Is there a growing drug epidemic in Nigeria?
Twice a week and sometimes on public holidays, 27-year old Isa Abdullahi*, the son of a former senator, takes a break from his near-automated work schedule as an accountant in Abuja to buy a few wraps of cocaine on a well-lit street in Wuse 2, an upscale commercial district.
The young dealers, familiar with his burgundy 2012 Toyota Camry and his bald head popping out of the window, hurry to him when the car pulls up around 8pm and hand him two wraps. Each costs N30,000 ($120), an amount slightly less than the monthly salary he pays his elderly driver.
Further north, in Kano, State Governor Abdullahi Ganduje is addressing the state chapter of the Police Officers’ Wives’ Association. Drug use has become more prevalent among women than men, he says, revealing that a list of 100 housewives who are “seriously addicted” to drugs has been compiled for rehabilitation.
A 2014 report by the Nigerian Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) puts Kano ahead of the other 35 states and Abuja, in terms of drug convictions. For its 2012 National Baseline Youth Survey report, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) surveyed 46,836 young people with criminal convictions; 75.5% were male and the remaining 24.5% were female.
Among the 32 different crimes committed, marijuana (Indian hemp) smoking had the highest figure, representing 15.7% of the convictions. The survey also put Kano top of the country in terms of the number of drug abusers – 37% of the population.
“There are hundreds of drug points all over Kano where cheap drugs are sold and drug users come together just to get high with each other,” says Fakhriyyah Hashim, a property developer in the city who discovered drug dealers inhabited a site she was considering investing in.
The National Agency for Food, Drug Administration & Control (NAFDAC) classifies drugs as stimulants, hallucinogens, narcotics, tranquillisers, sedatives and miscellaneous, which includes solvents and other mixes.
All have the ability to permanently harm users, says Adeshola Adebayo, an Abuja-based doctor: “These things are drug-specific. The most dangerous effects of opioids like codeine [cough syrup] are respiratory depression and possible death.”
Addicts often visit pharmacies and threaten staff on duty to sell the free drugs provided by government. This effectively reduces the dosage available to patients who genuinely need them. Their actions are aided by weak laws controlling the kind of drugs people can buy from pharmacies and other medical outlets – with or without subscription.
However, in 2012 the federal government placed a restriction on the sale of codeine syrup to people without a doctor’s prescription. When Mustapha Alli*, son of an influential civil servant and a university professor, needed money to buy coke during his undergraduate days at the University of Abuja, he decided to raise funds by selling his Toyota SUV.
Sensing his desperation, one of his classmates bargained with him and bought the SUV for N250,000 (approximately $1,000) – almost one-eighth of the price his parents had bought it for. “Trust me, people who do drugs offer the best deals when they desperately need money,” says the buyer, who asked not to be named. “His current car was also bought by his dad. He told me the only reason he can’t sell it is because it wasn’t bought in his name.”
For those in Abuja, the drugs of choice are heroin, methamphetamine (crystal meth), cocaine, Rohypnol (also known as the ‘date rape pill’) and Viagra (‘the blue pill’). “Meth, heroin and coke are the costly ones,” says the SUV’s new owner. It’s really not hard to get when you know someone who uses regularly, and they are sold all over Abuja.”
On the ground, local police seem to turn a blind eye to drug-dealing. In the Wuse 2 district of Abuja, The Africa Report observed a team of policemen engaged in idle chatter after a heavy dinner and a few bottles of beer opposite H-Medix Plaza, while drug-dealers sold their wares unimpeded.
In Maitama, one of the highbrow districts in the capital, there is a drive-by joint in an uncompleted building. Wuse 2 and Garki have regular spots where transactions occur in the open.
In Kano and other parts of the core North, people stoop even lower in their quest for a high. Youths sniff Premium Motor Spirit or rubber patchwork solutions stolen from roadside vulcaniser shops, or even stand over pit latrines to inhale the ammonia stench.
Tashan Yarabawa, a bus station in the city, is notorious for its easy availability of drugs: after soaking filthy rags in sewage – or lizard dung or other sources of ammonia – young boys walk the nearby streets with the rags curled around one of their fists, stopping intermittently to inhale.
Ibrahim Maigari, a Kaduna-based lawyer and community leader who runs DetoxNation, a non-profit organisation that aims to inform and empower young people against the danger of drugs, reels off a list of makeshift highs: “Sniffing toilet is old-school now,” he says. “They are mixing malt drinks with Knorr seasoning cube.
I hear it is as strong as a big bottle of Guinness. [And] sniffing exhaust pipes of generators. The craziest I have heard is cobwebs in water. You know those toxic-looking greenish webs? They sweep it off and drench it in a bowl of water so the toxins gets into the water and they drink it off. It’s free and simple to mix.”
In Boko Haram’s wake
No need to search far to explain the higher rates of drug use in the north. Drug use often accompanies poverty and despair, and the Boko Haram insurgency in the north-eastern part of the country has left both in spades.
By 2011 a National Bureau of Statistics report stated as many as two-thirds of the Kano population were out of work, and the population is undereducated. Dr. Adebayo says that 15%-25% of Internally Displaced Persons are hooked on various substances.
However, the situation is more complex than this, and religious and cultural beliefs also play a part. For instance, young Muslim men looking to avoid the stigma attached to drinking alcohol may tinker around with other ways to forget their troubles or lose their inhibitions.
Journalist Jamila Fagge says the region lacks a guidance culture for young people facing depression and peer pressure: “There’s an inherent culture in the north that you can’t share your feelings [because] it’s not cool. Unfortunately, northern Nigeria culture does not embrace going to the mosque for counselling, so people are left to solve their own problems.”
Maigari agrees and says the problem starts at home: “Most parents look the other way and blame a neighbour’s son instead of looking inward. Some do not spend enough time with their kids to know their worries. Regarding the women, some are victims of arranged marriages, divorce or emotional violence. The easy way out for a normal Hausa or Fulani female who is probably Muslim is to start taking antidepressants to take her mind off the problems, and next thing, she is fully addicted. Then self-denial sets in and everyone ignores or hides her until something worse happens. It is a society so hypocritical and so detached from its values.”
State rehabilitation programmes are few and far between. Property developer Hashim recounts how one of her distant relatives moved to Kano from Jigawa state. His family had fallen on hard times after his father died from cancer, so he had sought solace in drugs.
“When the Kano state governor started a rehabilitation programme he was enrolled there, but then it became corrupted so only children of the rich and powerful get in there. Before you knew it, those it was meant for were back on the streets because it became expensive.”
In a climate where government has failed, citizens are now stepping into the breach. Fatima Magaji works as one of the resident psychologists at a private rehabilitation centre that was set up last year in Abuja by the parent of a former addict. “Most of [the patients] are in for a three-month rehabilitation programme and we typically have between 10-18 patients at one time,” Magaji says.
“We normally have more males than females, and typically patients are in their early to mid-twenties with a few exceptions.” But even for those who manage to get treatment, the long-term success rate is low. “We realised early that rehabilitation has failed”, says DetoxNation’s Maigari. “Seven out of 10 [users] relapse after rehabilitation. They always have a way of going back to drugs.”
A new approach
“We have to accept that it is a problem before anything concrete can be achieved”, Maigari insists. “At Detox Nation, we have decided to do something simple and effective but very different from rehabilitation. Why wait until a child is addicted before spending time and resources to rehabilitate?”
Without any funding whatsoever from government, the group relies on donations from members and help from volunteers to host seminars in secondary schools across Kaduna and develop informative tools for parents and teachers. It also provides regular training on prevention and detoxification for guidance and counselling officers in schools.
Last year, DetoxNation began recording drug abuse cases to get statistics for analysis, in collaboration with teachers in private schools. For government-owned schools, red-tape bureaucracy remains a challenge in reaching out to the unreached, to widen the network of youths who are drug-free.
Journalist Fagge speaks for many in saying that the governments in each of the states in the North need to implement a strong law against drug trafficking, and also monitor agencies like the NDLEA: “Many people complain that NDLEA and police seize the drugs only to turn around and sell it black-market style. A war against drug abuse needs to take place similar to the [ongoing] war against corruption. And families need to keep an eye on their kids to protect them.”
But for privileged kids like Abdullahi who can afford their expensive habit the temptation to use their connections to have any such legislation expunged may be too much to resist – one of his drinking buddies is an NDLEA official.
*Names have been changed.
From the November 2016 print edition