West Africa Is Battling An Opioid Crisis

In Nigeria, prescription drugs are being taken in life-threatening doses by millions in search of a fix.

West Africa – and particularly its most populous nation, Nigeria – is battling an opioid abuse crisis. Medicines such as tramadol, legally and legitimately prescribed by doctors for pain relief, are also being taken in life-threatening doses by millions in search of a fix or a release from poverty, unemployment and lack of opportunity.

People & Power sent filmmakers Naashon Zalk and Antony Loewenstein to Nigeria to investigate how the drug is smuggled, traded and abused, as well as the widespread corruption that follows this illicit trafficking, and the appalling health consequences for those in its grip.

n 2019, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released its first-ever drug use survey. The results were damning.

Out of a population of 200 million people, UNODC found that just over 14 percent of Nigerians aged between 15 and 64 abused drugs – more than twice the global average of 5.6 percent. Although cannabis is the most abused narcotic, tramadol – an opioid painkiller – is causing the biggest societal problems.

We started investigating this story because we had heard that West Africa in general, and Nigeria in particular, was experiencing an unprecedented explosion of tramadol abuse. What we discovered was surprising and disturbing. The drug is legally prescribed by doctors around the world to treat acute pain but it is also being taken in dangerously high doses for a variety of non-medical purposes.

Despite having Africa’s largest economy – surpassing South Africa’s in 2014 – there has been remarkably little reporting about Nigeria’s tramadol problems. Although a few major Western media outlets have covered the drug’s abuse in the Middle East and Africa, usually focussing on how it is used by fighters belonging to hardline groups, we soon realised that there was little concrete information about how and why millions of ordinary Nigerians are abusing it.

Mainstream media is regularly filled with startling reports on the opioid epidemic destroying communities across the United States but a similar situation for West Africans, especially Nigerians, has largely been ignored. (Courtesy of aljazeera | Antony Loewenstein)

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