Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health

HEALTH-SIERRA LEONE: Drug Abuse a Threat to Enduring Peace

Lansana Fofana

FREETOWN, Jul 13 2004 (IPS) - The guns may have fallen silent, the killings stopped and the terrorising of civilians ended. But, the problem of drug use is still a reality in Sierra Leone, opening a new battlefront for the authorities of this impoverished country.

"This problem is assuming frightening proportions. If not tackled urgently and decisively it may consume a whole generation of our youths," Edward Nahim, Sierra Leone’s only psychiatrist, told IPS at his office in the capital, Freetown.

"About 90 percent of all mental health cases in this country that I have dealt with are related to substance abuse. It is alarming."

For most of the 1990s, Sierra Leone was embroiled in a brutal civil war in which drugs played a central role. Children as young as 11 were forcibly conscripted by rival factions, drugged and unleashed on the civilian population to commit atrocities. The Revolutionary United Front, then a rebel movement, became infamous for amputating the limbs of Sierra Leoneans.

After numerous failed peace accords, the conflict was finally declared over in Jan. 2002 – and a war crimes tribunal was established to try those who bear the principal responsibility for the atrocities.

Studies in recent months have shown that drug abuse in the country, though not as widespread as during the years of war, is a growing phenomenon.

According to youth activist Ibrahim Kamara, addicts "include ex-combatants, street kids, unemployed and neglected youths and vagrants. (But) of these, more than 65 percent are ex-combatants who are a threat to the fragile peace and stability that we now enjoy."

"The government has to move fast to engage the energies of the youths, many of whom fought during the war and know nothing but drugs, lawlessness and violence," he adds.

As is the case in other countries, drug use is also associated with crime.

"From my findings…78 percent of offenders in police custody tested positive for one or more illegal drugs," says Shaun Collins, a British psychiatric researcher who conducted a survey of prison inmates recently. "People who abuse drugs include juveniles, the unemployed, ex-combatants and the homeless."

In addition, Sierra Leone is becoming a major shipment point for drugs that are smuggled into Europe, North and South America, say officials.

"We recently intercepted a Nigerian with about 4.5 kilogrammes of cocaine at the Lungi International Airport and subsequently a British national of Jamaican descent with huge quantities of heroin. In both cases, the consignments were bound for the UK (United Kingdom)," says police spokesman Kruschev Kargbo.

"We have intensified our clampdown on the drug menace. We are destroying marijuana farms, drug ghettoes and shacks known as ‘cartels’ – as well as confiscating hard drugs like heroin and cocaine, and charging suspects to court," he adds.

According to Nahim, the most commonly used drugs in Sierra Leone are locally-grown marijuana, heroin and cocaine. He agrees that joblessness and frustration amongst the youth are encouraging drug use.

Two years ago, government established the National Drug Control Agency under the leadership of former police chief Kandeh Bangura to tackle the drug problem, in cooperation with the police anti-drug squad.

"The government set up the agency in response to wide calls from members of the public about the growing…drug menace in the country," Bangura told IPS.

"We are doing all we can to tackle this problem, since it is a clear stimulant for youngsters to resort to violence as we saw in the (19)90s."

Banguara adds that the agency is collaborating with police to establish a laboratory for analyzing the drugs confiscated by authorities.

However, information about the exact amount of drugs that has been confiscated at border points or the international airport remains sketchy, with police only willing to say that they "are making significant progress" in this regard.

This vague response has roused suspicion in some quarters – and prompted accusations that the police are less active in the war against drugs than they might claim. Mustapha Bangura, a social worker and youth counselor, claims that certain officials are in collusion with drug traffickers and dealers.

"(Traffickers) pay so-called ‘protection fees’ to the police and other security agents, thus making it easy for them to succeed in their operations," he said.

As the government struggles to care for victims of the drug scourge, religious leaders have attempted to step into the gap.

Pastor Morie Gobeh runs the City of Rest centre in Freetown, where addicts receive counseling and treatment. At present, the centre has 40 residents, who come from all sectors of society.

"The young kids include university students, ex-combatants, street kids and ghetto youths," Gobeh says. He adds that there is a critical need for government, parents and community members to join forces in fighting the drug problem.

"Until this is done, we may have the unfortunate problem of having our youngsters reverting to violence and civil disorder. They are a ticking time-bomb waiting to be utilised by dangerous and warlike people."

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