Advancing Fight against Substance Abuse in Nigeria

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By Vanessa Obioha

Ejaita’s first encounter with drugs was when she gained admission into the Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, Edo State. Then she got hooked on cocaine and heroin. In the past 20 years, Ejaita has been struggling to overcome her drug addiction. In a video shared on Instagram, the mother of three from Delta State narrated her struggle to kick out the bad habits. She described her journey as a pathetic story, one that is riddled with rejection and segregation.

“I’m not where I am supposed to be. I’m not mixing with the right people or doing the right things at the right time anymore, because once you are into drugs and the people in the society know, you become segregated. They exclude you from every other thing because you’re no longer trusted. I’m dying already now because I derived pleasure in smoking.”

Ejaita is one among the thousands of Nigerian youths who are hooked on hard drugs such as cocaine, heroin, cannabis and others. In a survey carried out by Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) and the Centre for Research and Information on Substance Abuse, over 14.3 million people in Nigeria admitted using psychoactive drug substances in 2018, that’s about 15 per cent of the population. Another findings revealed by the Country Representative, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Oliver Stolpe at the MTN Foundation’s Drug Conversations held recently showed that over 20 million Nigerians from age 15 and above admitted to having used drugs at least once between 2018 and 2019. The United Nations organisation also stated that $1.25 billion worth of cocaine passed through the West African sub-region in 2010.

In recent times, there has been an outcry of increase in drug addiction among Nigerian youths. Organisations such as MTN Foundation have taken the mantle to fight against the rising cases of drug addiction among youths through programmes such as the Anti Substance Abuse Programme (ASAP). The initiative was launched in 2018 and saw the Foundation visiting communities and universities to enlighten them on the dangers of substance abuse.

To commemorate the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, the Foundation held a virtual event where cases like Ejaita were discussed by informed persons that cut across media, sports and entertainment.

For entertainers whose lifestyles are a major influence on youths, a rallying call to live an exemplary life was made by celebrities like Nollywood actresses Dakore Egbuson-Akande and Ini Edo. The duo shared their own stories on battling drug addiction and trafficking.

For Egbuson-Akande, she narrowly escaped being a drug trafficker.

“You wouldn’t believe what’s happening out there. I remember when things were really tight. I was in the university and could travel abroad at that time. Somebody actually came up to me and said ‘oh, would you want to carry some drugs and you get paid when you get there?’ This was a 21-year-old me!”

In Edo’s case, she was shocked to attend a party where drugs were served as the main course.

“I went to a party some time ago, they brought cannabis in trays. These were young girls from reputable universities between ages 20 to 25. They were taking cannabis like it was normal!”

The actress called for more drug education as many youths are unaware of the mental and physical damage of substance abuse.

Her thoughts resonated with that of comedian and radio host Chinedu ‘Nedu’ Emmanuel. He pointed out that “entertainers need to speak out more and let people know that if you have inspiration, that’s it. You don’t need to take weed. And the celebrities that the kids follow these days they celebrate the taking of such substances.”

Indeed, most entertainers encourage this kind of lifestyle with their works. It is not uncommon to see artistes smoking hemp or promoting hard drugs in their songs. Such messages easily influence impressionable youths who are eager to live the ‘cool’ lifestyle.

Actor, singer and substance-abuse advocate, David Jones David, explained that many youngsters had normalized substance abuse to the extent that it was abnormal to not be involved.

“It’s everywhere. If you turn to the left or right, you see someone doing drugs. It’s so normal now that when you preach against it, their response is ‘are you okay?’ It has become so normal that many children grow into it while some are born into it. Hence, someone needs to tell them that this is wrong, because they have no idea!”

He shared how substances like codeine have become the preferred drink for many.

“Some people come into my studio and before you say Jack Robinson, they have already put three bottles of codeine on the table, telling you ‘that’s your own o.’ Like it’s very normal and when you express surprise, they are taken aback that you are shocked.”

The Minister of Youths and Sports Sunday Dare, who was among the panelists, identified unemployment as one of the causes of drug addiction among youths. “Because they are not able to advance their careers, they are jobless, so they engage in other vices.”

He added that depression is another key factor of the menace, saying: “We do not have a government system that elevates counselling and treatment of depression. Depression is still an idea that Nigerians read about.”

While acknowledging that the fight against substance abuse and trafficking in Nigeria is on a snail pace, he however advised that an institutional approach that will incorporate public and private sector support should be encouraged. He also stated the need to nip the supply chain in the bud with laws that focus on the various parts of the chain.

Dare was insistent about a system that punishes illegal activities – to the maximum extent – while also rewarding best practices. He stated the need for a comprehensive anti-substance abuse educational programme that shows young children the effects and problems associated with the abuse of substances, as well as the flip-side of abstinence.

The Chairman of MTN Foundation, Prince Julius Adelusi-Adeluyi, emphasised on the urgent need to fight the menace that is gradually permeating every corner of the country.

“We believe the roadmap of ASAP is to achieve a Nigeria that is free of substance abuse. We started in 2018 and we are very happy that a lot of people have collaborated with us in a very meaningful and engaging way. As the young people rightly observed, if we do not do something about substance abuse, it will rise to emergency levels and that is not the kind of problem we want at this stage, especially with the advent of Covid-19 pandemic.”

He concluded that actions that will yield results must be taken ASAP.

“Something has to be done quickly and that is why we should be able to stimulate wider discussions, deeper discourse, greater attention to the relevant individuals, institutions and corporate bodies so that we can combat this menace. We should not be tired of bringing the attention of people to the deleterious effect of substance abuse anywhere and everywhere, especially our nation Nigeria, to individuals, families and communities. It is our belief in the Foundation to develop a slogan that says ‘it is easier to keep off drugs than to get off drugs,’ because that way, we can have a substance free nation.”

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