The National Drug Law Enforcement Agency’s seizure of massive assets from drug lords between January 2021 and August 2022 is a clear indication that Nigeria’s illicit drug problem is worsening. The assets include 249 luxury cars and 37 mansions and 600 frozen bank accounts. Also, N871.53 million was seized, proceeds of crime within the 20-month period. As long warned by many experts, the country could be moving quickly from a small transit point in the transnational illicit drug trade to a major hub. This is dangerous.
Frequency, quantity and persistence make drug trafficking a major challenge for federal and state governments: tougher action is needed and current anti-drug strategies need to be upgraded to meet today’s realities. In this task, the federal government must lead a national program involving the 36 states and the 774 local government areas. The president, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (Retd.), should stand up for the occasion.
Despite regular interceptions, drug seizures and persecution of couriers, desperate Nigerians continue to venture into the illicit drug trade. Drug use is also increasing. The NDLEA disclosed that N619.12 million was registered as final confiscation of illegal drug funds and N252.41 million as interim confiscation during the said period, while 18,940 suspects were arrested.
The prevalence of drug use in Nigeria during the period was 14.4 percent, while the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says the prevalence in the country is closer to 15 percent – almost three times higher than the global average.
In its World Drug Report 2022, the UNODC said that by 2020, approximately 284 million people aged 15-64 were using drugs worldwide, a 26 percent increase over the previous decade. Young people now use more drugs, and use is higher today than the previous generation. In Africa and Latin America, people under the age of 35 represent the most people receiving treatment for substance use disorders.
Worrying signs of increased drug use in Nigeria sparked a National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2018. It showed that one in seven people aged 15-64 had used a drug (other than tobacco and alcohol) in the past year. The prevalence of drug use is estimated at 14.4 percent, which corresponds to 14.3 million people aged 15-64 who had used a psychoactive substance for non-medical purposes.
Also ominous is that out of every four drug users in Nigeria, one is a woman. Primarily an urban problem in the past, drug abuse now thrives in rural areas.
In short, Nigeria faces not only the challenge of increasing drug use, but also a transit point for couriers recruited by barons to transport illicit drugs around the world. The government must take this into account. According to the National Drug Intelligence Center of the United States, drug abuse negatively affects not only those who abuse substances, but also their families, friends, businesses and government revenue.
The most obvious effect is ill health, which manifests itself in illness and eventually death. Communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis are spreading more rapidly among drug users. In Nigeria, an article published in the Public Health Reviews found that one in five drug users suffered from drug-related conditions, including mental illness; while affecting criminal activities such as theft, armed robbery, cult violence, prostitution and rape.
There is mounting evidence that the terrorists, bandits, mass kidnappers and killers rampaging across the country are heavy users, as security raids on their camps and hideouts invariably lead to caches of drugs alongside weapons and ammunition.
Although the NDLEA has recently seized, arrested traffickers and obtained convictions, especially since Mohammed Marwa resumed his chairmanship; drug smuggling has increased.
The criminal trade in hard drugs is very lucrative and motivates participants to consider producing, trading and distributing them worth the risk. Described as “the most lucrative form of doing business for criminals around the world,” UNODC values the global trade – cultivation, production and distribution and sale of illicit drugs – at $32 billion; based on various data, Worldometer estimates total spending on illicit drugs worldwide at nearly $400 billion per year. A study showed that the proceeds from the illicit cocaine trade in Nigeria was worth about $18.2 billion.
Nigeria’s weak institutions and entrenched corruption hamper the anti-drug war. While couriers are regularly stopped, drug lords and cartels are often untouchable. Nigeria must take urgent steps to prevent it from becoming a ‘narco-state’, like Mexico and Colombia, where drug lords wield enormous political influence, corrupt law enforcement and the justice system, and compete with the state for possession and use of coercive measures .
The threat of drug abuse and drug trafficking is a major threat. There is a link between terrorism, drug trafficking, kidnapping and money laundering. Nigeria is affected by all four; it must avoid being completely sucked into the organized transnational crime of drug trafficking.
A new impetus must be given to the national strategy of reforming law enforcement agencies. The NDLEA needs to be revitalized, well funded and staff motivated, trained and retrained. Conspiracy and corrupt insiders in the security services must be flushed out and prosecuted. Some are members of drug cartels, others offer VIP protection to drug couriers, barons and syndicates; a former chief of the Inspector General of Police Intelligence, Abba Kyari, and some of his men are on trial for alleged conspiracy.
The NDLEA alone cannot combat the threat; other security services should be involved. Buhari must appoint and authorize a coordinator. States should provide education and networking with NGOs. The time has come to treat drug abuse not only as a crime, but also as a health problem.
National policies and strategies on drug abuse and trafficking must be integrated with international strategies. Drug law enforcement must be intelligence and technology driven. There should be mass education at all levels involving NGOs, communities, schools, faith-based organizations, the mass media and the performing arts industry. Local authorities should set up rehabilitation centers. From the federal authorities to the states and LGs, it’s time to act.