Drugs and poverty blight Northern Nigeria

Unemployment, rampant abject poverty, and lack of education are fuelling drug use in Kano State.

Nearly 37 percent of the population in Kano State are drug users [Ashionye Ogene/Al Jazeera]

Kano, Nigeria – “This society is not a very friendly place,” says Dr Ekpein Appah, a camp co-ordinator at the Kano Reformatory Institute in Kiru, Nigeria. “This place can be like a jungle. You have to fight to survive and that fight for survival is what is driving young people to drugs.”

Thirty-seven percent of the population in Kano State, an area in northwest Nigeria, are drug abusers according to official figures from the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA). This is the highest figure nationwide. Nigeria’s second largest city also has the highest number of people arrested for illicit drug trafficking or drug use. On September 9, a drug rehabilitation centre was opened in Kano for drug addicts. “The Kano state government realised the idea of arresting drug abusers and sending them to jail doesn’t work. They just get stuck in a cycle and come back to harm society when they are released. Why not reform them?” says Appah.

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“The drug abusers are brought into the institute for 60 days where they undergo three major components of our training programme: Medicals, which comprise of screening and detoxification, counselling and finally skills acquisition. There is no work, schools and universities are closed or over crowded. These are all children minus a few. Something is wrong somewhere”.

Historically, Kano State was a very different place to what is today. Nigeria’s ancient kingdom was once the greatest commercial power in West Africa and a bustling trade centre. Its leather and cotton goods were widely transported across the Sahara to North Africa and Europe and for centuries merchants from neighbouring African countries and beyond traded in gold, ivory and salt. In recent times, Kano was the second largest industrial centre in Nigeria and the largest in Northern Nigeria. 

Then Boko Haram entered the scene. After the introduction of Sharia in the year 2000 many non-Muslims and traders left the city. Then on January 21, 2012, Kano witnessed one of the worst attacks of terrorism in Nigeria’s history: One hundred seventy-eight people were killed in a series of coordinated bomb blasts and shooting sprees. The streets are now quiet in Kano. Nigeria’s vast metropolis which once boasted wide paved highways bustling with cars, buses and businessmen is now deserted.

Dusty alleyways filled with kids smoking Indian hemp are common. In the years since the insecurity began, residents have seen a dramatic change to their surroundings. Now children are out of school and unemployment is high.

Drug use and unemployment

The reason why we are using drugs is to enjoy our lives.

by Abdullahi

“The reason why we are using drugs is to enjoy our lives”, says Abdullahi, 28, staring out from behind the chipped blue metal bars of a holding cell in the NDLEA headquarters. The stench of human faeces, sweat and urine fills the air. Dozens of young men, both addicts and sellers, are locked away in a cramped windowless black hole while they await trial. The stone walls that keep them enclosed are covered in Hausa and Arabic graffiti, the prisoners make their mark by scratching their names and prayers with broken rocks.

Abdullahi, like most of the young men here, was a petty drug user. He told Al Jazeera, “I have been smoking cannabis for 6 years. When I took it, I used to feel free. I used to feel happy in my mind. The reason why I started smoking is because I wasn’t employed. I had nothing to do. I was just moving around my area with friends. Some of us were selling petroleum to try and make some money but the police would stop us. We are the sons of poor people here. Our parents don’t have enough money to pay for us to go to school or take us to market where they will teach us how to trade. There are drug sellers everywhere in the city. So many people are using drugs. Old guys, young boys. They are all using it because there is nothing to do here. So we thought it must be good. That is why we started”.

The NDLEA in Kano state have the most difficult region to monitor in all Nigeria, according to the state commander of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, Amadu Garba, told Al Jazeera, “The problem of drug abuse is a very serious one in Kano. Statistics show nationwide that Kano has a significantly higher number of people arrested than in any other part of the country. The number of people convicted is higher compared to the rest of the country and we have a high rate of seizures made by the command. This attests to the fact we have a serious drug problem in this state.”


Official figures from the NDLEA show they made 700 arrests last year. Most of the arrests were made in relation to cannabis. Three tonnes of marijuana were taken off the streets of Kano this year, down from 4 tonnes last year. But other drugs such as cocaine, heroin and psychotropics are also found in raids. 3000kg of drugs were confiscated during busts and a conviction can land sellers with a 25 year to life prison sentence.

The front of the NDLEA jail [Ashionye Ogene/Al Jazeera]

“Some of the greatest challenges we have here are that of personnel and logistics, but we have teamed up with the Nigerian police, the department of state security, customs, immigration and Hisbah to fight drug abuse and trafficking in Kano. So far it has been good because we have been able to dislodge some of the most notorious joints in Kano. The places that used to be hideouts or serious dens are no longer there. They haven’t disappeared completely. We’re still carrying out raids but we’re making it difficult for sellers,” Garba said.

The reform centre in Kiru has helped ease the strain on the NDLEA resources according to Garba.

“Users are taken to Kiru for a comprehensive counselling and rehabilitation process that will seriously reduce the problem for the NDLEA. There is a holistic approach to the drug problem more than ever before and I am hopeful this will bring it down”.

Whether the reform centre will have any real impact on the drug problem in Kano is too early to be seen, but it is a start at least and perhaps a model for what should and can be done.

Abdul, 19, who has recently graduated from the reform centre says, “If my parents hadn’t brought me here I don’t know what would have happened to me. I probably would have lost my mind or been dead. I was taking marijuana, codeine syrup, pills and solvents to calm myself down. I didn’t feel like there was a future for me. Many young people are taking drugs here because of unemployment, poverty and the insecurity. We want to forget what is going on around us.”

When Abdul was asked what he would do now that he had graduated, he shrugged. “As of now I’m not doing anything. I’m still unemployed”.

For residents of Kano, drugs are not the biggest problem they have to contend with. Unemployment, insecurity and poverty remain the root causes of drug abuse. Until these problems can be resolved, for many in Kano the hope of finding a job and a better future remains a distant one.

Source: Al Jazeera