The recent documentary by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) on the abuse of codeine cough syrup has got Nigerians talking about drug abuse and addiction in Nigeria. But the situation is far worse than the BBC documentary and many believe that the country is not giving the problem the attention it deserves. A consultant in addiction psychiatry and president, Reconnect Health Development Initiative, an international charity focusing on mental health and drug abuse-related issues, Dr Vincent Udenze, speaks with LEADERSHIP Friday on salient issues of drug abuse in the country and the need for government to act swiftly.
Have you seen the BBC Documentary on Codeine Cough Syrup and if you have, what are your thoughts?
Yes, I have watched the documentary. I am really grateful to the BBC for the documentary. It has again, brought it to the fore, for national discourse. Everyone is talking about it. You are interviewing me now as part of the discourse. The documentary is like a small part of a huge and ugly story. We all know that cough syrups don’t drop from heaven. We know they are manufactured and sold in Nigeria in large quantities. BBC is reminding us not to ignore this cancer. The problem is huge and the solution will need to be strategic, multi-sectoral and multidimensional. This problem has come to stay. We can’t get rid of substance abuse but we can manage it.?
Nigeria’s minster of Health has banned the production of Codeine containing cough syrup. What is your view?
The ban is an interesting one. I will like to see an action plan and roadmap . The minister should actively search for “brains” that will articulate a ministerial strategy. Pentazocine is a prescription only drug that is a drug of addiction. Is he going to ban that too? People abuse Lyrica (Pregabalin), are we going to ban that ? This ban was also discussed when Hadiza Bala Usman ,MD of Nigeria Ports Authority and I did a presentation to the Northern Governors Forum on curbing this menace in Northern Nigeria a few weeks ago.
What has MD of Nigeria Ports Authority got to do with addiction issue?
Hadiza Bala Usman is a concerned mother, Northerner and Nigerian. She is very concerned about this problem. I have known her for about seven years and anytime we meet or discuss, the only thing we seem to talk about is how to put an end to this menace. We both felt speaking to the governors in the North might generate a collective interest and strategy by the governors. She attended that meeting in her capacity as a concerned Nigerian woman.
What was the outcome of your presentation to the northern governors?
Our presentation was well received. The discussion was stimulating and heartfelt. They recommended that a state of emergency on drug abuse be declared in Northern Nigeria. They also agreed on some action points which will not be in my place to release to the Press. I have already written to Governor Shettima who is the Chair of the Northern Governors forum reminding him of this.
Are you saying that Governor Shettima has the key to solving this problem?
No. All I am saying is that we identified the Northern Governors Forum as a stakeholder that can make a difference. They promised to act. The framework for their action is on Governor Shettima’s desk. I will send another gentle reminder.
Why are you not able to tell us what you want the governors to do? I believe Nigerians will want to know and maybe Nigerians can help put pressure on the governors to act. This addiction is killing our youth, women and fabric of the society.
Okay, i will not talk about what they may have agreed to do or on strategy. I can broadly say that they will look at laws that can be passed in all the Northern states that will impact this menace and make the North of Nigeria an unfriendly place to carry out this trade. They will look at current strategies going on in each state and see what can be learned and shared . They will consider the strength in their collective purchasing power to bring down the costs of some intervention strategies discussed.
You are a consultant to the Northern Governors’ Wives Forum, NGWF. What are their plans?
NGWF already had an awareness and advocacy training day. They also decided that each governor’s wife should launch a campaign in their own state. For example, last week , my organisation , Reconnect Heath Development Initiative was part of the team that was in Minna to train five representatives from each of the 25 local governments in Niger State on awareness, advocacy and low level intervention strategies . The governors’ wives want to give Nigerians its first 24hrs language sensitive drug abuse and psychological support helpline. The NGWF is not funded and we are looking at the governors to help fund this project which is estimated to cost about N3 million per state.
Considering the amount involved, what is holding back the helpline?
Well, the Northern Governors in my meeting with them also agreed to support the initiatives of their wives and we are hoping they will fund this.
A language sensitive helpline will be a welcome development. Why can’t the governors fund this directly themselves?
I am sorry, I prefer not to comment on this any further
Your focus seems to be in Northern Nigeria. Do you have any activity in Southern Nigeria?
Oh yes, I have activities in the south. I actually was invited by Mrs Okorocha , Chair of Southern Governors Wives Forum to give a presentation at their meeting in Uyo two years ago. The difficulty was that they decided that each state should handle the problem on its own unlike the North where they appointed me as a consultant and kept the agenda alive centrally. I am hoping to have another opportunity to update them .We also have branches of our rehabilitation centres in Awka, Anambra State and Ikeja , Lagos State and soon to open in Port Harcourt.
Statistics show that Kano residents are most affected by addiction and drugs in Nigeria. Why is that so ? Have you got any plans to engage Kano people?
I have seen data describes Kano in the above terms. I have also read articles referencing the quantity of codeine consumed daily. It is heart breaking. I really can’t comment on the strength of the data .I was in Kano six weeks ago with Global Peace Women , an NGO run by Her Excellency Mrs Amina Namadi Sambo, wife of Nigeria’s ex vice President on a programme on drugs . Hearing people discuss the enormity of the problem and lack of solutions brought tears to my eyes. Families are suffering. i am aware of a family with four children and all are on drugs. I left Kano with one of the boys to offer him free treatment. I just wish I had the opportunity to do more. i really want to be part of an agenda to give our people hope and start to provide solutions. Quoting H.E. Mrs Sambo, lets Walk the Talk!
So, do you think the federal government is doing enough ?
Well, I don’t know what Mr President has done so far but he definately needs to do more. I will like to see him take this matter to heart. He should appoint a Senior Special Adviser to focus on this. America has a drug Czar. We need one in our Presidency. He needs to fund NDLEA. How many times should Nigerians ask for adequate funding of NDLEA? The last time I was with the chairman of NDLEA ,Col Abdallah, he talked about the great things he would like to do but has no funds to do them .Mr President should please address the nation .We need to hear from him, not his minister, not his spokesperson. We want to hear from him in a TV broadcast. He can definitely make a difference.
What will you like President Muhammadu Buhari to do?
He needs to acknowledge the enormity of the problem. He needs to share some innovative ways that he plans to tackle this problem. This problem requires innovative solutions. Nigerians will recognise a great strategy when they hear or see one.
We don’t have enough drug rehabilitation centres in the country. As an expert, what will you recommend?
I believe a robust community drug treatment service is the cheapest way of providing treatment. Not everyone will require admission. It is the main service model in the UK. Based on my eight years experience in Nigeria, I have developed a community treatment model for government to use. I mentioned this at the Governors Forum and I know Governor Yahaya Bello was excited about it. The model is mainly self funding with minimal input from government and will generate a lot of employment.
How will this create employment ? Have you discussed your plan with the Ministry of Health?
Yes, it creates employment. My first presentation on the topic to H.E. Dr Amina Sani Bello , wife of the Governor of Niger State went further to get me an appointment to discuss this with the governor.
Is Niger State going to take this on board?
Well, we just finished the first phase of our intervention strategy in Niger state. This model may be considered in the 3rd phase. Let’s wait and see. Election is coming ….that might slow things down.