How drug use affects conflict in Nigeria

Since the end of military rule in 1999, Nigeria has gone through a process of rapid economic and social development. Yet, the country continues to be plagued by poor governance, systemic inequality and local violence. In recent years, it has also developed a reputation as a hub for international drug trafficking.

Behind these headlines lies the lesser-told story of Nigerian society’s battle with drug use – which is seemingly on the rise.

With Nigeria’s economy now hitting the breaks – in the face of falling oil prices – and economists warning of recession, it would be tempting for policy-makers to focus on other looming issues.

Nigeria has escaped the high-profile violence ravaging other narcotics hotspots, but drug use is not without its dangers for society. Namely its impact on public safety. Better to understand the issue now and ensure effective responses, rather than wait for things to unfold.

With this in mind, the Nigeria Stability and Reconciliation Programme (NSRP), which aims to reduce violent conflict in the country, commissioned International Alert to research the relationship between drug consumption, peace and security at the local and state levels in Nigeria.

We spoke to health professionals, police, community members, government officials and drug abusers themselves about their experiences in five Nigerian states: Borno, Kaduna, Kano, Plateau and Rivers, as well as in the capital, Lagos.

A large majority of those interviewed describe drug use in Nigeria as linked to violent conflict and criminal behaviour, from the streets to the elites. This includes small disputes between young people escalating into deadly confrontations, as well as drugs factoring into sexual violence, spousal abuse and family conflicts.

Some described drug use as particularly dangerous in areas where there are already conflicts between communities. For instance, in personal altercations, which can take on a larger significance depending on the ethnopolitical or religious identity of those involved.

In Borno state, many people described drugs as having played a major role in the violent conflict involving Boko Haram. Use of tramadol, an over-the-counter painkiller related to morphine and other opiates, was said to be rampant in the militant group’s ranks, and many felt the drug played a significant role in enabling atrocities on both sides of the conflict.

A large number also linked drugs to election violence. Some politicians and candidates reportedly employ drug users as informal street enforcers and during elections distribute drugs to them to enable the harassment of opposing voters.

Many community members described law enforcement efforts to curb drug use as insufficient, particularly in Rivers. There, violence associated with ‘cult’ gangs has left many fearful and exhausted.

There is also a desperate shortage of available treatment options for drug users, who face stigma and exposure to various forms of violence.

Policies crafted to combat drug abuse must be firmly rooted in the public health and law enforcement sphere, and not worsen stigma towards users or criminalise them.

Peacebuilding must be included in any of these solutions, as addressing the underlying conditions that provide opportunities for drugs to fuel violence will require policies that build social bonds and bridges to users.

This must not be ignored in favour of promoting tougher enforcement practices or strategies that focus exclusively on the supply of drugs, or that replicate the failures of the drug war elsewhere.

To find out more, read the research Out of the shadows and our policy brief on the issue.

Photo: © Nigel Dickinson/Alamy Stock Photo