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Nigeria’s ‘codeine diet’, a sign of the ostrich syndrome

By Tabia Princewill

WE have a long history in this country of sticking our heads in the sand, in order to avoid unpleasant realities or ideas that challenge the status quo. Wrong has been enshrined as right for so long that to many people (even some very well educated or exposed persons) our current situation appears tragically normal.

A 20-year-old today in the Middle-Belt has no other environmental context to refer to outside of violence and killings. We would rather pretend that the profound psychological impact of living in Nigeria today has no bearing on the quasi-constant conflicts across the country.

In fact, we have all perfected the art of looking away from poverty, of making excuses for various forms of oppression and injustice, all in the name of safeguarding our own social gains or advantages.

We live in a country where abusers are excused and defended while victims are shamed into silence. Every level of our society replicates the basic dysfunctions visible at the top, with no end in sight.

Solutions to social issues

The BBC documentary on codeine abuse in Nigeria comes as no surprise. NAFDAC had warned of an epidemic, prompting the Senate to announce an investigation. In true Nigerian fashion, a sense of urgency only came when a foreign media company decided to go undercover to reveal the extent of the problem (few have commented on the fact that such exposés are hardly ever the work of Nigerian media houses).

It is apparently an open secret that virtually everyone in the North either has a friend or an acquaintance who “gets high” on codeine to forget social pressures, abuse, bad marriages, etc. Drug abuse functions as a means of escape among women and young people all over Nigeria: this demographic remains not only under-represented but ignored in this country.

We seem unwilling to tackle the root causes of drug abuse beyond criminalising or punishing the victims. Most of our solutions to social issues are reactive, we rarely decisively tackle our problems. Like ostriches with our heads in the sand, we are very happy to pretend all is well: as a reaction to the daily trauma we face from living in Nigeria, it is easier to deny our problems than to acknowledge them or to find difficult solutions.

Interestingly, we defend corrupt politicians by asking why they are “harassed” by the EFCC despite the evidence against them or we say the flippant: “Is he or she the only one, why don’t they start by catching X (forgetting investigations must start somewhere)?” But when it comes to the travails of the poor and disenfranchised we have no sympathy.

Some responses to the BBC “sweet codeine” documentary were shocking: “Who sent them?” someone asked, which was a recurring comment during the CNN Libyan migrant/slave auction story as well. We rarely have sympathy for the powerless and whatever misguided attempts they make to escape their woes, yet we have all the time and patience in the world to argue why this or that politician deserves to walk away free despite looting the state treasury. We are all on a “codeine diet” in Nigeria: our drug of choice is greed and a certain form of intellectual laziness which makes us allergic to the truth.

Both the leaders and the led in Nigeria are addicted to hiding from the truth. We all drive in and out from this parallel reality we’ve constructed for ourselves. Like those men and women addicted to codeine and other prescription drugs, living in a parallel reality seems easier at first because it shields us from the sheer horror of what our country has become.

Behind the colourful weddings of our elite allegedly funded with taxpayers money, beyond the Nollywood hype and the emptiness of being Africa’s largest economy with no real export based industries to boast of outside of oil, the reality of how easy it is to slide into poverty because most of our fortunes are based on either grandstanding or outright corruption, makes most of us ready to excuse corruption and illegality or eager to partake in fraud if given the opportunity.

The “codeine diet” isn’t just a means of escaping horror, it is the gateway to a mirage: almost everything about the way we live our lives in Nigeria is fake.

Fake accolades for failing businesses which survive only based on government patronage, fake lifestyles which aren’t justifiable by our sources of income, etc. The codeine diet, the addiction to this parallel universe of pretense, excuses, lies and mediocrity keeps Nigerians docile.

Many young people are drunk on the mirage they are fed: the crooked lifestyles of the politicians they aspire to become act as outright encouragement to normalise wrong doing in our society. “Sweet codeine” acts as a gateway drug towards the fantasy life they wish they had. Very quickly, these pipe dreams turn to dust and they are betrayed by the reality they once endorsed.

Corruption stories

A just society, one where corruption stories are the exception rather the norm, where merit rather than nepotism and opportunistic scheming guarantee success, are nothing short of frightening to many of our leaders who would rather pretend to not understand the hopelessness facing many Nigerians or to make themselves feel better by donating, every so often, to widows, motherless babies or whatever charity looks good on paper.

We are simply too afraid of what might happen in Nigeria if an army of well educated, confident, young men and women are allowed to play a role in nation building. We pretend to be committed towards developing our people because it is global best practice, so we parrot the necessary words to please the World Bank, the United Nations and other organisations. But our actions show that on average, many of us are uncomfortable with the idea of a society that is truly free and embraces equality of opportunity.

How many of us truly believe our house helps deserve the same education and chances as our own children? You might be shaking your head in judgement of those addicted to codeine: but ask yourself, aren’t you “hooked” on injustice?


Pastor Adeboye

Pastor Enoch Adeboye, General Overseer, Redeemed Christian Church of God

LIKE many clerics, he’s been vocal about the killings across Nigeria. Unfortunately, there are very few avenues for inter-faith dialogue in Nigeria so everything instantly becomes a Muslims vs Christians debate.

It would be amazing to see Christian leaders speaking on the same platform as their Muslim counterparts, all denouncing the killings of both Christians and Muslims (the latter are under reported by mainstream media).

Also, unless the environmental issues relating to desertification and competition for scarce resources are resolved, it will always be too easy for any chaos and power loving politician to fund unrest in the North and the Middle-Belt.

Unfortunately, without large scale attempts to educate Nigerians on these issues and to help communities solve conflict, the rest of us outside these areas are able to return to our default “ostrich mode” where only the voices of non- neutral religious leaders permeate. Because they only look at symptoms of a problem rather than the root cause, we are comforted in our desire to do as well.

So, due to the personality cult we hold to all leaders in Nigeria, we continue to talk about these issues through the angle of religious sentiment rather than discussing real facts and policy, thus making true empathy for victims difficult and long term resolutions even more problematic.


Prof Itse Sagay

Prof. Itse Sagay

THE chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption, PACAC, Professor Itse Sagay, recently said: “This is our attitude in this country. When you are engaging in impunity, you do it in full health but when payback time comes, then you are sick and you want to avoid the consequences of what you did with open eyes”. This is in reaction to the number of corruption cases stalled by allegedly “sick” or hospital bound politicians.

The codeine diet also includes an addiction to theatrics, not just impunity it seems.


Tabia Princewill is a strategic communications consultant and public policy analyst. She is also the co-host and executive producer of a talk show, WALK THE TALK which airs on Channels TV.


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