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Codeine: Ban shouldn’t create business for smugglers –– Soyinka


Adejuwon Soyinka, Editor, BBC Pidgin Service, is a multiple award-winning journalist. His recent undercover documentary titled, Sweet Sweet Codeine, with Ruona Meyer, has instigated discussions at different segments of Nigerian society — from pharmaceutical companies to law enforcement agencies, drug administration, and parents. The documentary unearthed issues, which before now have been handled at different levels with a kid’s gloves. Soyinka spoke to OMIKO AWA on why the documentary was made

What have you been into since you left the services of Ogun State governor, Ibikunle Amosun, as his spokesman?

I have always been a journalist. I started practicing journalism in 1999. I have worked with the Tell magazine and other places before being a Senior Special Assistant (media) and Spokesman to Ogun State governor. I spent two years with the governor (2015 – 2017) to join the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Pidgin Service.


Pidgin Service entails transmitting all information, including news, to the audience in Pidgin, isn’t it?

Pidgin Service is one of the language services of the BBC and also Pidgin is one of the languages in Nigeria. As you must have been aware of, BBC has been broadcasting news in Hausa language in Nigeria and Africa for about 61 years. At some point, it decided to expand and added Pidgin Service in August 2017.

Later this year, it added the Igbo and Yoruba services to its outlets in Nigeria. Pidgin Service, as the name implies, produces content in Pidgin language to serve and cater for Pidgin speakers not just in Nigeria, but also across the West and Central Africa.

How acceptable is this service across the West African sub-region, bearing in mind that even Nigeria there are variations of Pidgin language?

The acceptance has been very good across West Africa – Ghana, Nigeria, Western Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and even with Africans in the Diaspora.

Do you have people from Nigeria or other countries in Africa translating the news items in their own variety of Pidgin to make the information accessible to them? For instance, Niger Delta people’s Pidgin is different from that spoken in, say Benue, Lagos, etc?

Pidgin is a novel thing, especially writing it. What we try to do is to harmonise the different ways people spell and write it.

In a way, we try to reflect these differences in our reporting. We are barely a year old and still learning. As we move on, we shall be accommodating and encouraging people.

The way Ghanaians speak Pidgin is different from the way Sierra Leoneans speak it, but the beauty of it is that we all understand ourselves across board and it is rare to see anybody that would not understand Pidgin English when someone speaks it.

How are you coping the change from standard to Pidgin English language?

I would not say it is difficult; I am a journalist and it is what I am trained to do. I saw it as an opportunity to do something new and also make history.

The way it is now, when the history of BBC Pidgin Service would be told in the future, it wouldn’t be complete without mentioning those of us that started it. So, I consider it a privilege.

Would it be out of the ordinary to suggest that BBC might use this medium, as a credible platform to codify Pidgin English in future?

Hopefully, we will get to that because the language has been in use for a long time. For us, it is one language that has unified Nigerians regardless of our dialects and culture. And outside Nigeria, it has remained as a barrier-breaking language.

It will enable one to identify a citizen of a neighbouring country, but what is lacking is its codification.

At the moment, there are no books on it outside the works Ken Saro-Wiwa wrote in Pidgin (Sazoboy, for instance, and Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation among others). There is a need to develop that further and the entrance of a major international media like BBC can always do things better.


What inspired Sweet Sweet Codeine documentary?

We suddenly realised that young people, including adults in their 40s, are abusing cough syrup with codeine, endangering their lives and health without knowing it.

We also found out that they are abusing it because they get it in large quantity. The question we then asked ourselves was, ‘how were they able to get this drug in large quantities if pharmaceutical stores are to require doctors’ prescriptions before selling?’

So, we knew there was a problem with the supply chain in the pharmaceutical sector and what we later found out even surprised those of us that worked on the project. We did not even expect it to be that deep. We did not even expect those involved in the criminal activities to be there.

Was there no particular event that led to this? How did you know there was an abuse?

We were triggered off by the case of a 13-year-old girl that was abusing codeine. It was a big story; so, in course of finding out what led to it, we discovered that there were others involved. There were a lot of young adults, people closer to 40 years and even university students abusing this substance.

We also found out that cough syrup with codeine can be bought at nightclubs and bars just like one orders for a drink and also that some people throw parties and serve cough syrup with codeine, as they would serve drinks.

Some of these were shocking to me; I never thought things like these existed; so, it became ‘the more we look into it, the more we found something strange.’

At a point, we took the decision of not only finding out those abusing cough syrup, but to find out how they get it and how it gets to them. We also found out that codeine is a very deceptive product in the sense that a lot of people who abuse it believe they have done nothing bad.

There are other drugs being abused on a daily bases? Why did you decide to go for codeine only?

In the course of the project, I met a lot of young people, who are abusing other drugs and those who would take virtually any drug or combination of drugs.

These youths believe it is better to take cough syrup with codeine than cocaine; they feel calm doing it because they see it as something smarter and harmless.

They see it as a thing that if anybody finds out it would not draw undue attention, especially as some people go to the pharmacy to buy cough syrup with codeine.


So, they feel they are doing nothing bad; yet it is damaging them as much as any other hard drug. Facts have it that two states alone consume three million bottles per day. This is alarming; so, all these drew our attention to cough syrup with codeine.

That documentary covers Lagos, Ilorin and Kano only. Don’t you think more than three million bottles are being consumed per day?

We consume 10 times more than that. Really, we have a challenge with statistics in this part of the world. So, nobody knows the exact number of bottles we consume daily.

We have the cases of illegal production and licensed companies producing beyond their production quotas, which is not known to the regulatory authorities and this might make it difficult to determine the number of bottles in the market or consumed daily.

The three million figure consumed was got from the Senate and, according to them, it is only coming from Kano and Jigawa States combined. We do not know the statistics of the other parts of the country, but we can assure that places like Lagos, with a lot of nightclubs, will be consuming more.

Some of the people I met, while doing the story suggested to me to open a bar and use it as a front to sell the drug. They told me that a good number of people are doing it. So, you can tell from this where some of these drugs could be got.

Is the price cough syrup with codeine sold in the clubs the same with what is obtainable at the pharmacy?

No; it is higher at the nightclubs because it is a black market. Prices in these clubs go for as much as N3000, while one can get it between N700 and N750 in the pharmacy. So, prices are marked up in the clubs.

Would it not be proper to have a second edition that would answer the plethora of questions raised during the screening, questions like the health factor and others?

There has been a lot of research on the health aspects. It affects multiple organs such as the kidney, lungs and others. The long and short of it is that it damages the human body, make users age faster and act as if they are in trance. I guess the challenge now is for the society to pick up where BBC stopped and build on it.

Would you say the Nigerian justice system is doing enough met out fair punishment on the offenders?

One of the things that have come up after the project is that the leadership of the Senate issued a statement commending BBC for its efforts and also highlighted some of the efforts of the National Assembly to curb the menace.

One of the things it can do is to expedite action to curb the menace by passing legislation that would strengthen the existing agencies to make them go after these issues. It feels good to hear that government has banned the production and importation of codeine to Nigeria.

In a way, it will reduce the number of people that will have assess to the product, but in a way, it will fall on the black market to direct sales of the product. We believe that government must have thought it through and not create business for smugglers.


How do you feel about companies indicted in the documentary denying involvement and saying the personnel are either not their staff or acted on their own?

In journalism our responsibility is to tell the story and also give the right of reply. In this instance, we have done a bit; we asked them questions and published their responses as it is. The beauty of it is that it is left for the public to judge if the companies are responsible or not.

It is also left for the regulatory authorities to determine whether they want to buy that responses or no. but the way things have progressed after the documentary, it does not seem that the regulatory authorities totally bought those responses.

Of course, government has gone ahead to ban codeine and cough syrup with codeine. The National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) is now out to raid the companies mentioned in the documentary and will make their findings public. That to me does not suggest that they bought the argument that the personnel involved were not their staff. I do not think Emzor denied that the personnel involved was not their staff; the company accepted that he was their staff, but said they do not condone what he was doing and has gone ahead to dismiss him. The company has also gone ahead to suspend the production of cough syrup with codeine. This was before government banned the production and importation of the substance.

For a man at the centre of activities, would you describe the steps taken by Emzor as laudable?

I would say it is a step in the right direction. A lot is still required, not just from Emzor, but journalists, pharmacists, companies, government and the society at large. We all have a role to play in this situation. And it is only when we play our roles well that the positive changes will come.

As a Nigerian, what could be the reasons behind some of our youth taking to drugs and how best can it be tackle?

Well, it is part of the responsibilities we all have to face. But for me as a journalist, it will be difficult to effectively give reasons that make people abuse substances.

I think that should be in the purview of sociologists and psychologists to answer, but as a parent, how much attention do we give to our children? How well do we play our roles? How much effort do we put to monitor them after school hours?

Also, the regulatory authorities should ensure that these drugs do not get into wrong hands. Had they done their work properly we might not be having this problem? Government also has a role to play in ensuring social equilibrium.

In one of the scenes, you were emphatic that you are taking the substance to university and secondary school students, as well as primary school pupils and the man said he is in business and that business is business. How did you feel at that moment as a father?

I felt bad about how the individual did not quite seem to understand the negative effect of the business he was talking about. But I needed to be clear about what I was communicating with him because I didn’t want to give anybody the doubt that he did not understand clearly what I was suggesting to him, the implications of his actions and what kind of deal he was going into.

I just don’t want to leave anyone in doubt. I was also wandering if he has children and that what happens by the time he discovers that some of the products he is selling gets to his children.

Often time, some people who do this kind of business do not seem to understand the damaging effect they are doing, not just to others, but to themselves.

What’s your take on the value orientation of the average Nigerian businessmen?

We have a very good number of honest and credible businessmen and women. The instances we saw in the documentary cannot define the whole body of them.

Of course, you will fine bad eggs like that in any other sphere of life in different parts of the world and it is our general responsibility to ensure that there is no hiding place for them.

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