The alarming rate of drug use in Nigeria

By Uche Igwe Posted On 10 May, 2013

On April 14, in his hometown of Kano, the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, made a profound proposition, that a drug test be conducted on anyone who wants to contest  for public office or anyone seeking a political appointment in the country.

His words are profound and timely because they highlight an issue that often gets forgotten in the Nigerian context, that of the growing and alarming level of substance abuse in Nigeria. The drug abuse in Nigeria does not only involve the frequent and public consumption of Indian hemp (marijuana) but also of cocaine and heroin among others.

Some, especially the ladies, reportedly indulge in the regular consumption of a particular cough expectorant (containing codeine) while others inhale synthetic gum and septic tanks- yes septic tanks, just to get high (on top of the world) or low (below the sea level).


One respected activist attributed the rising drug culture in Nigeria as resulting from the worsening living conditions. In his words, If you look at the political, economic and security conditions in Nigeria today, one needs an additional support through taking one drug or the other as a coping mechanism to manage with the agony of an impoverished existence. Do you not see how life has become worthless in Nigeria?  Look at the Nigerian policeman, he is dressed in black always, under the sun and in the rain. Yet, he is given a weapon. Do you not think that he needs to be high to cope with the inhuman conditions that he is subjected to daily?  When he releases accidental discharge, will you blame him? If one looks at the heartless killings and bombings that have become daily events in our country or the ordeal of lucky people who go into and come out of the kidnappers’ den, you will appreciate the mess we have found ourselves in this country.

While the underlying causes of the increased consumption of hard drugs might be contentious, the side effects on society aren’t. Drugs have found their way into most of our schools including the primary schools. It is no longer strange to see teenagers help themselves publicly with ‘igbo’, ‘wee-wee’, ‘marijuana’, ‘morocco’ or even ‘monkey tail’. These substances of different kinds are associated with drowsiness, sedation, respiratory depression, and psychosis while some are said to be precursors to full blown mental illnesses. Yet, many people (young and old) are hooked to them.

According to the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, the North-West geopolitical zone has the highest number of drug addicts. About 37 percent of those who consume illicit drugs in Nigeria, the agency pointed out in its study, live there.  Indeed about three million bottles of a particular cough syrup known for its addictiveness are consumed daily between Kano and Jigawa states alone.  Other zones are not left out. The South-West zone is second on the list with 17 percent of the drug abusers, South-East with 13.5 per cent of the abusers, North-Central with 12 percent of the abusers and the North-East with 9 percent of the abusers.

Nigeria is said to be the home of about 500,000 users of heroine. The prevalence rate for the abuse of amphetamine – a type of stimulant is estimated at 1.4 per cent — the highest rate in Africa. The national prevalence rate of cannabis abuse in Nigeria is 14 per cent, making it one of the highest in the world.  One can only imagine that the figures will be far higher than these because the habit of drug consumption is a very secretive one. Too many people surreptitiously become addicted such that they can no longer function without them. Many women whose husbands are hooked to drugs are not even aware and vice versa. And the socio-political impacts on the society are even more complex. Until recently, I had not looked at the lust for power, primitive accumulation tendencies, elite banditry and rascality in the Nigerian political space from the lens of drug addiction, i.e., that they may not be doing all these with clear eyes.

Those who abuse drugs daily melt into the larger society unnoticed. We call some of them “leaders” and look up to them for direction. I read recently that in Wuse, Zone 4, in Abuja, a wrap of cocaine sells for as much as N5,000. Then, you can see that those who patronise these spots must be the wealthy who can afford it. There was a time it was alleged that one of the former governors in the South-South was a habitual substance abuser. No one bothered to raise the alarm until one day he became high and decided to initiate a telephone conversation to allegedly threaten the Oga-at-the-top. The rest, they say, is history.

While this article focuses mainly on Nigeria, it is important to note that this growing drug problem goes beyond Nigeria and is an Africa problem. Africa now occupies the second position worldwide in the trafficking and consumption of illegal drugs. African countries, especially those in West Africa, are used as conduits by the drug barons in trafficking drugs from Asia to Europe. This easy access to the drugs is probably one of the key reasons for the rise in drug consumption. Efforts to tackle this issue must therefore involve the tightening of controls at the borders to ensure that these drugs are not smuggled in. Drugs are smuggled in a number of innovative ways, often disguised as commodities such as sugar. Therefore efforts to tighten controls at the border will be extremely difficult. However, it can be done if the right incentives are put in place. Other efforts must include campaigns to the youth on the dangers of drugs.

So, back to Sanusi. We must be grateful to him and take his comments very seriously. Where do we start these drug tests? Which public office holders do we begin with? I suggest that we start with the leadership of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party and their cousins in the new All Progressives Congress.

Also importantly, there are two people that I must call on to heed Sanusi’s counsel. The first person is the Chairman of the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC), Mr. Osita Chidoka. The FRSC must urgently acquire the infrastructure to regularly test people for drugs before issuing them with a driving licence and also regularly do the same on the road any driver displays irrational behaviour. Those who test positive should either not get the licence or have theirs withdrawn. This will go a long way in reducing the incidence of road accidents across the country.

The next person is our dear President. I wish that President Goodluck Jonathan will consider ordering that drug tests be conducted on everyone currently serving in his cabinet during their next meeting. I wish that Jonathan will have the courage to make the results of his findings public. If he does this, you can take it to the bank that Nigerians may be up for shocking revelations. I leave you to connect the dots and discern the rest.

Igwe, a governance expert,  is a Visiting Scholar at the Africa Program, the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University Washington DC. He wrote in from Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, Brighton,  and can be reached via

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