'Horror houses' shed light on care crisis for Nigerian addicts

Sophie Bouillon
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A police raid on an Islamic seminary in Kaduna in northern Nigeria in September found men and boys in shackles. Some said they had been tortured and sodomised after being placed in the institution for 'reform'

The day his wife walked out 10 years ago, Nigerian musician Jagunlabi started taking drugs to make the shadows go away.

The drugs came to stay.

Today, after suffering a heart attack, Jagunlabi is desperate to end his addiction but has no idea how to get help.

"I don't know where to go, I can't trust (rehab) centres here," he told AFP, sitting in a park in the nation's economic capital Lagos. "They can chain you, molest you."

Substance abuse in Africa's most populous country has been described as an "epidemic" by the United Nations but there is almost no proper treatment available for those trying to recover.

The grim problem has come to light after a string of raids on so-called rehabilitation centres where hundreds of inmates, mainly men and boys, have been found chained and abused in atrocious conditions.

The unregulated institutes -- billed as Islamic schools or run by evangelical churches -- are used by desperate families who often send relatives struggling with drugs, drink or mental illness in the hope they will get better.

But the treatment is brutal and relies more on prayer than proven medical interventions.

Jagunlabi, who gave only his stage name, recounted how his family had tried to take him to a religious camp just two days earlier.

"A week of prayer and fasting… it would kill me. I'm too weak," he said.

Once a successful performer who has now seen his career destroyed by addiction, he showed off newspaper clippings about his music from the early 2000s.

"I used to be big," he said. "I need medication, I need to sleep".

- Just 300 psychiatrists -

The scandal over the abusive centres -- dubbed "horror houses" by the media -- has put pressure on the authorities.

President Muhammadu Buhari insisted "no responsible democratic government would tolerate the existence of the torture chambers" and officials have sought to close the worst of them.

But moves to clamp down on the facilities have had mixed results.

In the city of Kano, in mainly Muslim northern Nigeria where most of the abusive institutes have been uncovered, many relatives have refused to pick up those freed from the centres.

Part of the problem is they have nowhere else to take them.

Across Nigeria, a vast country of almost 200 million people, there are only some 300 psychiatrists, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report in November.

Many psychiatrists, discouraged by the lack of resources and status, leave left the country, mostly for the West.

But Dr. Ogonnaya Ndupu decided to stay.

She worked for six years in a state psychiatric hospital. Today, she is employed at Lifecrest Rehabilitation service, a small private centre working with addicts in the middle-class Lagos district of Lekki.

"When it comes to mental health there is no monitoring going on," she lamented to AFP.

"We have government facilities but they are in a deplorable state."

Meanwhile "drug abuse is on the rise in Nigeria", she insisted, as economic problems mount for people across the country.

"Times are tougher, more challenging for everybody."

Life is particularly hard in Mushin, an impoverished and violent area of Lagos, where crack cocaine and bottles of codeine cough syrup circulate alongside illegal firearms.

"Cannabis, ecstasy, cocaine, codeine, tramadol," said local resident Lala, rattling off a list of the illicit substances to be found.

Already at midday, teenagers, old men and young mothers can be seen smoking marijuana as they try to cushion the come down from their latest trip.

- 'The main issue' -

An area that locals call the "drug ghetto" has been a no-go zone for the authorities for a long time.

But one person who can enter there is Pastor Keji Hamilton -- on a self-proclaimed mission from God to help addicts.

A former musician who played with Nigerian Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, Hamilton says he "met Jesus" one day as he inhaled on a crack pipe surrounded by three prostitutes.

He thought he would die and asked God to save him despite not being a believer.

Now he is seeking to use more than just the Bible to help people as he tours the mean streets of Mushin.

Hamilton underwent training in psychology and social care and opened his own professional rehab centre.

"You need to be trained for this job, you need skills," he told AFP.

He shakes people's hands and talks to them as he tours the down-trodden neighbourhood -- a contact for those struggling with addiction and a message that there is a solution.

"Drugs are the main issue in Nigeria," he said. "But the government is not interested to solve it."