Drug abuse has become a major problem in Nigeria and is increasingly attracting the attention of the academia, civil society groups and governments, especially on how to curb the menace.
In this interview with DENNIS UDOMA in Uyo, the Akwa Ibom state capital, the Vice-President, Global Alcohol Policy Alliance (GAPA), Prof. Isidore Obot, who is also, founding Director, Center for Research and Information on Substance Abuse (CRISA) in Nigeria bares his mind on issues surrounding drug abuse and the achievements of the Center. Excerpts:
Sir, please let us into your background?
I am a Professor of Psychology and I lecture at the University of Uyo. I am also the founding Director of the Centre for Research and Information on Substance Abuse (CRISA) in Nigeria. I have been the Director since 1990 when it was founded. Apart from being a Professor of Psychology, I am also a researcher, with particular focus on substance abuse, especially alcohol and I have been doing this since 1980, soon after my doctorate degree in Psychology and a degree in Public Health.
What is CRISA all about and what are your concerns?
CRISA was founded in Jos, Plateau State of Nigeria in 1990 when I returned to work at the University of Jos and at that time, drugs use was becoming a problem especially, among young people in Northern Nigeria. This was not a major concern for a lot of people but, some of us were able to see that somewhere along the line in future, it will be a big problem. My colleagues and I thought it wise to do something and the first thing was to come up with a Centre that will focus on drugs abuse and that is how we came up with CRISA. It was myself, colleagues in the departments of psychology, sociology and people from outside the university, like the prison and the police who were part of it.
CRISA was basically to encourage researches, engage in prevention activities during awareness in the early stages within the Jos metropolis and also organizing these conferences on drugs that have grown to become major events in our calendar. The Informational Biennial Conference on Drugs and Society comes up after every two years. We have had one in Jos, Abuja and Lagos; and this year we just had one in Abuja last October. People have attended these conferences from across the globe. CRISA has also been consistent in publishing an international research and academic journals; African Journal on drugs abuse, alcohol prevention and treatment issues. We have published this journal twice annually since 2000. This is a journal every international researcher wants to publish his/her article in.
CRISA started in Jos, why did you move it to Uyo?
I left Jos to work for the World Health Organization in 2002 and then headed a department in the School of Public Health in a school in the United States and in 2006, I decided that it was time to return home and I did that in 2008 and it is natural that CRISA should be where the founder is and with that, the headquarters moved to Uyo, but we have an office in Abuja which we share with another NGO.
You have been holding conferences every two years on drugs and society since 1991. What would you say are your achievements since you started researches?
One of the major achievements of CRISA is the biennial conference. In 1991 we had two foreigners in attendance. By 2012, we had people from 12 different countries of the world and in 2014, in spite of Ebola outbreak, we still had people from 10 countries, even after some dropped out because of the fear of Ebola. This conference provides an avenue for academic researchers in Nigeria and Africa to present their work. So it encourages people to do research; gives opportunity to young academicians to present the findings of their research. This is a specialized field though not a big one, but highly specialized and the number of those interested in the field has been growing because of the opportunities that exist for them to present their researches. The same with the journals; because you have an avenue to publish, for us to understand what you are doing as an African. Because of this, more people are interested in seeking answers and providing solutions to problems we have in drugs in the continent as a whole. Above all, the conferences have made CRISA to be known worldwide.
It is public knowledge that CRISA held another drug conference in Abuja recently. What was the theme of the symposium in Abuja, and what does CRISA aim to achieve this time around?
The idea of the symposium came up in 2010 at the international conference in Abuja during discussions with the civil society groups; suggestions were made that since the international conference comes up every two years, there should be something in the year in-between, for researchers within Nigeria for capacity building on drugs – whether it is research, treatment or prevention.
CRISA was then mandated to do the national symposium. The first was held in Uyo in 2013 and the second one took place just last October in Abuja and it was organized together with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), with funding from the European Union (EU).
The symposium focused on drugs control in Nigeria, the availability of treatment, the issues surrounding drugs offenders, what kind of intervention to deliver to the people to prevent drugs abuse among others. We had a long list of resource persons who talked to participants. There were opportunities for researchers, to present their works, since we were also focusing on building capacity for people to do research. The most important thing here is the funding and participation of the European Union.
Sir, we learnt you have been invited by United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to set up a treatment centre in Uyo. What will the centre look like and who will benefit from it?
We are happy that we have been selected by UNODC to set up a community based treatment facility in Uyo. It is part of the funding from the European Union (EU) to address drugs problems in Nigeria, starting from supply reduction and demand reduction. The opportunity for treatment has been lacking in Nigeria. Because of this, many young and old people who have issues with drugs and seek treatment cannot find a place to go. So, it is a big challenge for Nigeria as a whole. A team from CRISA was in Lagos for a training workshop on how to run the centre (between 19th and 27th October 2015). The United Nations will fund the programme, just for one year and that is why we are focusing on treatment strategies that will be effective for a country like Nigeria. By effective, I mean how we can reduce problems that are associated with drugs, so that people can live life free of drugs abuse.
The United Nations General Assembly (UNGASS), is holding a special session next year (2016) on drugs. How prepared is Nigeria to attend it and what is it likely to achieve?
Yes, it is for people who are in the field of drugs abuse, especially those involved in policy making. Around the world, people are engaged in workshops and conferences to prepare for the meeting of all member states next year in New York, to review the progress that we have made in addressing drugs problems across the globe. It is unfortunate that despite all efforts, we have not witnessed significant decrease in drugs use related problems and statistics from the UN shows that the number of people who have and are using drugs have remained stable over the years.
Also, the number of those who go into drugs has remained without significant decrease. This UNGASS is a rare event. The last time was 1998 that United Nations itself gathered to work at how far we have gone, what do we need to do the job better, by reducing the number of those who use drugs, reduce the problems associated with drugs and cut down on the harm drugs have caused the people.
In fact, in the up-coming CRISA symposium, we have one major section devoted to UNGASS 2016 and we brought speakers from the African Union (AU), National Drugs Control amongst others, including journalists who ought to publish the event well.
Sir, information is rife that, you have been elected Vice President of the Global Alcohol Policy Alliance (GAPA). What does this mean for Nigeria?
Just recently (in September 2015), there was a meeting of the Global Alcohol Alliance (GAPA), which is made up of NGOs from the six continents of the world, involved in the fight against Alcohol abuse. In many countries, it (alcohol) is the number one drugs problem. I was invited to serve in the board four years ago and at the conference two weeks ago in Edinburg, Scotland, the body elected new officers and I was elected the vice chairman, while the chairman is Prof. Sally Caswell, who is from New Zealand. The person I am replacing is Prof. Udomsio, is from Thailand.
I am grateful to my colleagues for finding me worthy of serving in that capacity. Also, I have been a member of the Global Drugs Policy Society (New York) and also been appointed into LANSEK Commission on drugs and health. It is a leading medical journal in the world that recently set up a commission to study different problems.
What is the big deal with alcohol being a social problem and how seriously is it affecting the society?
If you look at research and what people are doing on the prevalence of drugs and substances, you will find out that alcohol comes tops in Nigeria and different parts of the world but unfortunately, we talk more about cocaine, cannabis (Ikpo) and others, which are increasing because of one problem or the other. The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified more than sixty (60) medical conditions associated with the consumption of alcohol. There are other social problems associated with alcohol because it is not only the drinker that is affected. It affects others who are not drinking; e.g. an accident between a drunk and other people who are not consuming alcohol. One of the reasons for this is that alcohol is consumed more. Close to 50 percent of Nigerians drink alcohol and the use of other illicit drugs is less than one per cent, even though it is increasing. Another problem with alcohol is the combination. A typical person who abuses drugs, does not abuse one substance, but combines them; and alcohol is the highest in combination as many do combine it with pain killers and others, like pentadrocin and tramadol, which are chemicals used for treatment of pains. Of course, we know about cannabis prevalence in Nigeria and other West African countries that people combine.
The worst of it is that there is no alcohol control policy in Nigeria, which is unfortunate. We have NDLEA law which is for illicit drugs, there is a tobacco bill which has not been passed into law but there is nothing on alcohol, though the federal ministry of health is interested in doing something about it.
We have issued statements on it severally to the governments since they are the ones that make policies. When you look at those who drink, you discover that there is a tendency for them to drink too much in what is called binge drinking or heavy episodic drinking. These are people who don’t drink everyday but when they sit to drink, they drink above five to seven bottles.
After the treatment, what else will follow?
There is what we call rehabilitation, in which the persons will be meeting with the counselors, psychologists, and medical doctors, because there are a lot of factors that push one into drugs.
What is the level of support from the state and federal government?
We really need partners like ministries of health, youths and women affairs and social welfare as well as other civil society organizations. We have been inviting them but in terms of finance, nothing has been done by the government. On this centre, we are trying to partner with the state government to come out with a counterpart fund, because it is for the good of Akwa Ibom citizens first and Nigerians generally. At the federal level, there is no consistent interest in the work that we are doing, but there are some states that are inviting us to come and do something about drugs abuse in their states.