Manufacturers in India have rebranded the opioid Tramadol to Tafrodol so as to evade detection by customs officials at Nigeria’s ports and borders. While the name change makes the drug look like Tramadol, Tafrodol contains two ingredients that should not be combined and can reportedly cause respiratory infection, coma and even instant death.
The rebranding comes shortly after several shipments of Tramadol were seized at Nigeria’s border posts. Between 2 and 19 August 2020, the Nigeria Police Force, Nigerian Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) and National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) intercepted 33 containers of Tramadol shipped from India worth N1.3 trillion in three different locations in Lagos.
Analysis by the ENACT organised crime project found that Lagos serves as a major market for Tramadol originating from Asia and shipped in through Cotonou in Benin. From there it is distributed legally and illegally to other parts of Nigeria, especially Edo and Kano states.
Under a 2018 Nigerian government policy, Tramadol is a restricted pharmaceutical product used to treat severe pain, and can be administered only through prescription by medical professionals. Despite this, it is widely imported, smuggled and used – particularly among young people – for recreational and non-medical purposes. Health experts warn that this constitutes a threat to health security in the country.
Ahmed Yakasai, the former president of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria, told ENACT that Tramadol’s rebranding for shipment into Nigeria had been ongoing for some time. He said there was ‘a criminal collaboration between some pharmaceutical companies in Asia, especially India, and criminal gangs in Nigeria that import Tramadol in concealed brands into the country.’ Examples include Tapentadol, an opioid medication used to treat severe pain.
Reasons for the rebranding include crackdowns by regulatory agencies over the past two years. In November 2018, 581 million Tramadol tablets, worth over N241 million and weighing about 118 metric tons, were seized in Lagos by NDLEA. In June 2020, customs seized 379 packs of Tramadol worth over N56 million in Kaduna. These efforts have been complemented by restrictions on the movement of people and goods as a result of COVID-19.
As a result, the quantity of Tramadol in circulation across Nigeria has plummeted causing demand and prices to rise. Dr Ibrahim Abdul Abubakar, NDLEA head in Kano state, told ENACT that a 20 kg pack of Tramadol sells for as much as N20 million in Nigeria, especially on the black market. It’s popular among armed insurgents and terror groups from Niger, Mali and Libya for use by their fighters.
Officials from NDLEA and NAFDAC, who spoke to ENACT on condition of anonymity, say that Tramadol smuggling persists despite all measures because of the involvement of corrupt officials. ‘Colleagues from sister agencies are involved in this,’ said a senior NDLEA member. He said when other regulatory agencies record seizures at ports, they send cases relating to cannabis and other illicit drugs to NDLEA for prosecution, but rarely for Tramadol.
This was confirmed by a NAFDAC director, who told ENACT that while some agencies were working hard to address the challenge, others were sabotaging it. Two factors enable public sector corruption in the smuggling of illicit drugs into Nigeria. First, the bribes offered run into millions of US dollars, and second, those who have resisted the offers from the smuggling networks have been threatened or killed, Yakasai said.
Besides the complicity of government officials, the porosity of Nigeria’s entry points and national borders facilitate the trade of Tramadol and illicit substances. Beyond rebranding, smugglers ‘have learnt to adopt some models of concealment that are yet unknown to law enforcement agencies,’ said Abubakar.
The rebranding of Tramadol to evade detection is a dangerous trend in the smuggling business. The continued illicit trade of the drug despite government restrictions raises questions about the adequacy, capacity and integrity of regulatory institutions.
Although Nigerian government responses to transnational organised crime including Tramadol smuggling have varied, they face fundamental challenges. These include poorly equipped and motivated regulatory agencies, porous borders and the lack of cooperation from locals, especially those living in border communities.
The government will need to strengthen policy and law regulating the importation, sales and distribution of controlled drugs, including Tramadol. Prosecutions should target officials involved in the smuggling of Tramadol, along with illegal distributors and sellers. The public must be educated on the dangers of the recreational use of Tramadol. Placing the medication on a higher schedule of restricted drugs may also help.
Nigeria also needs to use diplomatic channels with India to deal with the smuggling ring and block the routes currently being used from India to Nigeria. This should include collaboration between the two countries’ law enforcement agencies, especially for information sharing, controlled deliveries and container control in ports.
Maurice Ogbonnaya, Senior Research Consultant, ISS Pretoria