… cultism and drug peddling intersect to promote abuse
A key enabler of Nigeria’s worsening illicit drug crisis is cultism, a widespread occurrence where secret societies employ violence, crime, and other illegal activities to drive their course.
To eke a living, most cult groups thrive by securing a monopoly of violence in territories they control and license criminal enterprises such as drug peddling to members or rivals, a study of organised crime in Nigeria by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and National Institute for Security Studies (NISS) shows.
Drug peddling constitutes about 30 percent of the common criminal activities that cults use to generate income to strengthen their groups.
Extortion of the businesses in controlled territory, revenge attacks, oil bunkering, attacks on political enemies, and sabotage of pipelines or other equipment are identified as their biggest sources of income.
Between 2009 and 2018, 892 types of new substances were identified according to the UNODC, representing a heightened increase from 570 that were previously reported.
Kingsley Okonoda, consultant psychiatrist and associate professor in Addiction, Social and Rehabilitation Psychiatry, the University of Jos said many of these new psychoactive substances that pose public health threats have become available in the local drug market. They are also narcotic drugs or psychoactive
Because some of the conventional ones have become expensive, consumers’ patronage of new psychoactive drugs has increased, leaving significant health impacts.
They include cannabinoids, synthetic cathinones, aphytharmine, and synthetic opioids.
“They are engineered in a way that they mimic traditional drugs such as cannabis, aphytharmine and even novel psychedelics. They cause anxiety paranoia hallucinations. Some are sold under deceptive labels such as research chemicals or legal heroin,” Okonoda explained speaking at a forum on the need for community-based rehabilitation interventions.
Research shows they are used for their perceived pleasurable and functional effects and can be difficult to identify and control.
Citing NPF data, cults are predominant in the south-south geopolitical zone, with Bayelsa having the highest number of cultism incidents detected in 2019.
Another study of individually targeted killings in the country found that Rivers, Edo, and Lagos are the states that experienced the highest levels of cult-related targeted killings.
Nigeria’s constitution excludes secret society membership from the right of association and bans members of secret societies from being elected to be a state governor, a member of the legislature, or president of the republic.
It describes cult as any society, association, group or body of persons, whether registered or not, that uses secret signs, oaths, rites or symbols and which is formed to promote a cause without regard to merit, fair play or justice.
In addition, many states have enacted legislation banning cults. Some states adopted the definition in the Constitution, while others define cultism through an annex of prohibited groups and ban similar groups.
Although monetary gains are the most frequently mentioned motivation for joining a cult, the study shows that it is not directly lucrative. Most respondents for the study said they were not paid but had the right to pursue criminal enterprises and retain some of the profits.
Only four respondents, out of 116 interviewed, mentioned being paid regularly.
“When you hold your territory ransom, there are people that would be paying you homage. Because we are not government workers and have no salaries. We approach these clubs and bars operating within our territories to make demands. When they fail to attend to our demands, then we attack and rob the place. So, they are forced to employ at least one of us as security to watch over the place. We also continue with our illegitimate activities irrespective of this,” a respondent said.
Another respondent explained that there are cartels within the fraternity from armed robbers to business owners who are expected to raise funds for the group. The leadership also derives income from political sponsorship.
This extra income was frequently cited as a source of discontent by the rank-and-file. Since achieving a leadership position means access to these funds, cult members may work for little money in the hopes of eventual advancement:
Other means to raise funds that participants identified are looting phones and robbing shops.
Lauretta Ekanem, a US-based Nigerian community psychologist said the government needs to address prevention of access to these drugs critically.
She also raised a need for the government to draft policies that enable primary healthcare centres to become first responders to care for substance use disorder while promoting the services of opioid recovery.
“If we begin to prevent access and use, users will find and not get and they will begin to see withdrawal symptoms. The question is are we ready for this?” Ekanem said.