In my column titled “Catalogue of Made-in-Nigeria tragedies” published on 17th September 2015, I listed a myriad of issues which depict a near absence of safety standards in most areas of public administration in the country, after which I concluded: Whichever way we look at it, the string of untimely, and sometimes brutal deaths from preventable causes that have become our lot as a nation in recent times is a sad commentary on the value we place on human life in Nigeria.
One of the numerous examples I cited in the piece was the revelation by Mr. Ali Baba Mustapha, the Assistant Superintendent in charge of Exhibits at the Sokoto State Command, National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) about the increasing involvement of married women in drug abuse. According to Mustapha, many women now take cough syrups that contain codeine, believing that it would enhance their sexual appetite.
A week later, Daily Trust newspaper, which broke the initial story, did a lengthy feature titled, “Codeine abuse spikes in women, teens across North”. It was the first of several major stories on how cough syrups like Benylin, Emzolyn, and Asad as well as Rohypnol and Tramadol tablets are destroying several families, especially in the North. “There is the case of a new bride whose husband discovered under their bed, a carton of Tutolin, usually abused to induce intoxication and supposedly boost sexual drive. Even before then, during the wedding, the loss of a necklace had prompted a search that led to the astonishing discovery that women at the occasion, mostly housewives, had varieties of cough syrup containing codeine in their handbags” said the report.
Since then, there have been several other reports on the devastation that these drugs are wreaking, especially in the North. Two years ago, the NDLEA Commander for Gombe State, Mr Aliyu Adole, said between 20 to 30 percent of the young people in the country, including school children, were into substance abuse. “It’s the cartel, dealers and rings that supply drugs to the youths and the same cartel sells from South to the North”, said Aliyu who explained how the drugs are usually transported in heavy duty vehicles and stuffed between other commodities in what is clearly an organized crime.
While the authorities in the health sector pretended they were not aware of what has been going on, the first official response to the menace came last year when Borno Senator, Baba Kaka Bashir Garbai moved a motion on the “increasing abuse of cough and prescriptive drugs among the youth and women across the 19 northern states” which he argued “has devastated many upper and middle class families in the region. There are several reports about young girls in tertiary institutions, who have taken to an alarming abuse of the codeine cough syrup, which is often taken, mixed with soft drink.” The problem, Garbai added, “is destroying even mothers in homes, as they use same codeine and other drugs as an escape from their abusive relationships and invariably get hooked on them.”
Supporting the motion at the time, former Sokoto State governor, Senator Aliyu Wamakko said the challenge was not peculiar to the north; hence it should be treated as a national social problem since amphetamine-type stimulants and several dangerous over-the counter (OTC) drugs are being increasingly abused across the country. Wamakko was right. Indeed, if there is anything that the murder in 2012 of Miss Cynthia Osokogu in a Lagos hotel by her Facebook friends revealed, it is the ease with which one can procure any and every drug in our country without medical prescription. In the course of the trial, Cynthia’s killers confessed that they bought the Rohypnol—a prescription drug for the treatment of insomnia—which they injected into her drink, from an OTC store.
However, it would seem the landscape is changing following a chilling report last weekend by Ms Ruona Meyer for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Titled, ‘Secrets of Nigeria’s illicit codeine trade revealed’, the report has already forced one of the leading pharmaceutical companies in the country to dismiss a staff who was caught on camera selling 60 bottles of cough syrup. Now, everybody is talking about a problem that has been there for years. Even the Federal Ministry of Health has suddenly woken up by directing the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) to ban further issuance of permits for the importation of codeine as an active ingredient for cough preparation.
The question is: Was this the tipping point?
In the BBC report, Ruona’s story went beyond the demand and consumption of codeine to the supply side and exposed the mindless corruption behind the whole trade. Two, by naming and shaming, the pharmaceutical companies feeding fat on the misery of others and their collaborators in the health sector can no longer sleep easy. Three, the medium is sometimes the message. With the BBC internationalising the story, there was no way the Nigerian authorities could continue to ignore what many people had been warning about.
We must commend Ruona who, by the way, is the daughter of Mr Godwin Agbroko, former chairman of THISDAY editorial board who was shot dead on his way home from work on the night of 22nd December 2006 by unknown assailants. What she has done is beyond journalism, it is public service. While there may not be any available statistics, there must be a correlation between substance abuse and most of the crimes that are now prevalent in the country today even if we discount the several families that have been destroyed by the problem that is evidently national.
Lending credence to the nexus between substance abuse and criminality in the country yesterday, Senate Leader, Ahmed Lawan said: “The information I got this morning is that 70% of this codeine that comes into Nigeria finds its way into Sambisa forest and what that tells us is that we have Boko Haram elements who are using this. We may even have some of our security agencies who are under the influence of drugs.”
Incidentally, I came across two positive developments on the issue yesterday, one from NAFDAC and the other from the Senate. The two institutions have come to the realization that at a time the nation is facing a serious economic challenge, the social problem of having our young people hooked on drug needs to be properly addressed. It is something the authorities must build upon if we are to effectively tackle this big challenge.