In Nigeria’s commercial hub, Lagos, investigative journalist Gabriel Ogunjobi tracked 10 hideouts where hard drugs such as crack cocaine, crystal meth and colorado are in unhindered exchange. He discovers that the racketeering happens under the watch of policemen who can so easily break the chain of the illicit trade but choose to look the other way.
It was 9am on Thursday, September 24, 2020. Out-of-school children at Iyana Oba roundabout, Lagos Mainland, had just begun their daily hustle. Most of them hawked sachet water or begged for alms.
About 5km away, amidst the hustle and bustle of the city, inside the popular Alaba International Market, some other young Nigerians had started their daily routine of abusing addictive substances.
“I bet you! This is even the time you will meet them more,” my source, Richard Nelson (not real name), told me as we hopped on a motorcycle to the drug den while it drizzled.
INSIDE MASTER’S DRUG DEN
Alaba International, unarguably the largest electronic market in Nigeria, seemed like a place for regular business activity until I entered the first hideout, built with iron roofing sheets held together at cardinal points with two-by-two-sized woods.
It is a makeshift home to a drug dealer nicknamed ‘Master’, with methamphetamine, popularly called crystal meth, sold in large quantities. Other drugs such as crack cocaine, or ‘crack’ for short, were sold in retail quantities.
At the entrance, four young men dismantled old electronic parts for resale. Another young, dark-skinned man was selling wraps of crystal meth. The only way to enter the dens was to buy a wrap of crystal meth, which went for N200. I bought three wraps.
I stood and watched as young and old men trooped in and out of Master’s den. At one time, I counted 40 people inside. Out of those 40, 10 were sleeping, 30 were awake. A quarter of them were minors, as defined by the United Nations Convention. What brought them together was substance abuse.
My guide Richard had warned that maintaining my cover depended on how well I hid my reaction to the smoke and the people who consumed the drugs. For hours, I inhaled the smoke but I just could not cover my nose.
Richard, a rugged, dark-complexioned young man, struggles with substance abuse but wants to be clean.
“Come and see how the youth are wasting their lives away,” he told me during our first ever conversation. I proposed he accompany me to a few of the dens. He agreed, hoping that if he devoted himself to a cause towards getting rid of those places that indulged his habit, it may lessen his regrets about ever abusing drugs.
So, it was not hard to convince Richard about my mission of getting firsthand evidence on the cheapness and accessibility of hard drugs to young Nigerians.
UNFIT FOR ANIMALS, HABITED BY DRUG ABUSERS
Back in the den, the thick smoke was starting to choke me and I almost waved the palm of my hand sideways, but Richard gave me the eye against it. Instead, I excused myself and headed for a corner where soft drinks were sold; I bought a bottle.
A minute after my first sip of the drink, a boy walked up to me to beg for some. His intention was to use the gas inside the carbonated drink to consume a wrap of meth. Immediately I obliged him, he positioned himself by my side to begin smoking. Behind us was a gutter clogged with disposable plastic and oozing with urine stench.
But the smokers didn’t mind — even if it was unfit for domestic animals to live, let alone the humans who passed the night there.
I would later walk to another corner to get a sharper glimpse of the area. I saw Rafael, a boy who shivered and scratched the patches on his skin and begged for money to smoke. Not long after, he was sat next to his peers asking for a lighter to smoke the meth he had been gifted.
Rafael carefully unwrapped the meth, holding it with the thumb and index finger of his left hand. His right hand held the tube that had two pipes attached to the cap, while someone helped him light the bottom of the wrap. Afterwards, he blew the gas from the tube and inhaled the smoke. In five minutes, a pinch of meth would be out!
Although the shivering had now subsided, Rafael still appeared shattered and malnourished. Underage children like him who were not smoking were sleeping, stuffed under the snooker’s baize-covered table. Some others were lying beside active smokers. All looking unsettled and wretched.
‘POLICE IS YOUR FRIEND’, YES, IF YOU DO DRUGS
An hour into my stay at Master’s den, two men whom I would later confirm to be police officers arrived. They violently dragged a teenager into the den with his two hands handcuffed. One of them wore a head warmer and had a small bag dangling around his waist.
For a moment, I wondered what would happen if we were all arrested right there. What if any of these already intoxicated guys resisted arrest and the officers pulled out their guns?
From the way he shook hands with the guys in the den, I could so easily tell that the second officer was the superior one and that he was a friend to these drug abusers. To my greatest surprise, he had not come for any arrest spree for those abusing illegal substances in the country.
Last Born, one of the policemen, drew out his pistol from his back after resistance from the minor he came to arrest. Someone in the den explained that “the two teenagers had duped one person in the market before this one ran here to shield himself”.
After the successful arrest of that minor, Last Born ordered for a local herb mixture called sepe, asking one of his smoker-friends there to pay.
FIJ would later confirm that Last born reports to the Nigeria Police Area Command District in Ojo, beside the Customary Court.
Occupants of the neighbourhood said he is rarely seen in police uniform, a common feature with members of the now dissolved Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) unit of the Nigeria Police.
“He is fondly called ‘Last Born’ but he has a friend among them named Officer Johnson who would know his actual name,” a trader said.
THE DEN OF ROBBERS
“If you are able to enter here, you will see guns. This is where armed robbers and G-boys come to flex,” Richard had told me as we walked towards another drug den still within Alaba.
‘G-Boy’ is the Nigerian lingo for internet fraudsters.
Reports by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) often link drug crime with other criminal offences. Nearly one-quarter of high-risk drug users were arrested for a drug-related offence during the course of their drug use. Twelve per cent of them had also been arrested for theft, five per cent for sex work, four for burglary and two for shoplifting.
Mohammed Buba Marwa, Chairman of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), also admitted that 90 per cent of crime in the country is linked to drug abuse.
Kongo’s den was more organized. Things were done discreetly. The iron roofing sheet-built fence made it impossible to see what was going on inside. But outside, men on guard screened the visitors they gave access to. It had been a long time since Richard’s last visit to this den of robbers, and questions over his sudden reappearance were always going to be raised. A fair and robust lady ran into us on the way and tried ushering us in.
“Hey, stop there!”, a voice screamed among the hefty men at the balcony.
I tried passing my recording device to Richard before we again heard: “Clear way! Clear way; boss dey come!”
One of the boys caught me while doing this and led me to a corner, holding me hostage for about 15 minutes as he quizzed Richard about who I was.
The only condition for his entry was a thorough body search, which he declined to undergo. I watched as he struggled to renew his trust with Kongo’s men to no avail.
He quietly retreated to the side of the fence I was leaning on.
“I ain’t gonna take this shit in,” he told me, referring to the recording device in his pocket. “We have to abort the mission now!”
We decided we would return to the same den after I had altered my innocent look.
‘TO SIT OR STAND IDLE WITHOUT SMOKING IS SIN’
We visited another den that evening. It was Kongo’s annexe, a dimly-lit, derelict storehouse.
Near the front door was the inscription: “The only sin here is to stand or sit idle.”
Unlike Master’s den, there were no restrictions on the varieties of drugs to consume. They did more of marijuana and alcohol. The age of the smokers ranged from 30s and 40s to 50s. So were the options of hard substance.
An obviously drunk man was creating a scene to entertain smokers.
“Are you filming me? Let me dress well so that you can do properly,” he said, although he had no idea what I was doing on my phone.
A smoker, one of three ladies said to be ‘Kongo’s girls’, told me “na this side the girls dey sleep”.
One of them, Chiamaka (not real name) obviously still had an interest in my source, her old ‘friend’. As we exited, both of them stopped to chat beside the shop of someone playing a song that gave him out as a northerner. Assurance of blow job, among other sexually-explicit words, were the things they fed my ears with.
By the time I returned to the same den on November 29, 2020, Chiamaka was already in the first trimester of her pregnancy.
“A JUNKIE IS A JUNKIE, A COP IS A COP”
No sooner had I arrived than handshakes from unfamiliar faces began coming my way — the first confirmation that my new look worked. Success number one!
From checks before the second visit, it had looked easier to access the den through the backdoor. But not anymore; it had become completely blocked, so my only option was the front.
Of the men screening the entrants, only one was interested in probing me. He had been angered by my attempt to access the den through the backdoor.
“Why are you here?”
“Na Kongo we wan see,” I replied. “We are not staying. Just to buy market and go.”
“Why did you now try to come in through the back?” he retorted.
“Na your man tell us say road dey there.”
He ordered one of the men to go and confirm the truth about my last response. When the person returned to testify that we were indeed honest, he summoned us.
As soon as Kongo, a shirtless, hefty, bottom-bellied man confirmed my source as a longtime customer, he went back inside. He asked what we wanted to buy and we chorused “Colorado”.
A man who had been observing our interaction interjected, but another stopped him and instructed him to return our money.
“Return their money. Go and buy it elsewhere,” he said.
But we had barely walked a mile away before Chiamaka, who had now been identified with us, was called back. She was given multiple slaps as reward for bringing us there.
Richard told me that despite my disguise, I was still not “looking like one of them”.
“No matter how hard you try to act like it, a junkie is a junkie, and a cop is a cop,” he said.
UNDERAGE GAMBLERS IN THE SHANTIES, THE ‘OTHER BUSINESS’ ON LAGOS REFUSE DUMPS
On Tuesday, December 1, another drug den in the middle of the shanty opposite Lory Plaza and G80 & G81 Innotex Micro Plaza — on Alaba Rago Road, Ojo, Lagos — was my sixth location: three at Alaba International and another three at Alaba Rago, the goat-selling market.
One thing that stood out for a business was the ratio of underage gamblers and smokers compared to the adult smokers. It was like a ratio of 3:1 for an average of 36 people inside.
A game challenger would sponsor the buying of the pack of WHOT cards to launch a round of gambling for N100. At the end of every challenge, the pack of cards was torn.
One of them explained that tearing the card after each game was their way of helping the traders’ business boom as they always made their own money from gambling.
Underage gambling is prohibited by Nigerian law but the act is one of the complimentary violations typical of drug dens.
Section 34 of the National Lottery Act, 2005 stipulates that “any person who knowingly sells to any person under the age of eighteen years any ticket in a lottery operated by a licensee commits an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine of not less than N20,000 or imprisonment for a term of not less than one year or both such fine and imprisonment”.
The Lottery Laws of Lagos State (2004) also forbids minors from betting in whatever guise, with appropriate sanctions for violators.
Surprisingly, I saw that drug crime was not just rampant in Lagos slums but also on refuse dumps.
From several enquiries I made like a potential drug abuser, a motorcyclist directed me to two refuse dumps where marijuana is secretly taken in the midst of garbage.
The two refuse dumps are among pockets of refuse dumps between Mile 2 and Iyana Oba, off Apapa, where Nigeria’s biggest seaport is situated. They are some 10 minutes walk from the Alakija underbridge along Badagry Expressway.
On the expressway to these refuse dumps, night commuters have often complained about waylaying by gang robbers. Some of the suspects arrested once confessed to using the bushes around the Lagos/Badagry Expressway as hideouts for their operations.
Discovering the two drug hideouts corroborate the concern for insecurity in that area.
FROM LAND TO WATER, COLORADO IS FOUND
Colorado is a variety of cannabis with the active ingredient, Delta‐9‐tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THCs are quite potent and stimulate the functioning of the hippocampus, cerebellum, prefrontal cortex, and amygdala – brain regions involved in pleasure, cognition, concentration, memory, reward, pain perception and motor coordination.
Research established that colorado consumers often experience anxiety, panic, or have paranoid thoughts or, in the worst, acute psychosis.
Depending on the location, a gram of colorado went for nothing less than N1,000. Onyeka gave a warning that “the potency is not something your body can control in this place”.
“Get home before taking it.”
Yet Onyeka sold colorado inside the hideout under the FESTAC link bridge, beside the former The Place restaurant.
TRENDS OF DRUG ABUSE
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) World Drug report published in June 2020, around 269 million people used drugs worldwide in 2018, out of whom over 35 million suffer from drug use disorders.
In 2018, Cannabis was the most used substance worldwide, with an estimated 192 million people using it. Opioids such as codeine and fentanyl, however, remain the most harmful, as over the past decade, the total number of deaths due to opioid use disorders went up 71 per cent, with a 92 per cent increase among women compared with 63 per cent among men.
Amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS), including drugs such as Ecstasy and methamphetamine, are the most commonly used illicit substances after cannabis.
In one of my interactions with Richard, he expressed regrets about having consumed most varieties of drugs available in Nigeria. His journey into the world of substance abuse.
Sometimes in 2007, Richard lost his father. To beat depression, being the first child, he turned to alcohol and drugs.
“Now, I am stuck,” he said. “I swear I don’t know what to do.”
In Nigeria, the drug use report by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) published in July 2018 stated that 14.4 per cent of the population aged 15-64, the equivalent of 14.3 million people, had used drugs in the past 12 months. Among every four drug users in Nigeria, one is a woman. More men (annual prevalence of 21.8 per cent or 10.8 million men) than women (annual prevalence of 7.0 per cent or 3.4 million women) reported past-year drug use in Africa’s largest nation.
The stark reality for most drug abusers like Richard is that they often suffer from drug use disorders, which is an unmet need for drug treatment.
Available data corroborate FIJ’s findings that adolescents and young adults account for the largest share of drug users, while medical researches further show that young people are the most vulnerable to the side effects.
This is because “it is easier for an adult to consciously stop hard drugs than it is for teens,” says a psychiatric doctor who didn’t want to be named.
“The effects of the drugs are more devastating in the young ones because most of the hard drugs work on the brain. Before they are able to gain control over their intake, they would have either gotten addicted or damaged a part of their brain. The effects can be very severe.”
He warned that abstinence is the surest way to escape drug addiction.
“The level of addiction differs per individual, quantities and classifications of the drugs,” he explains.
“Some people may take hard drugs a few times and quickly snap out of it but some people may try it once and get hooked. It is best to completely stay away from it.”
Scarier is the fact that science has so far been unable to define people’s level of resistance to drug use.
THE STRUGGLE IS REAL
As of January 2021, Richard had become homeless twice in barely three months since his aunt in Lagos sent him packing after one of his friends made sexual advances towards her.
Richard was given money to return to his mother, who had already remarried in Owerri, the capital of Imo State, but he never did. He was convinced returning to Owerri would give him free access to hard drugs and worsen his condition.
“There are many places to go but nowhere to stay,” he said. “When guys see me, they will offer free drugs. I am the kind of person who attracts friends because I spend money on them when I have too. But, you see, it is the same free drug that kills.”
An international non-governmental organization, Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimated that over 100,000 people are displaced in Lagos state. Unless a miracle happens, it won’t be too long before Richard becomes a statistic himself.
As it is with Richard, who possesses just a secondary school leaving certificate, half-literacy, unemployment and homelessness are common indicators of drug addiction across most low-income cities of Nigeria.
The UNODC Executive Director Ghada Waly admitted in the 2020 World Drug Report that “vulnerable and marginalized groups, youth, women and the poor pay the price for the world drug problem,” especially in during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Drug hideouts continue to grow simultaneously with the increasing rate of poverty and homelessness in Nigeria.
Experts have found out that people manifesting Richard’s traits are ‘motivated drug addicts’ who have the willpower to overcome addiction. One paramount thing to be noted, however, is that “such a person needs to check in to a good rehabilitation centre”, says the psychiatric doctor.
He warned against visiting faith-based centres, saying there is no “spiritual bondage over drugs” to be broken.
“Relocating from those environments notorious for drug abuse will create a physical barrier between hard drugs and the addicted person,” he says.
An undercover investigation by multiple award-winning journalist ‘Fisayo Soyombo, published by TheCable and BusinessDay, however, exposed the high level of institutional corruption and low quality of service delivery, including the smuggling of indian hemp into the Federal Neuropsychiatric Hospital, Yaba, Lagos, one of the nation’s most historic mental rehabilitation centres.
The exposé raised questions about the weaknesses in the programmes designed by Nigeria’s rehabilitation centres to salvage the lifetime consequences of drug abuse among Nigerian youths.
Data also corroborated that nearly 40 per cent of high-risk drug users wanted treatment but were unable to get it. Cost of treatment, stigma associated with drug use, and the limited availability of drug treatment services are the major barriers to accessing drug treatment in Nigeria.
Yobe, Imo, Bayelsa, Rivers and Lagos states have been ranked as “the states where it was more difficult to access treatment for drug use disorders”.
WHY IS DRUG RACKETEERING HAPPENING UNDER THE NOSE OF NIGERIA POLICE?
Section 41 of the National Drug and Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) Act empowers any officer of the Police, Customs or NDLEA to enter and search any land or building and to arrest anyone found to illegally possess, sell or abuse, import or export cocaine, heroin, or similar dangerous drugs.
The Act also established that any person who, without lawful authority imports or exports, grows any of these related drugs shall be sentenced to imprisonment for life, while those smoking, inhaling or injecting them shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term not less than 15 years but not exceeding 25 years.
But the Police cannot be said to be sufficiently discharging this responsibility. Aside from the police officer caught in one of the dens visited by this reporter, most of these dens are located close to police stations.
There are blocks of mechanics’ workshops at Agboju area within FESTAC. No one would have thought an illicit drug trade was going on there.
For someone heading to Second Rainbow from 21 road in FESTAC, the drug den inside the mechanic workshop is on the right-hand side while the Area E Command Police Headquarters and the Police Divisional Headquarters, FESTAC Town, are both on the left. The den is approximately one kilometre and a two-minute drive from the two police stations.
But Haruna Abiola, the Divisional Police Officer (DPO) of Police Divisional Headquarters at FESTAC town, insisted that the Police were not aware of any drug hideouts around.
“There are no drug hideouts around here. Except for some boys that we sometimes arrest when seen smoking Indian Hemp and those ones are usually in small quantities,” Haruna told FIJ.
“If you know where these drug hideouts are, let’s fix an appointment in my office then you can give us their locations.”
Meanwhile, the two refuse dumps are also about 10 minutes away and less than two kilometres from the FESTAC police stations. Also, the FESTAC link bridge where colorado was confirmed sold is only 2.7km away from these two police stations. In summary, four drug hideouts are just nearby, while the remaining six hideouts are not too far from the Police Division in Ojo, where ‘Last Born’ reports to. Master’s hideout is just a 10-minute drive away.
Kongo’s den is roughly 3km from the Ojo Police Station, with Kongo’s annexe just a stone’s throw away from its ‘headquarters’. A journey from the drug den opposite Lory Plaza and Innotex Micro-Plaza to the same police station will last just 4km. The remaining three are all around.
Abdullahi Malah, the Divisional Police Officer over Ojo Division, tried to absolve the Police of any wrongdoing, saying NDLEA hasn’t been living up to its responsibility.
“Drug abusers are everywhere,” he said. “Last October, we arrested someone with 180 wraps of Indian hemp. We did our best to transfer to NDLEA with photo evidence and all. They said they were too busy until #EndSARS protesters came to vandalize the division, including the exhibit rooms.”
Asked about police connivance with drug dealers, he said: “To the best of my knowledge, I will not take it lightly with any policeman caught protecting any of the drug dealers.
“Should I find out or if the community has any such information, they can come directly to me in confidence and we will take appropriate actions against such an officer.”
‘DRUG MISCREANTS WON’T DARE TO BE NEAR POLICE STATIONS’ — NDLEA
When contacted for comments, Jonah Achema, the Head of Public Affairs at the NDLEA, confidently rejected the possibility of drug hideouts being situated near police stations.
“Drug miscreants cannot dare any law enforcement agency by locating their drug joints around the stations,” he said. “We are in good collaboration with the Police and other security agencies.”
He insisted the NDLEA was “on top of the situation given the magnitude of drug seizures and arrests of drug offenders”. Subsequently, though, admitted to the lack of sufficient manpower and logistics.
Editor’s Note: The real names of the people living with substance abuse have been changed to avoid stigmatization
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