A BBC investigation a few months ago, brought to bare the level of codeine addiction in Nigeria, and immediately the production of codeine-based cough syrup was banned in Nigeria. However, Another painkiller, Tramadol, apart from codeine is fuelling widespread addiction across Africa and invariably Nigeria.
What is Tramadol?
Primarily a painkiller
Can treat mild depression or premature ejaculation
Tramadol is only legally available on prescription in Nigeria
But in practice it’s sold freely in pharmacies and at market stalls across the country
Much of the Tramadol coming into Nigeria is made in India
How it gets into Nigeria
At the choked port of Lagos, an officer from the NDLEA orders men to break open a container with a crow bar. Stacked from top to bottom are boxes of an over-the-counter painkiller, but hidden behind them are thousands of packets of Tramadol.
The brand is Super RolmeX. On the packet it says “Made in India, for export only”. That is because the dosage – at 225mg – is more than twice what is legal in most countries.
It says it’s manufactured for Sintex Technologies Ltd in London, England, but a quick search on the UK companies register online shows that company was dissolved in 2012.
The UN say Tramadol is being smuggled into Africa from South Asia by international criminal gangs, with yearly seizures in sub-Saharan Africa rising from 300kg (661lb)per year to more than three tonnes since 2013, according to a report in December.
Why is it so prevalent in Nigeria?
Firstly it is cheap – in Nigeria it’s about $0.05 for 200mg as opposed to about $2.50 in the US, and secondly its ability to help people work. Across Africa, many people rely still on manual labour to get paid.
Why has the WHO so far resisted putting international controls on its trade?
There are fears limiting access to the drug would cut people off who really need it: it is one of the few painkillers widely available to treat pain for cancer patients.
It can also be brought in pretty easily to crisis and emergency situations, says Gilles Forte, secretary of the group responsible for reviewing Tramadol at the WHO.
“If it’s scheduled it becomes difficult to move it from one country to another,” he explains.