Exploring an alternative drug response in Nigeria

Nigeria has long been a route used by drug traffickers who are transhipping their goods from producing countries to the flourishing drug markets of the United States and Europe.  In recent years however, we have seen a shift from transiting to use, and a serious expansion of local drug markets is now being reported with use of a wide range of drugs filtering throughout Nigeria.

Young people in particular are being affected.  A youth bulge is being experienced in Nigeria, and these youth are vulnerable to drug use due to multiple risk factors that are known to influence drug taking including poverty, unemployment and wide availability.  Indeed, limited data that exists indicates an increasing availability and use of drugs amongst young people across the country.  We also know that young people are more likely to experience drug related harms.  Critically, the HIV epidemic in Nigeria also has a youth face, and the potential for drug use to drive a new HIV epidemic among young people is serious, yet little attention has been paid to the issue.  Nigeria’s Integrated Biological Bio-behavioural Surveillance Survey (2007 &2010) have also reported a high prevalence of HIV among injecting drug users, also stating that most IDUs interviewed are young.

People who use drugs in Nigeria remain incredibly hidden- in large part due to the heavy criminalisation of drug use in the country.  Policies remain punitive, criminalising young people for use rather than addressing the health consequences and underlying causes of drug use.  Health services for people who use drugs are severely limited.  The only treatment that is currently available is within the few ‘drug treatment’ facilities where people who use drugs are forcibly detained.  According to the Medical Director of a drug treatment centre based in Lagos, around 70% of patients return to the centre after completing the program, and we were informed that patients return for treatment up to 17 times.  You have to question the effectiveness, not to mention the human rights implications, of such forced treatment.

Within the community, we were told of the vast array of drugs injected or taken in other forms- from codeine to ketamine, heroin to crack, and other methods such as extracting and drinking poison from frogs.  Young people in Nigeria are taking to so many drugs to get high, and for the majority of the time they do not know what it is they are taking, not to mention having no education on the risks associated with the drugs and ways to reduce harm.  Young women who use drugs, particularly those that inject, are also a concern in Nigeria.  The population is sizeable, often overlapping with sex work and remains even more hidden. 

Despite clear evidence of need, harm reduction programs remain non-existent. Youth RISE recently supported Communications 4 Social Change to develop a documentary aiming to bring some of these issues to the fore.  A media roundtable to launch the documentary was held last week, attended by the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, Human Rights Commission, NGOs, young people, and journalists.  From the discussion that ensued, it was clear that all participants agreed that drug use in Nigeria was a reality and an issue that urgently needs to be addressed.  How that response is developed will be now be the challenge, and ensuring that drug policies that support harm reduction and services that protect the health of people who use drugs should be a priority.  However in order to develop such a response, there is a need to: increase research, build capacity of local organisations, mobilise funding for harm reduction programs and convince the government of the importance and effectiveness of transitioning from a punitive approach to one which prioritises the health and human rights of the community.

Our youth in Nigeria are in great need of a humane, pragmatic and evidence based response- and the time to act is now.