A young man took a girl on a date and bought her a bottle of alcohol. She had never tasted beer before, and she declined. But she remained seated and continued to listen to the guy’s persuasion. For how long can she hold on?

But the same guy takes another girl on a date to the same place and offered her alcohol. The girl politely refused the offer, saying she doesn’t take alcohol. The guy tried to press her into having the drink, but the girl sensing what he was trying to do, politely excused herself and walked out of the bar!

“The first girl did not have assertiveness, and she stood the risk of being persuaded to start using alcohol. But the second girl had more assertiveness, that’s why she walked away, and the guy would never try to persuade her to drink again,” said Alexander Agara, a clinical psychologist, on why it isn’t enough to just say ‘No to Drugs.’   

Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city, is believed to be the fastest growing city in Africa, growing from a population of 776,298, in 2006 to an estimated six million residents by 2016. Now, it may also have become the city with the fastest growing drug use prevalence in the country.

According to the National Drug Use Survey released in January, the first comprehensive drug use survey in the country, the number of drug users in Nigeria is estimated at 14.4 per cent or 14.3 million people aged between 15 and 64 years. Out of this number, an estimated 180,000 people in the Federal Capital Territory are among people with drug dependency.

But Agara, who works as a mental health expert believes the figure is changing. He said nearly eight out of nine young people in the city use drugs, especially alcohol, codeine and marijuana. Breaking down the figures, he revealed that 60% of youths aged 12- 17 use drugs while 80 % of those aged 16-22 use drugs. More alarming is the revelation that 84 % of the age groups who use drugs are females. 

Agara is one of the facilitators at a weeklong workshop for young people in Abuja organized by Reclaiming Futures In Northern Nigeria (REFINN), a project funded by the United States Department of State with the support of the US Embassy in Abuja.

It was a gathering of 50 youths and teenagers who spent one whole week listening, talking and playing love games about drug abuse and addiction. It was a carefully selected group comprising drug and substance users, those in recovery and those who haven’t used drugs-among them secondary school students. 

Ejikeme McBishop Ogueji, leader of the REFINN team, said the project was designed to empowered young people with necessary skills that would strengthen their response to drug abuse challenges. “We have found out that saying No to drug abuse is not enough to protect students and adolescent against drug abuse. They also need life skills that can help them become more assertive,” he explained.

Through a series of ‘love’ games, presentations, and experience sharing the workshop showcased the dangers of drug addiction and why the youths must have the skills to resist going down the junkie land. 

It started with a game where two boys blindfolded were each asked to seek out their female partners who were asked to stand apart. The boys whose eyes were covered staggered across the front of the hall stretching their hands in search of their partners even when they stood close by. The two, after searching for their partners in vain, ran into each and embraced, while the audience, amused, erupted in laughter. 

The participants, which included students of Lugbe International Academy and the University of Abuja, were asked to explain the game and kickstart discussion around drug abuse and addiction. The game was to demonstrate how drug and alcohol affect the senses and impair the brain.

Different facilitators led the participants in discussions on opioids addiction, how to detect addiction, drugs of abuse, why you should say No, assertiveness against drug abuse and harm reduction, among others.  They included Aisha Tafida, Projects Co-ordinator, Parents Against Drug Abuse and Marcus Ayuba of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA). 

But there was also experience-sharing to educate participants on why and how to kick addiction. Some of those who’d used drugs and are able to stop shared their inspirational stories. Like Daniel Bala, 30, who started drugs before he was 18 after falling for peer pressure. He grew from taking “weed” (cannabis) to pharmaceutical opioids such as tramadol, rehypnol, morphine and even injected drugs.

Drug use eventually weighed him down and his academics began to suffer. He completed a four year course after suffering several carry-overs. 

“Then I discovered that most of my peers who were not into drugs had gone far in life and doing well in their careers and I was jobless and not doing anything about it,” he said, admitting that apart from family pressure to kick addiction, it was the realization that he was behind that fired his determination to kick drugs.

Then there is Falimata Animam, 22, who was lured into drugs by her male and female friends.  She had traveled to Lafia, Nasarawa State to re-write the Senior Secondary School Certificate Examinations five years back and had to share a room with a girl and three boys for nearly two weeks. The boys and girl were all using marijuana, tramadol and rohypnol. She initially resisted the invitation to “try” any of the drugs because she’d never smoked or used drugs.

But after persistent pressure, she felt the urge to get into the groove and started with the codeine cough syrup considered to be ‘soft.”  ” I started with a bottle and then it increased, and I started taking the other drugs too,” she told her attentive audience.

But the drugs had unsavoury effects on her, unbalancing her mentally and physically. After a few years of drug use, she succumbs to family pressure to stop drugs and a chanced meeting with some drug abuse educators. Now she is helping to educate others as a Gender Focal Officer for People Who Inject Drugs (PWID), at YouthRise Nigeria.  

There are some still struggling with opioids dependency but have cut down on demand, admitting they’ve been unable to completely stop. This is why facilitators recommended harm reduction as a national strategy to reduce number of people living with addiction.   

Womboh Tyohe, a civic teacher who led six senior secondary school students to the workshop, said the interaction had further exposed the students to the menace of drug abuse and how to combat it. “We teach them about drug abuse in school, but this would even make our job easier. The students that are here will definitely pass on the message,” he declared. 

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