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The Codeine Epidemic Is Proof That Art Imitates Life

On May 1st, BBC’s Africa Eye released an investigative documentary, Sweet Sweet Codeine. It showcased the illegal supply chain and impact of one of Nigeria’s cheapest and most accessible street drugs: codeine. A painkiller and major ingredient of cough syrups, codeine has played the Pied Piper of abuse and addiction to thousands of Nigerians. These habits can lead to both psychosis and organ failure.

In a few hours, the documentary had gone viral, initiating a domino effect among the different stakeholders in Nigeria’s health sector. Emzor Pharmaceuticals, one of Nigeria’s largest cough syrup manufacturers, announced it would cease production of all its products containing codeine. This came after one of its Executives was implicated in the BBC documentary, illegally distributing the drug en masse. The Ministry of Health altogether banned the production of drugs containing codeine and the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) carried out raids in Lagos, Ilorin and Kano. All these occurred within 48 hours of the documentary’s release.

Codeine syrup. Photo: Opas

However swift and strict these measures may seem, it is not just too little but also too late. The drug epidemic, especially in Northern Nigeria, has been warned about and continuously reported to no avail. In 2016, The Africa Report covered the rise of the epidemic. In the same year, Governor Abdullahi Ganduje of Kano State—where about 37% of the population reportedly abuse drugs and about 15% of criminal convictions are related to drug use—was actively facilitating drug abuse rehabilitation. And, ever since, all social media platforms have been awash with versions of stories of the scale and impact of the epidemic.

Photo: NewsDay Zimbabwe

More unconventional reportage of the epidemic has come in form of music. Olamide’s street anthem, Science Student, and DJ Enimoney’s Diet featuring Slimcase, Reminisce and Tiwa Savage—both released in early 2018—mused about the recreational use and blatant abuse of street drugs like codeine. The Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation responded with sanctions, declaring them “unfit for broadcast”. However, like the knee-jerk ban on codeine, the reaction to the problem is looking to cure the symptoms and not the disease. Art is often seen as the creation of culture. In the case of the drug epidemic, the aforementioned songs are being viewed as inciting drug abuse. But this perspective is wrong; art is a reflection of culture. Olamide, DJ Enimoney and his cohorts were telling the same story the BBC documentary was; Art imitates life.

Olamide Science Student. Photo: Notjustok

In addition to its cheapness and accessibility, codeine was alluring because it could be consumed more discreetly than marijuana and alcohol, especially in more conservative communities where the latter are frowned upon. The ban working to zero its supply would not zero its demand. It is likely that codeine abusers will get their fix through an inevitable black market or switch to close substitutes. It is also likely that more songs will be made to document this and more sanctions will be placed on artists who tell these stories.

However unlikely, we remain hopeful that the corridors of power will not be deaf to the subtle whispers of the warnings and cry for help in our art because, in most cases, it is the only voice we have.

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