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BIRTH OF LIQUOR BLACK MARKET

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 With life almost back to normalcy - social distancing gone - and the declining daily infections and fatalities reminders that the siege by COVID-19 is far from over, incredibly much talk in just about every nook and cranny of the tiny kingdom has been on the prolonged ban on alcohol that has since become a hot political potato even as Prime Minister Ambrose Mandvulo Dlamini extended the state of emergency by a further two months late last week.

Significantly, the PM craftily avoided a public platform when extending the state of emergency through a legal notice. In the face of mounting public discontent, palpable anger and exasperation at a time when, among others, saw government unleashing its heavily armed paramilitary police unit, OSSU, to crush a scheduled march by peaceful liquor traders to his office to petition the lifting of the ban on alcohol, the PM was expected to be live when announcing the extension of the emergency, even if to reiterate government’s unchanged position on this matter. 

As I see it, that the PM avoided a press conference or even Parliament when he was out and about all week visiting some government projects coupled with a pending motion in the House of Assembly to lift the ban played, into the public gallery. This reinforced widespread rumours that the state of emergency occasioned by COVID-19 had been politically abused to motor the economic interests of the political establishment to usurp, through a proxy, control of the kingdom’s multimillion Emalangeni liquor industry. Consequently, the extended alcohol ban was a potent weapon to achieve this end.  

Additional to the PM missing in action when he was clearly available for errands of lesser importance reinforcing what the rumour mill – it has gained credibility in recent times with a majority of its output eventually being authenticated – was churning out was the unexpected and mysterious withdrawal of the motion calling for lifting of the ban on alcohol. 

Ordinarily the withdrawal of a motion should not necessarily cause any commotion, let alone an earthquake, because it is normal. But this particular motion was of great interest not just to the nation in general, and liquor industry players in particular, but also to government’s efforts to resuscitate the economy. Why, even the seconder of the motion, MP Lutfo Dlamini, was left in the dark about its withdrawal. In fact he indirectly was the one responsible for making the nation aware of the withdrawal of the motion when, at the time the motion was supposed to be debated, he queried Speaker Petros Mavimbela about its non-inclusion on the Order Paper. That is when Speaker Mavimbela announced that MP Malambe had since withdrawn the motion. Significantly MP Malambe never offered any explanation to date for his decision either to the House, Speaker or at least his seconder. Could political pressure have been exerted?

In the absence of an explanation from MP Malambe or, at the very least, through the Speaker, the people were left to figure it out for themselves. And in politics perception is reality and the reality people have been left with is that there has been, again, political interference. If anything this strengthens the hand that the extended ban on alcohol no longer has anything to do with CIVID-19 but everything to do with hostile political takeover of the industry. This is probably why this matter has become a hot political potato for the PM and further explains its sensitivity.

Extended

As I see it, now that the emergency has been extended, we should also expect the alcohol ban to be similarly extended beyond the October deadline unless it is fait accompli. Consequently COVID-19 and its effects no longer inform government’s decision making but provide useful cover under which to motor private political and economic agendas of the high and mighty. But in this cloak-and-dagger scenario government ought to beware it is not creating a Frankenstein monster that will compromise the country’s economy and developmental imperatives. For it is common cause that while alcohol remains banned people still have access to it, hence the drink-driving cases every week. This should worry government because this means the continued ban has birthed a parallel illicit liquor industry and it is burgeoning at an electrifying speed. The challenge is that once the illicit trade has rooted itself it will pose serious threats to the legitimate industry once it reopens and, by extension, negatively impact government’s tax revenue. 

So, who will be the winners in all of this? Your guess is as good as mine. But of certainty is that the taxpayer and the economy – and Eswatini - will be left the worse for wear. Did anyone talk about social distancing? What social distancing? Life is back to normal except for alcohol!     

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