BBC investigation: Secrets of Nigeria’s illicit codeine trade revealed
“You’ve started smoking? Open your mouth!” I ordered my brother, who had only just turned 13. I grabbed C’s jaw, sniffing repeatedly, unable to believe what my nose was telling me. Underneath a flimsy mask of TomTom sweets and yaji pepper, lay the tell-tale smell of cigarettes.
C begged me not to tell our parents. Little did I know this would be the first ominous sign of my brother’s future life of addiction.Over the next two decades, while his mates graduated from university, my brother graduated from cigarettes to various substances, including codeine, often paid for by money meant for his university tuition. He would disappear for months at a time.
His struggles with addiction caused division within my family. My parents would fight about the best way to deal with it; dad favoured a cut-him-off approach, while my mum always took it to the Lord in prayer, and routinely hid the extent of C’s behaviour from her husband. Us siblings were on either side, depending on our mood from day to day. By the time our father died suddenly in 2006, C spiraled further out of control. As siblings, we had become used to being called on to provide money for basic necessities that we suspected could end up funding C’s next high, or asked to donate money for bail when he fell in with the wrong crowd.
Enter Miss “Coda”
In early 2011, C was missing again. He was supposed to be in university outside Lagos, but no one in the family had heard from him. Our only hope for proof that he was still alive was social media -specifically Facebook.
From London where I was a student, I would spend my spare time on C’s Facebook account. It was a good day for the family if any of us saw a picture posted by him; we siblings would call each other, describing the picture.One day in 2012, I saw a picture post showing different small brown bottles, listing “codeine for sale.” The comments from potential buyers referred to “Coda,” or “Slow.”
I began to find out as much as I could, about codeine.Years later I began working at the BBC, which decided to begin an in-depth investigation into the cartels and companies that exploit codeine addiction to bring in millions of Naira in revenue.
Over four months, the BBC went undercover in Kano, Lagos and Ilorin – cities in northern, southern and central Nigeria and the route through which industrial quantities of codeine leak through the back doors of pharmaceutical companies, and onto the streets of the country’s most populous states.
What We Found
We were able to buy cartons of cough syrup direct from pharmaceutical companies without documentation, even though legally, only stores with a pharmaceutical licence can buy it from companies in Nigeria.Our investigation revealed that in the illicit codeine trade, there are no invoices and no guarantees of supply. Instead, there is an abundance of shady pharmaceutical company insiders, many with links to street gangs, who rely on henchmen to oversee drop-offs of the drug.
Pharmaceutical Companies Are Cashing In
Three brands emerged as recurring figures in the codeine equation. We secretly filmed highly placed individuals from these companies describing how they exploit weak regulation to create a sinister underground market, where prices are hiked based on the thirst of addicts on each dealer’s turf.“If you give me 1 million cartons? I can sell it in two weeks,” a senior official of a household pharmaceutical company boasted to our hidden cameras, after turning up with four young men as muscle, to make a sale.
A prominent pharmacist at another company advised our undercover reporters that the best way to get codeine from the factory would be to trick the authorities.“If I want to release it to you? You must have a pharmacist fronting for you … just have an agreement with an already established pharmacist. We can supply the person.”Elsewhere, the BBC was able to drive straight to a company and buy codeine, from salespeople, who shared some trade secrets: sell to young students in schools. They have the appetite, which means they will somehow get the money to buy it.
Authorities Are Seeing More Codeine Users
The BBC gained exclusive access to the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) in Kano, where, together with neighbouring Jigawa State, an estimated three million bottles of codeine syrup find their way into the hands – and throats – of pre-teens, young adults and housewives every day.
The head of the agency in Kano, Hamza Umar, said it was shocking that tonnes of the drug is constantly being seized and destroyed.In the NDLEA’s exhibit rooms, he showed the BBC a large pile of seized codeine, and a vast array of weapons such as chainsaws, bows and poisoned arrows, local pistols, swords and pickaxes. Dealers use top of the range SUVs to protect and transport their codeine consignments from Kano, through the Sahara, and onwards to countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
Our camera crew, wearing bullet-proof vests, were embedded with more than 40 armed officers from the NDLEA. They filmed raids across Kano, in which the agency stormed hotels, bars and kiosks to seize codeine and arrest suspects. These raids can lead to larger seizures of the drug; but they can be dangerous.An officer, named Ahmed described how during one raid, a suspect ran up to him, and began hacking at his leg with a machete. Ahmed escaped with his life, but lost half his leg.
‘We Don’t Have That Much Cough In Nigeria’
We also filmed the consequences of this terrible trade. Over the screams of a patient in the throes of withdrawal, Sani Usaini, who heads the Doriye Rehabilitation Centre in Kano, said the facility was battling with a 500% increase in the number of patients with codeine addiction in the last two years; an average of 40 patients with codeine-related ailments are treated at the clinic. Abuse of codeine can cause seizures, multiple organ damage, acute pancreatitis, lack of muscle tone and death.
Over the screams of a patient in the throes of withdrawal, Sani explained that cartels are now setting up street hawkers and tricycle drivers as mules to boost the codeine distribution chain, serving customers as young as 10.Pharmacies are another battleground on the frontline of Nigeria’s codeine epidemic. Tolu Idowu, who owns three pharmacies in Lagos, said in 2011 his staff feared for their lives when they were attacked for refusing to sell codeine to a well-known addict, who became violent. Mr. Idowu has since stopped selling codeine syrups and has spent almost N1 million (£1,940) to turn his business into a fortress to protect it from addicts desperate for their next high. He feels pharmaceutical companies should take much of the blame for codeine’s devastating effects on Nigeria’s youth.
“We don’t have that much cough in Nigeria,” he says. “It’s not different from selling cocaine to people. If you’re selling this without the requisite documents, you can as well sell cocaine or morphine to people on the street.”When I saw what addiction was doing to my brother I felt powerless to stop it. Now I hope that investigating and exposing this horrific trade might in some way save others from the same self-destructive path.To see the full coverage of our unprecedented exposé on the high level underground criminality that moves codeine from factories to the streets, watch Sweet Sweet Codeine; inside Nigeria’s Pharma cartels on XXX.
Sweet Sweet Codeine – the new investigative documentary by the BBC will be shown on the following channels: NTA (23:00 GMT) and ABS Anambra (19:00pm GMT) on April 30.