The drugs crisis in Jos and the legacy of the ethno-religious violence
40-year-old James Oloja*, speaks calmly but looks permanently on edge. Rocking against the wall, he explains how he suffered from the ethnoreligious violence that marred Jos for over 12 years, and how he took part in it.
“It was in 2001 that the violence-hit my neighbourhood. We just ran up a small mountain to safety, we didn’t really understand what was happening.”
“But from that point we turned and could see everything going on, people we knew, family members being killed, hacked, stabbed to death as we looked. We became so overwhelmed. We picked what things we could, got weapons and went back down. From that point whenever there was violence we would hit back. It went on and on for years.”
For James, it was difficult to deal with the killing and difficult to kill. But the drugs they took made it easier to do both.“We were on drugs all day, every day like that. From lighter drugs to cocaine, crack, everything. It was non-stop because we didn’t have much else to do with very few jobs even though I am a graduate. It was just something that became a routine.”
For the last three years, there has been a tense but stable peace in Jos. The city is still segregated along religious lines, in small pockets of Christian and Muslim communities, but according to locals in Jos North and Berom, it is slowly changing.
The state government has held a weapons amnesty to help decrease the arms which spread during the crisis. In many communities, disputes even within shared ethnicities and religious communities are more tense as weapons are more prevalent now.
But perhaps the most alarming legacy of the crisis has been the proliferation of drugs in Jos.The psychiatric department of the Jos University Teaching Hospital is a dim and deteriorating place. There are eight beds but dozens of patients come to the facility every day.
The majority of them are young men and women who cannot be held due to the lack of capacity. Budget cuts have meant they are unable to prescribe the patients the drugs they need. It is there that the impact of the spiralling drugs crisis in Jos is painfully clear.
According to a psychiatric consultant working in the health department who wished to remain anonymous, statistics are not available on the numbers of people using or dying from drug overdose. “But if you use this place alone as a measure, I would say drug use in Jos has quadrupled since 2013. That is across all drug categories from alcohol abuse, marijuana, to crack cocaine, heroin and others.”
“For young women especially, the biggest increase has been the use of codeine found in cough mixtures. They are easy to get and they are going through several bottles, with potentially deadly consequences.”
According to the consultant, drug use amongst young women has risen the most. “They is what has shocked and concerned me the most. Drug use amongst young girls even as young as 14 or 15 has gone up 6 times in the last few years. This is unlike anything I have dealt with in my medical career.”
He explains that since the violence ended in 2013, youth unemployment and a generation of people with over a decade of unaddressed trauma, has fuelled drug use to endemic levels. Drugs are an issue in other states outside of Plateau, but according to medical professionals at the department, it has become acutely severe in Jos.
“There are so many mental health issues that arose as a result of the insecurity that people have had no real way of addressing them”, he explains. “Since peace has been reigning in Jos, it has been treated as business as usual but it is not.”
James was found by an NGO in Jos called Scripture Union West Africa or SUWA who partner with the charity, Tearfund. Led by Dr. Rhoda Udanyi, SUWA has built a local, close-knit interfaith network, involving the regional Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, and Jama’atu Nasril Islam, IJN. They provide a shared forum and space for Christians and Muslims to express the grievances and loss they’ve experienced and the challenges they still face.
A key part of their work has been helping people like James, who were often used by religious and political leaders, to get off drugs by monitoring them closely and tracking them. According to James, now planning to get married, finding SUWA saved his life. But the majority of people and young people in Jos do not have access to groups like SUWA.
Almost everyone you speak to in Jos, in non-government and government agencies are concerned about the drugs crisis. Despite a consensus that drugs are an increasing public health challenge, little is being done to address it.
Hospital budgets are decreasing just as the number of people admitted to psychiatric centres and hospitals are increasing.The number of drug related deaths are increasing but without statistics, we have no way of accurately knowing the true scale. But what is clear is that there has been an alarming rise in drug use and it is worsening by the day.*James Oloja is not his real name. Concealed at his wish.