Nigeria’s burgeoning drug problem and the threat of a “zombie” apocalypse

By Osmund Agbo

As the sun was casting long shadows on the ground one Saturday in April of 2018, a 21-year-old Nigerian named Kenneth but mostly known as Dagba Junior headed out with his friends for a weekend hang out. After horsing around for a while, the crew ended up lounging in a local pub at Ikorodu, a Lagos suburb. As the night wore on, they ate, drank and gyrated to Afrobeats but at some point, Ken decided to treat himself to a little extra. He went for this new craze in town called gutter water; a dangerous cocktail of drugs including codeine, tramadol, rohypnol, cannabis and juice which young Africans now use to get high on the cheap. Next thing you know, the young man went into an uncontrolled seizure, foaming in his mouth. He was rushed to a nearby hospital where minutes later, he was pronounced dead. His friends from school described Kenneth as a jolly good fellow with big dreams.

Kenneth’s story is one that has become all too common in most of Nigeria’s major cities, though grossly under-reported. In fact, it could be heard across the whole continent of Africa where a generation of poor, unemployed and under-employed youths have taken to illicit drugs as an escape from poverty.

According to a 2018 survey commissioned by Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) and the Center for Research and Information on Substance Abuse with technical support from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) one in every seven persons in Nigeria, aged between the age of 15–64, had used a drug in the past year, many of whom suffered drug-related disorders. The highest level of drug use was recorded among people aged between 25 to 39. Kano, Nigeria’s second largest city records the highest number of people with history of drug use and the most amount of people arrested for illicit drug trafficking. Thirty-seven percent of that city’s population according to one official figure released by NDLEA use drugs.

The ancient kingdom was once a bustling commercial hub, known for its leather and cotton goods that for centuries attracted merchants from across the Sahara to North Africa and Europe. Kano was also reputed to be one of the largest industrial centers in Nigeria, second only to Lagos. Following the introduction of Sharia in the year 2000 many non-Muslims and traders left the city. The problem was compounded by Boko Haram insurgency and after a series of coordinated bomb blasts and shooting that killed about one hundred seventy-eight people in January 2012, many fled the city and so did businesses, leaving many young people with no job and plenty of free time. Many streets in an once bustling area of the city are now gradually being replaced by dusty alleys filled with kids doing cocktails of recreational drugs.

In this new race to the bottom, the southeast promises not to be outdone. There is a frighteningly drug phenomenon sweeping across the southeast and making zombies out of young people. The culprit drug is locally called “mkpulummili” which is a brand of crystal methamphetamine. A recent video making the round showed a teenage boy under the influence, tenaciously grabbing on the breast of a female manikin, in a lewd act.

In June 2015, the Special Enforcement Team (SET) of Nigeria’s NDLEA busted a Drug Trafficking ring led by one Sylvester Ikejiakwu aka Blessed. He was accused of running methamphetamine production facilities in Ozubulu, Ekwusigo LGA of Anambra state. Mr. Ikejiakwu, the Group Managing Director of Blessed Group of Companies, allegedly hides under the cover of motorcycle spare parts business while running a drug cell that has international affiliation.

The rest of Africa is not spared of the illicit drug epidemic. Methamphetamine is also popular in South Africa where in the streets of Cape Town, it goes by the name of “Tik”. In Kenya, one study found that many street children were addicted to sniffing glue. In all, there is a rich assortment that goes from Tramadol and Codeine to everything from cobwebs, lizard poop, petrol fumes and rat poison.

Being a medical practitioner who has witnessed the devastating effect of illicit drug use in America’s inner cities and treated my fair share of addicts, I have often dreaded that this day will come in my homeland. Drug abuse has torn families apart, churned out thousands of child victims and utterly decimated an entire generation of people, young and old. A drug infested population is a hotbed for violent criminal behaviors and according to Brig. General Buba Marwa, chairman of the NDLEA, there is a nexus between recreational drug use and terrorism, insurgency, kidnapping, banditry. It’s frightening to contemplate Africa’s future in the face of illicit drug epidemic given that rich nations of the western world continue to grapple with and are ravaged by it, despite the enormous resources at their disposal.

Many reasons have been given for the increasing incidence of drug use in Nigeria. Aside from socio-economic factors that breed vulnerable population, there is also a big problem from the supply side of things. Cheap synthetic opioids manufactured in China and India have been making way into the African market. Added to this, is the alleged duplicity on the part of Nigeria’s big pharmaceutical companies in the thriving black market for illicit drugs. That may be part of the reason why at some point the Nigerian government banned codeine which is often found in cough syrups.

Interventions should as a matter of priority target the unconscionable and ruthless death merchants who produce or distribute these killer drugs. It is crucial to focus more on preemptive rather than reactionary measures and the approach needs to be multi-faceted, coordinating with all stakeholders including the government, faith organizations and community leaders. Preventive measures need to target the youths and other vulnerable population such as students, commercial sex workers. Of course, Good governance creates gainful employment opportunities to a teeming youth population and helps to distract them from seeking drugs to drown misery.

A holistic approach to the problem would also involve the establishment of drug rehabilitation programs. At one point, Kano pioneered a model where drug abusers were institutionalized and made to undergo sixty days of rehabilitation that encompasses detoxification, counselling and skills acquisition that will help the victims navigate life thereafter. Torturing addicts, arresting and throwing them in jail while leaving the drug barons to enjoy their I’ll-gotten wealth, may not help in the long run but rather, produce repeat offenders who will come back to harm the society. The best way to down a tree is not by cutting off its branches which will regrow sooner than later. The roots need to come off.

Few years ago, a man from South Florida named James West was caught on video trying to break down the door to the Fort Lauderdale Police Headquarters. Tracy Figone, the police detective who watched the incident stated that “His power was so forceful that, when he pulled, you could see the doors shaking, and him throwing the rocks that cracked the impact windows,”. Upon investigation, he was found to be on a street drug named flakker. Since then, many of such incident have been reported including another man who ran through the street screaming that he was a god before committing a sexual act on a tree.

Aside from causing agitation, convulsion, delusion, victims of flakka manifest with superhuman strength marked by violent outbursts. One researcher reported that “it gives users what feels like the strength and fury of the Incredible Hulk”. They look like reanimated dead bodies; hence it’s colloquially called the zombie drug. Mkpurumiri as it turns out, is our own flakka.

Nigeria is currently at its lowest ebb as a nation with a near complete economic collapse, total breakdown of law and order, widespread banditry and terrorism. With purposeful leadership, a renewed sense of shared commitment, however, there is still a modicum of chance that Africa’s most populous nation may be able to pull back from the precipice. But it’s doubtful that any nation could survive a zombie apocalypse.

Dr. Agbo, a Public Affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Center for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: [email protected]