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NDLEA: Alternative career pathways for drug traffickers

Few days back, I led a small delegation of three officials from our organisation to pay a courtesy visit on the Chairman, Chief executive officer of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), Brigadier General Mohammed Buba Marwa in his office, and he hinted us about the creation of a department that would work out implementable strategies for taking drug traffickers away from their evil ways by creating alternative career pathways for them that is clean, legitimate and profitable.


That innovative idea sounded very attractive and humane because it is a fundamental departure from the impression that offenders deserve no transformational and correctional reforms but should be punished severely for their crimes.


The new idea is not an alternative to law enforcement nor is it like the non-custodial sentencing mechanisms that applies in some jurisdictions in which small time offenders are sentenced to hours or days of community services than serve time in a custodial institution.


Nevertheless, we at the HUMAN RIGHTS WRITERS ASSOCIATION OF NIGERIA (HURIWA) felt that it is an idea whose time has come. A philosopher once stated that “one thing stronger than all the armies in the World is an idea whose time has come.”


Nigeria, like many nations, grapples with the pernicious challenge of drug trafficking, a menace that not only undermines public health but also corrodes the fabric of society. Conventional methods of law enforcement, centered on arrests and incarceration, have proven insufficient in addressing the underlying causes of this illicit trade.


Recognizing the need for a paradigm shift, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) has taken a transformative step by establishing a specialized department tasked with researching alternative career pathways for individuals enmeshed in drug trafficking.


The genesis of NDLEA’s initiative lies in a profound understanding of the intricate web of socioeconomic factors that underpin drug trafficking. It acknowledges that the lure of illicit trade often emanates from systemic issues such as poverty, lack of education, and a dearth of viable economic opportunities. Conventional punitive measures, while necessary, fail to address these root causes, perpetuating a cycle of crime and destitution.


By embracing alternative career pathways, NDLEA seeks to break this cycle, offering individuals a lifeline out of the abyss of criminality and into the realm of lawful, productive endeavors. This approach not only aligns with global best practices but also embodies a compassionate, holistic approach to rehabilitation and reintegration.


One of the strengths of this initiative lies in its recognition of the need for comprehensive rehabilitation efforts. Instead of merely punishing offenders, NDLEA’s approach seeks to provide them with viable alternatives to a life of crime. By offering support for transitioning into legitimate businesses, such as agriculture or other industries, the agency aims to empower former drug traffickers to reintegrate into society as productive members.


The creation of a department within the NDLEA dedicated to researching alternative careers for drug traffickers is a commendable step forward in the fight against drug trafficking. By recognizing the complex socioeconomic factors that drive individuals into the illicit drug trade, NDLEA acknowledges that traditional enforcement measures alone are insufficient to address the problem.


Offering rehabilitation and legitimate employment opportunities demonstrates a commitment to addressing the root causes of drug trafficking and reintegrating individuals into society as productive members.


Moreover, the focus on providing resources and support for individuals to transition into legitimate businesses aligns with broader efforts to promote economic development and reduce reliance on illicit activities.


By leveraging existing skills, such as farming, and providing access to training and financial assistance, NDLEA can empower former drug traffickers to pursue sustainable livelihoods that contribute positively to their communities.


Furthermore, by appointing a dedicated director to oversee this department, NDLEA is signaling its seriousness in implementing this initiative effectively. This ensures that resources and expertise are directed toward developing and implementing rehabilitation programs tailored to the specific needs of individuals involved in drug trafficking.


The potential benefits of NDLEA’s initiative extend far beyond the realm of law enforcement. At its core, this pioneering endeavor is about transforming lives, communities, and ultimately, society as a whole. By providing individuals with access to rehabilitation services, vocational training, and legitimate employment opportunities, NDLEA aims to facilitate a profound metamorphosis—a transition from the shadowy underworld of drug trafficking to the sunlight of lawful, dignified livelihoods.


This, in turn, holds the promise of reduced crime rates, enhanced community cohesion, and improved public health outcomes. Moreover, by empowering individuals to become agents of positive change within their communities, NDLEA’s initiative has the potential to catalyze broader socioeconomic development, paving the way for a brighter, more prosperous future for all Nigerians.


Despite its noble aspirations, NDLEA’s initiative confronts a myriad of formidable challenges. Chief among these is the allure of the illicit drug trade, which often promises quick riches and instant gratification—a stark contrast to the slow, uncertain path of legitimate employment.


Convincing individuals entrenched in drug trafficking to embrace alternative career pathways requires not only compelling incentives but also a fundamental shift in mindset; a journey from the allure of immediate gain to the promise of long-term fulfillment and prosperity.


Individuals involved in drug trafficking may be hesitant to transition to alternative careers if they perceive them as less profitable or desirable. This raises questions about the feasibility of convincing individuals to abandon lucrative illicit activities in favor of legitimate employment, particularly when faced with economic uncertainty.


Another challenge lies in addressing the underlying factors that drive individuals into the illicit drug trade in the first place. Poverty, lack of education, and limited economic opportunities are often cited as key drivers of drug trafficking.


While providing alternative careers is a step in the right direction, comprehensive strategies that address these root causes are essential for long-term success. This may involve broader efforts to promote education, job creation, and social welfare programs in communities affected by drug trafficking.


Additionally, a critical aspect to consider is the potential for relapse among rehabilitated offenders. Breaking free from the cycle of addiction and criminality is a complex and ongoing process that requires ongoing support and monitoring. Without adequate follow-up measures, individuals may be at risk of reverting to their former ways, especially if they face challenges or setbacks in their new endeavors.


Moreover, the success of NDLEA’s initiative hinges on the availability of resources, infrastructure, and support systems to facilitate the transition process effectively. Adequate funding, robust vocational training programs, and comprehensive rehabilitation services are essential prerequisites for empowering individuals to embark on a new trajectory.


Also, addressing the stigma associated with former drug traffickers is paramount to ensuring their successful reintegration into society, as social ostracization can serve as a formidable barrier to rehabilitation and long-term sustainability.


Besides, the success of NDLEA’s rehabilitation efforts hinges on collaboration with other government agencies, as well as non-governmental organizations and the private sector. Sustainable reintegration requires access to education, vocational training, and employment opportunities, which may necessitate partnerships beyond the scope of NDLEA’s mandate.


In charting a course towards alternative career pathways for drug traffickers, NDLEA has embarked on a bold and visionary journey—one that holds the potential to reshape the landscape of drug enforcement in Nigeria. By embracing rehabilitation, reintegration, and empowerment, NDLEA seeks to not only disrupt the cycle of crime and destitution but also nurture a culture of hope, resilience, and renewal.


However, the road ahead is fraught with challenges, and success will require unwavering commitment, resolute determination, and collaborative effort. As NDLEA pioneers this transformative approach, it beckons us all to envision a future where the shackles of drug trafficking are replaced by the bonds of opportunity, dignity, and prosperity.


A UNODC’s press statement dated 5 th of November 2023, gave us an idea of one nation in which the cultivation of opium poppy was drastically reduced to make way for lawful career pathways.


The statement indicated that opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan plunged by an estimated 95 per cent following a drug ban imposed by the de facto authorities in April 2022, according to a new research brief from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).


UN officials noted that the near-total contraction of the opiate economy is expected to have far-reaching consequences and highlighted the urgent need for enhanced assistance for rural communities, accompanied by alternative development support to build an opium-free future for the people of Afghanistan.


Opium cultivation fell across all parts of the country, from 233,000 hectares to just 10,800 hectares in 2023. The decrease has led to a corresponding 95 per cent drop in the supply of opium, from 6,200 tons in 2022 to just 333 tons in 2023.


The sharp reduction has had immediate humanitarian consequences for many vulnerable rural communities who relied on income from cultivating opium. Farmers’ income from selling the 2023 opium harvest to traders fell by more than 92 per cent from an estimated US$1,360 million for the 2022 harvest to US$110 million in 2023.


“This presents a real opportunity to build towards long-term results against the illicit opium market and the damage it causes both locally and globally,” said Ghada Waly, Executive Director of UNODC. “At the same time, there are important consequences and risks that need to be addressed for an outcome that is ultimately positive and sustainable, especially for the people of Afghanistan.


“Today, Afghanistan’s people need urgent humanitarian assistance to meet their most immediate needs, to absorb the shock of lost income and to save lives,” Ms. Waly added. “And over the coming months, Afghanistan is in dire need of strong investment in sustainable livelihoods, to provide Afghan farmers with opportunities away from opium.”

“Nearly eighty percent of the population depends on agriculture, and Afghanistan already faces acute water scarcity challenges,” said Roza Otunbayeva, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. “Sustainable alternative development efforts must be oriented towards drought-resistant agricultural activities and the effective protection and use of resources.”

Until 2023, the value of Afghanistan’s opiate exports alone has frequently exceeded the value of the country’s legally exported goods and services. The strong contraction of the opiate economy in 2023, which shrank by 90 per cent overall, is expected to affect Afghanistan’s economy on a larger scale.

Many farmers turned to cultivating wheat instead, with an overall increase of 160,000 hectares in cereal cultivation across the Farah, Hilmand, Kandahar, and Nangahar provinces.


The UNODC stated further that although wheat cultivation may alleviate food insecurity to some extent, the crop generates much less income than opium – farmers in the four provinces lost around US$ 1 billion in potential income in 2023 by switching to wheat.


Beyond Afghanistan, less heroin may lead to reduced trafficking and use – or it could spur the emergence of harmful alternatives, such as fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.


Data on seizures indicate that traders are selling off their opium inventories from past record harvests to weather the shortfall in 2023, while heroin processing has decreased. Trafficking in other drugs, namely methamphetamine, has surged in the region.


Though there are high levels of opiate use within Afghanistan, evidence-based treatment options remain limited. The survey noted the need for evidence-based treatment to be integrated in public health measures and assistance, including to prevent people with opiate use disorders turning to potentially even more harmful substances.


The above lessons scientifically highlighted in the aforementioned press release from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime should serve as a guide to the NDLEA so that the objective for which this innovative idea is created, would be met so those drug barons engaging in large-scale business of cultivating weeds can be easily integrated into a new career pathway.


*Comrade Emmanuel Onwubiko, National Coordinator of the HUMAN RIGHTS WRITERS ASSOCIATION OF NIGERIA(HURIWA) was a former NATIONAL COMMISSIONER OF THE NATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION OF NIGERIA.

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