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Mkpuru Mmiri: havoc in South East

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By OBINNA EZUGWU

Before now, Nigerians had only read or watched news about the deadly drug cartels in the central American country of Mexico; a country where drug gangs are known to have committed mass murder and rendered whole neighbourhoods desolate. But now, the same Mexican cartels are being fingered in a new drug epidemic that has enveloped Africa’s most populous country. Precisely, in the country’s Southeast region where the scourge of Methamphetamine or simply Crystal Meth, known locally as Mkpuru mmiri; a powerful, highly addictive stimulant that affects the central nervous system, is ruining lives, destroying homes and has put the entire region on edge.

Meth, as it’s often called, looks like glass fragments or shiny, bluish-whiterocks. It is chemically similar to amphetamine, a drug used to treat attention-deficit hyper activity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy, a sleep disorder.

The substance increases the amount of the natural chemical dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is involved in body movement, motivation, and reinforcement of rewarding behaviors. The drug’s ability to rapidly release high levels of dopamine in reward areas of the brain strongly reinforces drug-taking behavior, making the user want to repeat the experience, hence the ease with which people are addicted to it.

Consuming of even small amounts of the substance can result in many health effects such increased wakefulness and physical activity, changes in libido, decreased appetite, faster breathing, rapid and/or irregular heartbeat, increased blood pressure and body temperature, among others in the short term.

Long term effects on the other hand, include extreme weight loss, severe dental problems known as “meth mouth,” intense itching, leading to skin sores from scratching, anxiety, changes in brain structure and function, confusion, memory loss, sleeping problems, violent behavior, paranoia—extreme and unreasonable distrust of others and hallucinations.

Nigeria has historically had drug problems. And it’s a challenge that has kept getting worse with a youth bulge battling unemployment and harsh economic realities. One in every seven people, chairman of the country’s National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), Buba Marwa said, is addicted to drugs. More so in Kano, Northwest where according to him, it’s one in every six persons.

“The drug scourge is now an epidemic in Nigeria. The prevalence is 15 percent, three times the global average,” Marwa said when he visited Lagos State governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu in March. “One in seven Nigerians take drugs. We have found out that there is a nexus between drug use and crime.

Crystal Meth

Methamphetamine

“In Kano State, drug abuse prevalence is 16 per cent; that is, in every six persons, one is a drug addict and they are between the ages of 15 years and 64 years.”

Marwa’s point that there is a nexus between drug addiction and crime is a given; a reality many residents of the Southeast are waking up to in the wake of the enveloping addiction to meth.

“The young men who take the substance are increasingly taking to crime. In the night they would be going about stealing and constituting nuisance in the society,” said Chidi Nwafor a business owner in Amawbia, Anambra State.

“If you go to my place in Nibo, there are a number of young men who are addicted to the drug. At night, they would be going to people’s homes to steal money, goats, generators and so on. The consumption rate is quite alarming especially among young people, even in Amawbia here.”

In Anambra, like the rest of South Eastern states, the challenge is becoming endemic. Perhaps even more so in Imo.

Last week, a young man from Mgbidi, Oru West Local Government of Imo State, not more than 25, was said to have killed his mother and sister after overdosing on meth, an atrocity that drew the ire of community members who quickly rallied and stoned him to death.

It’s not an isolated incident. Since the consumption of meth took root in the region in the last three years or so, it’s been tales of crime, ruined livelihoods and death. Young men looking haggard from obvious effect of meth are a routine sight.

“It’s a big problem,” said Kenneth Nnaji, a community leader in Amechi, Enugu State. “A lot of people are taking Mkpuru Mmiri, but it’s those it is already having effects on their bodies that you easily tell. We are compiling the names of people selling the drugs, and those taking it. When we are done, we will begin to take serious action.”

Various communities have taken up the challenge of fighting the menace. In various communities in Anambra, Imo and elsewhere, identified addicts are given corporal punishment; tied to stakes and whipped severely. Feedbacks suggest it’s achieving results. Some have turned the corner. But drug problem is often hardly tractable. It is still a huge challenge and stakeholders are not oblivious of the enormity of the problem.

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“Like every effort, you will just keep doing your best, but the results may not come immediately,” said Chief Alex Ogbonnia, spokesperson for Ohanaeze Ndigbo. “When it is something that affect the youth, you may not see the results immediately. But the important thing is that an awareness has been created in all the communities in Igboland with respect to the dangers in taking Mkpuru Mmiri. That awareness has made a lot of people to stop taking the drug.”

Ohanaeze, the apex Igbo socio cultural group, said it is coordinating effort in this regard, through various town unions. But tackling a challenge of such magnitude requires a lot more, especially from state authorities, which appear to be lacking at the moment.

“Ohanaeze is structured in such away that every town union president is a vice chairman at the local government level. That makes the coordination easy,” Chief Ogbonnia said. “We are working with town union presidents. It is a holistic effort.”

Both Ohanaeze youth wing and the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), have also taken up the challenge.

On Friday, November 19, Ohanaeze the Ohanaeze Ndi-Igbo Worldwide-Youth Wing met in Owerri and constituted a task force chaired by Comrade Onyekachi Eweh, with the mandate to carry out far-reaching sensitization campaigns across the length and breadth of Igboland, using the mass media and through seminars and road walks with the aim to enlighten members of the public, especially; youths, parents, teachers ,guardians, community vigilantes, and all relevant stakeholders on the dangers, attributes and distribution channels of “these illicit and invidious substances.”

The task force is also to liaise with relevant security agencies, especially, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, towards eradicating the production, distribution and peddling of these harmful substances anywhere in Igboland.

On Tuesday last week, IPOB in a statement by its spokesman, Emma Powerful, vowed to go after the distributors and consumers of the substance in the zone, noting that consumption and selling of the destructive hard drug by South east youths can never be accepted or welcomed in any part of the region.

“We the global movement and family of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) ably led by our great leader Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, notes with utter displeasure a very ugly and disturbing trend among some youths in Biafra land who have resorted to the consumption of a destructive hard drug methamphetamine, popularly known as ‘Mkpuru Mmiri.’ This development is very strange and completely unacceptable,” Mr. Powerful said

“IPOB hereby declares war against this nonsense. We shall go after those taking or distributing this harmful illicit drug. Henceforth, anyone found peddling, consuming or in any way involved in the distribution of this illicit drug shall be decisively dealt with.”

Frantic efforts are being made by all stakeholders to curb the menace. But tracking the supply chain has remained a challenge, even as there is no clear answer yet as to how the substance finds its way into the country on such large scale. Most meth in North America is produced by transactional criminal organizations in Mexico, hence the idea that the cartel in Nigeria came from the country. But the suggestion that the supply chain is run by a Mexican cartel is not supported by much evidence. Others have said the cartel is run by local drug dealers who have set up laboratories in the country.

“We are aware of such laboratories in Nigeria; in the Southeast, and some actions are ongoing to clamp down on them. We are cutting the supply from source,” said Mr. Femi Babafemi, spokesperson for NDLEA.

Babafemi said arrests have been made, and 18 of such laboratories have so far been destroyed.

“There have been some arrests,” he continued. “We issue statements on this almost weekly. We arrest people every week. We are moving to the next phase, which is shutting down the pipelines themselves, that is the laboratories. So far in recent years, the agency has shut down 18 of such laboratories. We are going to be doing something intensive very soon. When you shut the pipeline, you are cutting availability and access to that drug. That’s exactly what we are doing because if it is not available then it can’t circulate.”

NDLEA’s effort has not yielded very obvious results thus far. But the agency has a lot on its plate in a country where abuse of drug is endemic, and it’s an ongoing effort. From concoctions made from local materials to hemp and codeine and cocaine, drug use, mostly among youths in the country, is common place. But meth, for its devastating effects on the body, is attracting most attention in the interim.

Perhaps not surprising in a country with 42.5 percent youth unemployment. There also appears to be a nexus between drug use prevalence and high rate of unemployment. Until recently, drug abuse in the country was thought to be mostly a Northern problem, even if the South was not immune from it.

But the growing consumption of meth with its devastating consequences has shifted the focus to the Southeast. The region, coincidentally is battling its worst unemployment crisis ever, worsened by lack of access to funds which having your own people in power in Abuja provides, especially in a largely rentier economy like Nigeria’s. The zone, many say, is practically shut out from the national tap in Abuja by the government of President Muhammadu Buhari whose body language is seen as mostly anti Southeast.

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Indeed, it’s a very tempting argument to link prevalence of drug use to poverty and unemployment. There is a tendency for those confronted with harsh economic realities to take to drugs as a sort of escape. But the link between poverty and drug is fluid. Drug abuse is prevalent, too, among the rich, perhaps even worse, observers say.

“Drug use is endemic in Nigeria, but it is not only among the poor. It is a problem even in rich homes,” said Dr. Bongo Adi, a senior lecturer at Lagos Business School. “In fact, there are many rich people that are struggling with drug. A lot of the elite you know in Nigeria are addicts but you wouldn’t know.

“The people who brought this culture of drug are not the poor people in the villages. It is actually exposed individuals who have access to these drugs because to sustain a lifestyle of drug is not cheap. The young men will only go down to the level of meth may be because it is cheaper or more affordable compared to other substances. But so many people that walk around in Lagos actually addicted to drugs.”

Meth, is indeed highly pure, potent, and low in price. The drug can easily be made in small clandestine laboratories, with relatively in expensive over-the-counter ingredients such as pseudoephedrine, a common ingredient in cold medications. The production also involves a number of other very dangerous chemicals whose effects can remain in the environment long after the lab has been shut down, causing a wide range of health problems for people living in the area.

“It is a menace,” Adi said. “But it’s been there. Drug addiction and drug abuse have been an issue for Nigerian youths for a very long time. Before now, we thought it was mainly a problem of the North be cause I have been in the fore front of fighting drug abuse in the country.

“Drug abuse was prevalent in the North and when I returned from the American University around year 2000; between 2000 and 2005, what we did at the time was to try to root it out by attacking the sources of supply. But what happens is that when you tackle the source of supply for a particular drug they device other means of getting high.

“At that time I didn’t know that it was also endemic in the Southeast. In fact it is a nationwide problem. Even here in Lagos, it is a big problem. If you move around the construction sites, you will see crowd of young people taking all manner of substances. They take a whole lot of drugs.

“I had an experience when I followed a friend of mine who is in to construction to one of his construction sites. And when I saw a lot of young women taking drugs here and there, I approached them to ask why they were doing so and whether they didn’t know that what they were taking was harmful.

“They told me that taking the drug was the only way they could get inspiration and the strength to do the work that they do. Some of them are married. That’s really what gives them the inspiration to keep going; to do those very hard jobs.”

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