Torture or imprisonment, difficult choice for young addicts in northern Nigeria

Addicted and psychologically challenged, many young people in northern Nigeria face a bleak outlook. Allegations of abuse led to the closure of numerous informal rehabilitation centers, but left them with hardly any options for treatment.

With the lack of public health resources, the treatment of addictions or mental problems used to fall to informal Islamic schools that last year were mostly closed under accusations of “torture centers”.

But in a conservative area, where mental problems are linked to evil spirits and generate stigma for their families, many parents find themselves in the position of returning their children to clandestine centers or locking them at home.

“If I could, I wouldn’t hesitate to tie up my three children at home if it keeps them off drugs,” admits Hadiza Musa, a 55-year-old widow whose three children were released from a rehabilitation center by the police.

Last year, the authorities raided dozens of these informal centers and rescued hundreds of young people in degrading conditions, shackled and scarred from the beatings received in those facilities.

Since then, Hadiza’s three children have used again and she, who cannot afford to take them to the two precarious public psychiatric hospitals in the city, is desperate.

“I don’t care about the harsh treatment they received in the rehab centers. It’s less of a problem than having them roaming the streets taking drugs,” says the 55-year-old widow.

“I have no way of controlling it and that causes me nights of insomnia and anxiety,” says the woman.

– 250 psychiatrists for 200 million –

Drug use is frowned upon in conservative, mostly Muslim northern Nigeria, where Islamic law coexists with federal law.

Drug addicts, people with mental illness and young offenders often end up in the same rehabilitation centers of these Islamic schools, which have nine million students in the north of the country.

In the state of Kano, authorities deployed an anti-narcotics team to fight against high drug use by young people, be it marijuana, codeine and other pain relievers or snorted glue.

But the country has barely 250 trained psychiatrists for a population of 200 million, according to the Nigerian Psychiatric Association (APN), and their services are not always affordable for everyone.

For example, Muhammad Adamu could not pay for the medication of his 18-year-old son, a drug addict and mental patient admitted to a public psychiatric hospital.

“The hospital sent him home saying that his stay was meaningless without the medication that I couldn’t afford,” explains Adamu.

The most disadvantaged Nigerians often turn to traditional healers to treat their mental health problems or, even after its closure, they return to the clandestine services of the network of Islamic schools.

– ‘Only two options’ –

Last month, Kano police raided a facility that had been running clandestinely for ten months and rescued 47 inmates.

Two people were arrested on suspicion of “operating an illegal rehabilitation center with chained and tortured residents,” said police spokesman Abdullahi Haruna Kiyawa.

For Yusuf Hassan, who runs an organization to reform these Islamic schools, the population will continue to use informal facilities until the government offers an alternative.

“No one with access to conventional psychiatry will take their child or family member to an unorthodox rehabilitation center that the government has banned,” Hassan said.

And given the stigma that mental illness entails in this society, families who cannot afford treatment often lock the sick at home.

“People are left with only two options: take their sick relatives to clandestine treatment centers or chain them at home,” says Hassan.

Since last year, the authorities have released several people with mental problems locked in houses in unsanitary conditions.

In August last year, police in Kano rescued a 55-year-old man who had been chained in a room for 30 years by relatives. Shortly after, another man was released after 15 years in confinement by his father.


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