Gowon and Babangida Created Nigeria’s Drug Culture
Access to drugs policies have been most responsible for either a rise or decline in the demography of drug addicts in Nigeria. A controversial thing the Obasanjo military government did in 1976/77 was to ban several goods, including controlled substances, into Nigeria. This was to curb the wasteful “Import or Die” phenomenon triggered by the unexpected “Oil Boom” years governed by General Gowon.
The first experience of drug culture in Nigeria, though limited and short, was a creature of the frenzy of Oil Boom importation. Some will argue the ban’s impact on drug use was inadvertent or even non-existent. Nigerians back then did not have to escape reality, though; life was good and masses sought conspicuous consumption and luxury. When the ban on imported goods came into effect, the drug abuse phenomenon faded like a fad but created a smuggling boom. Smugglers found Veblen goods like lace and refined stills far more profitable.
Ironically, the viral drug problem of today’s Nigeria gets its impetus from poverty, the demands of socio-economic survival, and harsh realities. The recent ban of codeine-based cough syrup by the Buhari administration after the BBC’s damning expose, Sweet Sweet Codeine. It will have nothing like the impact of the ban inserted into place by Obasanjo in the 1970s. The present drug problem has now reached a high point after a long surreptitious build up; all presidents since Babangida reportedly created the Nigerian Narcostate have allowed the problem to fester. I will share my witness.
In 1977, I was a secondary school student in Bendel State. I saw the drug experimentation fad first hand among students of different schools in the state. Daring and naughty boys and girls, mostly senior students, were testing both addictive drugs and non-addictive ones for curiosity and off-label purposes. There was a certain drug Uro-something [methylene blue] if taken, turned the user’s urine blue and countless students took it for the drama of that effect alone. Smelling salts [ammonia carbonate] sniffed to sharpen the consciousness of boxers between rounds during matches or fainting persons. Students for shock effect used it. The students’ belief that Senatogen Multivitamin Plus Iron, a haematinic, could increase one’s strength with regular use (or abuse) was widespread. And students lost several fights on this premise. These were just a few of the novelty drugs.
Peer pressure to take drugs was negligible among students then, it was more personal heroics-oriented. But there was much soft coercion to smoke cigarettes, get a Gatsby haircut. Or fight karate, dance the latest steps, learn karate, drink booze, and try muscles.
The more serious problem was with selorine, codeine and Reactivan among school students. The demography of selorine among the boys was small in entire schools. And some students were notorious for it; they sometimes did crazy things. Some used it for Dutch courage and had several proxies to help them buy the drugs, which I will explain later. There was at least one hospitalisation of a female student for a selorine overdose. Male student were the major abusers of selorine then. Marketed as a “psychotropic energiser”, students widely used and abused Reactivan for Awoko [extended night reading]. Reactivan was implicated, anecdotally, in the sudden phenomena of “Brain Fag” syndrome among students. It happened in countless schools with symptoms similar to mental “burnout”.
Codeine was different. Several boys and girls used codeine for pain, then got hooked on the euphoria it produced. Karate and Kung Fu injuries, besides other causes, introduced several boys to codeine. The abuse of codeine cough syrup, B Codeine, was rare then, if ever. Girls also used high doses of codeine tablets as a morning-after pill or an abortive. Whether it worked for them remains a mystery. In the 1970s, once a girl got pregnant and had a child, that was the end of her education in most cases. And codeine was by far the cheapest option to keep a girl in school after unprotected sex. Codeine was the drug most missed by student users when import restrictions made them inaccessible.
Marijuana use then was very limited for most youths who dreaded going mad by smoking it. Most parents and guardians were ignorant of withdrawal symptoms and blamed it on witchcraft. We thought some students addicts to have epilepsy after going “cold turkey”. The students addict suffering withdrawal usually ended up staying in a spiritual church or a native doctor’s compound for higher intervention treatment. But many would escape seeking the drug.
Then the abrupt Obasanjo ban on imports came into effect. By 1980, just three years, there were few drug experimenters or users in schools. However, the Narcostate created and the free market embraced by the General Babangida had reversed all the gains regarding access to drugs achieved by the Obasanjo ban. And precipitated the economic conditions that would foster drug epidemics in just over half a decade. The second drug problem was in Nigeria.
By the mid-1980s, as an undergraduate, I witnessed the high use of marijuana and an increasing number of marijuana-triggered case of schizophrenia among students. Cocaine and smack use by rich bad kids and their hangers-on appeared on campuses by the late 1980s. Reactivan was back, but Catovit replaced Senatogen, Lorazepam and Valium replaced selorine. The abuse of anabolic steroids too by male undergraduates for muscles was common. Remarkably, few of the ones I knew made past age 40, but none made it to 45.
My witness as a student was of the days when money was not everything and the individual moral costs of destroying others to make money were high. Life and survival were not desperate then. Today, money is all that counts. It is the “neoliberal ideal”, yet life is harsh and desperate in Nigeria for but a few. It would not surprise most that large pharmaceutical companies now give commissions to their sales representatives. Commission for selling vast quantities of addictive drugs to schools and on the campuses of higher education.
The scope for smuggling, local off-book production and artesian pharmacies resulting from the new ban on cough-syrup will offer irresistible incentives for profiteering. Will they extend the ban to all addictive drugs? Addicts and the suppliers have proven quite innovative in finding or creating substitutes, many obnoxious and dangerous.
How is the Buhari administration’s ban intended to diminish the drug problem going to work? It will not be easy.
What is your witness?