacturers and sellers of that alcohol, decided that she should prevail on Gulu to stop enforcing the ordinance. Unfortunately, she did not appear in person but sent a team led by a commissioner in her ministry. That the commissioner was a homeboy did not augur well. Members of the council said since he knows the adverse effects of the alcohol, he should be the last person championing a reversal of the stern measures taken by the district. One member said “the commissioner being a son of the soil is being dragged like a goat with a rope around its neck. He goes where the minister wants him to go. He has not said what he has said of his own free will.”

Councillors led by the district chairman Martin Ojara Mapenduzi rejected the proposal by the Ministry of Trade and Industry that implementation of the ordinance be stayed for nine months. Amelia reportedly said that there is going to be a national law controlling the alcohol and so Gulu should wait for that law. Councillors scoffed at her saying the ordinance was passed and gazetted with the approval of the Attorney General.

The AG’s chambers had opportunity to scrutinise the Bill and now under pressure they are acting as if they’re unaware of the procedures followed to pass the law in which they were involved. Therefore, for the ministry to claim that the ordinance is likely to invite sanctions from the World Trade Organisation (WTO) as it is a technical barrier to trade. Members argued that the alcoholic drinks were locally manufactured in Kampala and are not imported and therefore WTO rules are not applicable. The members said they have never restricted liquors like Johnnie Walker. The councillors said the national government has a mandate and their expression of interest to pass laws shouldn’t nullify local government ordinances. Local governments are mandated by law to pass ordinances. These ordinances should be respected by the central government.

The background of the ordinance is unassailable. A 2004 World Health (WHO) reported that Uganda is the highest ranking alcohol consuming country. According to a research report by Tessa Laing and Dr Nicolas Laing that preceeded the passing of the ordinance “ fathers spend their money on sachet waragi, rather than providing school fees for their children. Drunkenness triggers arguments and violence within homes, breaking families apart. Over-consumption of alcohol is leading to disease and early death, leaving behind uncared for children. Too many youth are spending their most creative years in the centres drinking when they could be seeking employment. Gulu society as a whole suffers as collective productivity is decreased. Healthcare systems are burdened with testing preventable alcohol- related diseases. Streets are less safe.”

At the time of this writing, Gulu District is set to destroy the first batch of impounded alcohol. Police sought a court order to permit destruction of impounded alcohol. The Chief Magistrate replied that there’s no need for a court order. This ordinance deserves to be supported rather than being undermined. Young people consume this alcohol because it is cheap, highly portable and readily available. Fortunately, the ordinance has provisions for the arrest and prosecution of anyone who obstructs the implementation of the ordinance. I am afraid Ms Kyambadde risks arrest for obstructing implementation of the ordinance.