The number of illicit drug users in sub-Saharan Africa is expected to increase by nearly 150% by 2050, according to ENACT research. In West Africa this includes prescription or pharmaceutical opioids such as tramadol.
Benin, declared the world’s second largest destination for tramadol in 2016, serves as a transhipment point. And the 2019 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime World Drug Report shows an increase in the non-medical use of tramadol among commercial vehicle drivers, market traders and students in Ghana and Nigeria.
Tramadol serves as a pain reliever and has a calming effect. Some people use it to help them sleep. However in excess doses it can be an energiser. Those who use it in excess doses include irregular migrants moving from Nigeria to Niger. The drug reportedly gives them energy to travel long distances, particularly through the Sahara Desert, or to work longer hours while waiting to migrate to Europe.
However its long-term use can lead to opioid addiction and an overdose can lead to respiratory depression, seizures or death.
Since a 2018 Nigerian government policy, tramadol has remained a restricted pharmaceutical product that can only be administered through prescription by medical professionals. However its wide non-medical use in life-threatening doses remains a human security problem in the country.
Lagos in Nigeria serves as a major market for tramadol originating from Cotonou in Benin. It’s then distributed legally and illegally to other parts of Nigeria, especially Edo and Kano States. These are starting points for most irregular migrants to Agadez in Niger. The United Nations Refugee Agency says 70% of people irregularly migrating from Nigeria are from Edo State. They move through Kano to Agadez, a major transit route from Nigeria to Europe.
The smuggling and use of tramadol among irregular migrants from Nigeria to Niger reveals a network of transnational crime, and undermines the effectiveness of state policies on drug trafficking. The proceeds of this network fund and sustain organised criminal networks with contacts across Nigeria and Niger.
A former Nigeria Customs Service official who wishes to remain anonymous tells ENACT that people who help irregular migrants from Nigeria ‘compel them to carry sizeable quantities of tramadol, which are successfully submitted to designated contacts in Agadez who will sell and remit back to Nigeria based on agreed percentage’. The drugs are sold by irregular migrants in Agadez and the proceeds used to buy food as they wait to continue their journey to Europe.
According to the head of Alarme Phone Sahara, Dr Chehou Azizou, migrants buy tramadol in particular for two reasons. First, the substance is easy to hide and to carry in large quantities. Second, state officials, especially immigration, are more likely to seize cash from irregular migrants than prescription opioids such as tramadol. There’s also a perception among users that tramadol is a safe opioid.
Another problem is that tramadol is affordable, and readily available in pharmacies and open markets. This makes it easily accessible for migrant users and smugglers. One tablet of 225mg of tramadol sells for as low as ₦100 (€0.25). This combined with the fact that tramadol is easy to hide and perceived as safe makes it a preferred drug for use and smuggling.
The process of using of irregular migrants to smuggle tramadol through the markets in Agadez, a transit route for migrants, and getting it to end users with the help of corrupt state officials, reveals this as an organised transnational crime.
Addressing the problem has been difficult. In Nigeria, Niger and across West Africa, the use of tramadol is not banned – it is only restricted for medical use. However, monitoring whether it’s used for medical or non-medical purposes is difficult.
Corruption among state officials during the importation, sale and distribution process adds to the problem. Their support for and collaboration with irregular migrants involved in smuggling the drug, especially in customs and immigration, also undermines the effectiveness of state responses.
Effective collaboration between the governments of Nigeria and Niger is needed in order to combat the problem. Educating the public on the dangers of the non-medical use of tramadol and placing tramadol on a higher schedule among restricted drugs may enhance awareness.
But to combat the problem most effectively, Nigeria and Niger need to tackle the crime at its distribution stages. Prosecuting illegal distributors and sellers may help curtail the increasing wave of tramadol use and smuggling among irregular migrants between these two countries.
Maurice Ogbonnaya, Senior Research Consultant, ISS Pretoria