|Featured story: COVID-19 and drug policy in Nigeria
This week, we bring you stories from civil society advocates working on harm reduction and drug policy reform in Nigeria, where the pandemic has been devastating for people who use drugs, people in prisons and detention centres, and other marginalised communities.
Too many have lost their sources of income and are now faced with skyrocketing prices of drugs of deteriorating quality, while already limited health and harm reduction services have become less accessible. Amidst increased exclusion and precariousness, overdose rates and domestic violence are reported to be on the rise.
Through IDPC’s COVID-19 Survey
, Nonso B. C. Maduka, from the Bensther Development Foundation, noted that movement restrictions caused by the pandemic have forced people who use drugs into more remote and riskier places to live.
Nigeria’s drug laws are some of the most draconian in the region. The simple possession of small amounts of drugs is punishable by five to twenty years
imprisonment, resulting in a growing prison population, seventy percent of which is still awaiting trial
Photo credit YouthRISE Nigeria
According to Seyi Kehinde, of YouthRISE Nigeria, there have been cases where people caught for drug possession have also been victims of extortion by law enforcement officers demanding bribes – forcing people to choose between corruption or incarceration. Organisations like YouthRISE Nigeria have been working to educate stakeholders about evidence-based drug policy and encouraging law enforcement to uphold human rights and adopt strategies that provide alternatives to arrests and incarceration.
Unlikely allies in the fight against mass incarceration
Due to fears of deadly outbreaks in prisons, Nigeria is one of the 109 countries where prison release measures have taken place. More than 3,750
people have been released so far, with thousands more expected to be released based on executive or judicial decisions. Unfortunately, only certain groups of incarcerated people are eligible to be considered for these release measures, such as the elderly, people with health conditions, pregnant women, and people who have nearly concluded their sentences. People charged and/or convicted with drug-related offences have been excluded.
Seyi and his colleagues at YouthRISE Nigeria are responding to this exclusion criteria through advocacy, aiming to ’expand the [government’s] amnesty criteria to include young people and those in prisons for low-level drug offences.’ They are currently focusing on four prisons across the country, reviewing warrants for those held in pre-trial detention, as well as collaborating with legal officers and lawyers.
Responding to the overcrowded and unhygienic state of prison facilities, they began providing COVID-19 preventative materials and equipment such as masks for incarcerated people and prison officials alongside basic hygiene supplies, like soap and hand sanitiser. Interestingly, for Seyi and his colleagues, ’this has also served as an entry point to engage with prison officials and state judges,’ who are now more likely to respond positively to advocacy efforts of civil society actors.
Photo credit YouthRISE Nigeria
From one prison to another, YouthRISE has so far helped secure the release of some young low-level offenders including people held for low-level drug-offences.
Lessons of advocacy during COVID-19
Nigeria is one of the many countries around the world where COVID-19 has exposed and magnified the need to address existing structural challenges – from fragile healthcare infrastructures to overwhelmed criminal legal systems, from socioeconomic inequality to oppressive drug laws.
Tapping into this realisation, Seyi said that the COVID-19 crisis simply reminded him of the need for systemic change, as he emphasised in his thought-provoking reflection:
’Drug policy reformers sometimes get carried away with quick small wins – for example with regard to improved access to needle and syringe programmes, which is good – but we also need to approach these issues at its core, meaning focusing on changing the law. At the end of the day, we want a balanced multi-sectoral response to drug use.’
Similarly, Nonso concluded his survey response by underlining the role of COVID-19 in raising questions about the prohibitionist approach to drug policy. COVID-19 ’offers a serious opportunity for more effective advocacy for drug policy reform in Africa.’
When asked about other valuable lessons he and his colleagues have learned during the pandemic, Seyi talked about the importance of cultivating strong networks, strong communities, and strong partnerships. Last but not least, he highlighted the value of continuing to spread messages of empathy and compassion, encouraging people to at least ’imagine how it would feel like to see your children going to prison just because they use drugs.’
Buoyed by the success of the Global Day of Action, when #SupportDontPunish became a Twitter trending topic in the country, Seyi and other advocates are hopeful that things will soon change for the better. As more communities and institutions are becoming better-informed about drugs, the drug policy reform movement is gaining -often unexpected- allies with the courage to speak out against the criminalisation of people who use drugs.