Until 2017 when the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) carried out an investigation to ascertain the extent of opioid abuse amongst young people in Nigeria, millions of Nigerians were largely unaware of the far-reaching impact of the country’s opioid epidemic. It was brimming at the outskirts of our consciousness, we knew it existed, but only at the fringes of our national discourse. To acknowledge the epidemy would require us to face it head-on and there was little appetite for that.
The harsh realities revealed in the documentary surely left a mark in the context of the awareness and the conversation it helped spark nationwide. Nigerians cringed and moaned at the images that the documentary presented before them. ‘It couldn’t be so’, many exclaimed at what they were already mostly aware of.
In Umuahia, Abia State, that same year, the National Alliance Drug Abuse for Sustainable Development stated that “the threats posed by drug abuse to the society are real and alarming. The least it deserves is a strategic, sustainable alliance by stakeholders.”. The message was hitting home loud and clear.
The UNODC released the 2017 World Drug Reports and even more alarming information was thrown at Nigerians. The country was an official hub for the smuggling of banned substances. African countries that possessed the most frequent transit routes were South Africa (2nd), Ghana (3rd), Mali (4th) and Niger (4th) as Nigeria led them all.
Consequently, the largest seizures in the continent were also recorded in Western and Central African territories – Cabo Verde (1st) Gambia (2nd), Nigeria (3rd), Chad (4th) and Ghana (5th). “The largest cannabis herb seizures worldwide were reported by Mexico, followed by the United States, Nigeria, Paraguay and Egypt”, the report stated.
One thing had become extremely clear – Nigerians were in danger. The danger had slowly been coiling itself around the country for decades. In a world were addiction was rising, so were the deaths. In a report, ‘Pattern of Comorbidity, Problem among Drug users Undergoing Inpatient Rehabilitation at a Tertiary Hospital in Nigeria’, by Oni OD, Erinfolami AR, Olagunju AT, and Ogunnubi OP, it was stated that “an estimated 183,000 drug-related deaths were reported in 2012 corresponding to a mortality rate of 40.0 per million in the global population of those aged 15– 65 years. In the same report, it is estimated that 324 million people (3.5-7% of the world’s population) have used an illicit drug.”
The World Drug Report 2017 confirmed the BBC documentary, in that while cannabis was the substance of choice because of the ease of accessibility, more and more Nigerians were receiving treatment for opioid use disorders: “Cannabis is the main drug for which drug use treatment is sought in Africa, but many countries, most notably Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa and the United Republic of Tanzania, have reported an increasing number of people entering treatment for opioid use disorders.”
Young Nigerians were being sucked into addiction and fast. An urgent intervention was necessary and it became apparent that this was needed on a larger scale than anything Nigeria had ever seen. To tackle the hydra-headed menace of substance abuse, Nigeria had to protect itself the only way possible – together. Triggered by these and more, leading ICT firm, MTN Nigeria, through is CSR-focused arm, MTN Foundation, sought the support of multiple organizations. It amassed a network of stakeholder organisations spanning non-profits, regulatory agencies, professional associations, advocacy champions and individual experts. Stakeholders include the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA); the Police; Federation of Muslim Women’s Associations in Nigeria (FOMWAN); Christians Against Drug Abuse Mission (CADAM); Freedom Foundation, etc.
At the launch, Prince Julius Adelusi-Adeluyi, Chairman, MTN Foundation, explained the burning necessity for the programme: “Every day, millions of young Nigerians are at risk of opioid addiction. They could be our family members, neighbours, and friends. This is why we must ensure that the conversation does not stop and all hands must be on deck. We must also do as much as we can; as fast as we can to educate our fellow citizens before they succumb to the temptation of taking drugs for the first time and we owe it to ourselves and children, the task of creating a world where they can become useful members of society.”
Thus, began an over 12-month birthing process that conceived the Anti-Substance Abuse Programme (ASAP), a passion project specifically designed in scope to help reduce the rate first-time drug use, especially within the 10 to 25- age bracket. To have a far-reaching impact on its target, it was essential that the message of abstinence from substance abuse penetrated to the grassroots in every community, that each person was aware of the concept of substance and substance abuse and its dire consequence.
After months of liaising and preparations, The pilot phase kicked off on December 19, 2018, in Lagos with a promise to execute the programme in six states across all the geopolitical zones in Nigeria – Lagos, Rivers, Imo, Bauchi, Kano, and the Federal Capital Territory (F.C.T.) Abuja. As of Friday, July 26th, 2019, all promises were fulfilled when the pilot phase concluded with hundreds of young Kano residents walking in the streets of Kano has part of the programme’s awareness walk.
Over a period spanning 7 months, the ASAP platform served as a platform where stakeholders with the common interest of tackling the menace of substance abuse convened to establish plans geared towards ensuring that the target audience was reached using various channels that are designed to engage, enlighten and empower the target audience. Using tools such as round table discussions, the ASAP microsite, lectures, advocacy walks, stage plays, and music, the span of the programme was expanded. Social media was also used as an important tool to reach the technology-savvy quota of the targeted demography while on-the-ground activations were utilized for the others.
Applying a rounded approach, the MTN Foundation collaborated with the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) to set up the Influencer’s training workshop in each of the 6 states. The workshop was an intervention measure aimed at training individuals to become enlightened influencers using well-researched contents provided by the UNODC on substance abuse. Also, the two-day course spanning a 13-module curriculum focused on the state of drug abuse in the country, and the world at large. The training served as an initialisation point which set each volunteer on the path to becoming trainers ready to impart knowledge of substance abuse on others in their community.
With the crux of the project leaning towards awareness and enlightenment to curtail the scourge of substance abuse, special focus was placed on assessing the state of substance abuse at a round table discussion in each state. There, current drug use trends and challenges that favour the proliferation of drug culture were discussed. The roundtable served as a parley where stakeholders from various organisations met with the general public to deliberate on the issues of substance abuse and proffer sustainable solutions towards reducing drug use cases. The Lagos round table witnessed a record attendance of over a thousand participants; the other round tables held in Rivers, Imo, Bauchi and Kano witnessed impressive turnouts as well.
From Ayobo in Lagos to Rumeme in Rivers, Okigwe in Imo state, Mohammed Maccido in Abuja, Wunti Dada in Bauchi and Wudil in Kano, the Brighter Life Campus activations, a two-hour entertainment show for tertiary institutions that employs the use of drama, music, and lectures with informational materials to pass the message of drug abuse, continued to impart unquantifiable knowledge on its trek through various campuses. The campus activation leveraged the power of drama through Riveting Ltd’s rendition of the stage play ‘Area Boy’. The piece was able to captivate students each time whilst exposing the vices tethered to abusing a substance. With music being a significant portion of the messaging strategy, Nigerian musician, David Jones David joined the ASAP project right after the Lagos activations in May 2019. With his songs’ lyrics centred on substance abuse, his discography was an effective tool that helped pass the message on the dangers of abusing drugs through its cautionary lyricism.
Harnessing the wealth of knowledge from professionals in agencies like the Nigerian Drug and Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), and other agencies, the Brighter Life Hour campus activation delivered lectures on various aspects of substance and substances abuse in digestible versions to the students.
These also focused on the public in open market places. With the exception of a drama cast and performance by singers, the market crowd was engaged using popular music and dance competition to pique their interest in the outreach. During this process, the basic message of substance abuse was passed to them via a public address system using the local dialect. Also, informational contents were distributed. A similar version to the Brighter Life Hour is the Assembly Xtra. The Assembly Xtra was beamed at primary pupils and secondary students to drive home points bordering on substance abuse.
The advocacy walk dubbed ASAP Walk for Life, where music, dance, exercise and sensitisation on substance abuse all converge for the common goal – enlighten the general public in their communities, was well attended by young residents in each stage.
After months of spreading the anti-substance abuse movement, across 6 state conferences, 6 advocacy walks and countless school and market activations that have impacted hundreds of millions of young Nigerians and, the pilot phase came to an end last month on the streets of Kano State.
The gauntlet has been thrown – the onus is now on every Nigerian to either rise up to the challenge and continue the movement against substance abuse with the fervor that it demands. The journey to freedom will not be easy, as will any journey worth its salt, but to save the young ones, is a task that must be done by all.
Sylvia Kumtong, a public affairs analyst, writes from Abuja