The seizure by the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency of huge assets from drug barons between January 2021 and August 2022 is a clear indication that Nigeria’s illicit drug problem is deteriorating. The assets include 249 luxury cars and 37 mansions, and 600 frozen bank accounts. Also seized were N871.53 million, proceeds of crime within the 20-month period. As long warned by many experts, the country may be transiting fast from being a minor transit point in the transnational illicit drugs trade to a major hub. This is dangerous.
By frequency, quantum, and persistence, drug trafficking presents a major challenge to the federal and state governments: tougher action is imperative and the current anti-drug strategies need to be upgraded to meet today’s realities. In this task, the Federal Government must take the lead in a national programme involving the 36 states and the 774 local government areas. The President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), should rise to the occasion.
Despite regular interceptions, seizure of drugs and prosecution of couriers, desperate Nigerians continue to venture into the illicit drug trade. Drug abuse is also on the rise. The NDLEA revealed that N619.12 million was recorded as final illegal drug funds forfeiture and N252.41 million as interim forfeiture in the period mentioned, while 18,940 suspects were arrested.
Drug use prevalence in Nigeria in the period was 14.4 per cent, while the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says prevalence in the country stands nearer to 15 per cent — almost three times higher than the global average.
In its World Drug Report 2022, the UNODC said that around 284 million people aged 15-64 used drugs worldwide in 2020, a 26 per cent increase over the previous decade. Young people now use more drugs, with use levels today higher than with the previous generation. In Africa and Latin America, people under 35 years old represent most people being treated for drug use disorders.
Worrying signals of increased drug abuse in Nigeria prompted a National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2018. This revealed that one in seven persons aged 15-64 years had used a drug (other than tobacco and alcohol) in the past year. The prevalence of any drug use is estimated at 14.4 per cent, corresponding to 14.3 million people aged 15-64 years, who had used a psychoactive substance for non-medical purposes.
Ominously, it also states that among every four drug users in Nigeria, one is a woman. Mainly an urban problem in the past, drug abuse now thrives in rural areas.
Conclusively, Nigeria is not only faced with the challenge of rising drug abuse but also of a transit country for couriers recruited by barons to transport illicit drugs across the globe.
The government must take note. According to the United States National Drug Intelligence Center, drug abuse has negative consequences not only on the individuals abusing substances, but also on their families, friends, businesses, and public revenue.
The most obvious effect is ill-health, manifesting in sickness and ultimately in death. Communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis spread faster among drug abusers. In Nigeria, a paper published in the Public Health Reviews found that one in five persons abusing drugs suffered from drug-related disorders, including mental illness; while it influences criminal activities such as theft, armed robbery, cult violence, prostitution, and rape.
Evidence has been mounting that the terrorists, bandits, mass kidnappers and murderers rampaging across the country are heavy users, as security raids on their camps and hideouts invariably turn up caches of drugs alongside arms and ammunition.
Though the NDLEA has been making seizures, arresting traffickers, and securing convictions in recent times, especially since Mohammed Marwa resumed as its chairman; drug smuggling has been on the increase.
This is because the criminal trade in hard drugs is very lucrative, motivating participants to consider producing, trafficking and distributing them worth the risk. Described as “the most lucrative form of business for criminals worldwide,” UNODC values the global trade —cultivation, manufacture and distribution and sale of prohibited drugs—at $32 billion; using various data, Worldometer estimates total spending on illicit drugs worldwide at nearly $400 billion annually. A study showed proceeds of the illicit cocaine trade in Nigeria to be worth around $18.2 billion.
Nigeria’s weak institutions and ingrained corruption hinder the anti-drug war. While couriers are regularly apprehended, drug barons and cartels are often untouchable. Nigeria must take urgent measures to prevent the country from becoming a “narco-state,” such as Mexico and Colombia where drug lords wield enormous political influence, corrupt the law enforcement and judicial system, and rival the state in the possession and application of the instruments of coercion.
The menace of drug abuse and trafficking presents a grave danger. There is a nexus between terrorism, drug trafficking, kidnapping and money laundering. Nigeria is afflicted by all four; it should avoid being sucked fully into the organised transnational crime of drug trafficking.
There should be a reinvigorated national strategy involving reform of the law enforcement agencies. The NDLEA should be revitalised, well-funded and its personnel motivated, trained, and retrained. Colluding and corrupt insiders in the security agencies should be flushed out and prosecuted. Some are members of drug cartels, others provide VIP protection to drug couriers, barons, and syndicates; a former head of the Inspector-General of Police Intelligence Response Squad, Abba Kyari, and some of his men are on trial allegedly for collusion.
The NDLEA alone cannot fight the menace; other security agencies must be involved. Buhari should appoint and empower a coordinator. States should provide education and networking with NGOs. The time has come to treat drug abuse not as only a crime, but also as a health issue.
The national policy and state strategies on drug abuse and trafficking should be integrated with international strategies. Drug law enforcement has to be intelligence-led and technology-driven. There should be mass enlightenment at all levels involving NGOs, communities, schools, faith-based organisations, the mass media and the performing arts industry. Local governments should set up rehabilitation centres. From the federal authorities to the states and LGs, it is time to take action.
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