By Patrick Ekeji
Tramadol and Codeine used to be the main demons. They walked the streets and ravaged the youths and the elders looked away. Long haul drivers went on their journeys with cartons of cough syrups with codeine in their trucks. Many of them went hours without food on the cocktail of cough syrups and malt drinks. So they hurtled down the highways with those huge weights, half awake, dreamily. And when we drove past them we didn’t know how close we came with instant death.
But the BBC helped raise the awareness. Their secret investigations showed that pharmaceutical companies and patent medicine dealers sold huge consignments of codeine to whoever wanted them. And they ended up on the streets, not to mollify cough but, to feed the crazy appetite of drug addiction.
After the expose, our vigilant customs service began to see, and seize, large caches of smuggled Codeine and Tramadol. But whatever gave the youths this ravenous petite for drugs has not relented. The youths are turning to other drugs. Unemployment and poor education have created millions of boys with enough hopelessness to make them very vulnerable to opium and other mind benders.
But there is another scourge. It’s not sachet alcohol. Alcohol and many funny preparations of bitters that come in little polythene packets and small bottles are real dangers . They can be tucked into pockets. Bus drivers keep them handy, in their breast pockets. Many of them are deceptively advertised to contain herbs. The herbs are supposed to promise improved health. The manufacturers know how to beguile the nation’s legion of alcoholics. The profits are enticing. A manufacturer of one of the popular alcoholic bitters told me that it was the most lucrative endeavour he had ever engaged in. And he had executed many succulent government contracts in the past when he was a career government contractor.
“But pocket alcohol isn’t the real danger, there is a real menace walking the streets and wrecking homes quietly now. It’s not new but it has found a new ferocity. The televisions and the internet are now filled with promotions of Bet This and Bet That companies. They are now present in every street corner. Technology in mobile telephony and banking has digitalized sports betting and brought it to the laps of many lazy youths.
“I walked into a mall in Owerri recently. A big shop caught my attention. It was filled with young people. It looked like one of those business centers in Festac of those days when advance fee fraud was a booming local industry. Many hung at the door with anxious faces. They were desperate to go in. Those inside were busy with computers. They had constipated faces. The air was thick with franticness. It was a Saturday. It was a betting outfit.
“ I went closer. It was intense. They were betting on matches being played in Europe. They were putting in more money and altering bets as the matches progressed. I was shocked by the sheer number and intensity. My tennis coach had told me of his love affair with football betting. He said it had become a way of life for the young ones. Whatever came his way he spent half of it trying hit a little jackpot. When I was young, pools betters were scorned. They were few and often retired old men. Churches hated gambling and lumped it with prostitution. Adults warned children of the appetite for quick wealth. But the society has since changed.
“Now betting companies are everywhere. Pools betting is almost analogue, obsolete. The low-income earner wants to become a millionaire overnight. His pastor helps his daydreaming by telling him prosperity tales that do not feature hard work. Our youths have become addicted to search for easy success. No one preaches the virtue of self contentment any longer. But the economy has proved merciless. So those who aren’t gambling their ways across the Mediterranean are seeking miracles through betting on football matches.
“It’s not exactly a new spirit. It was same spirit that devoured many in MMM. It has returned in a more naked and more ravenous form. I talked with some artisans in Owerri. They had a name for it. They called it Empowerment. Such a ridiculous name. They said it was their only hope until they could find their way to South Africa or Malaysia.
“They believed that the daily pay they earned as casual laborers would never take them out of poverty. So when they finished from work they took a portion of their meager earning to a betting house and tried to multiply it. I listened to them. Many of them knew nothing about European football. They relied on some pseudo prophets who gave them ‘bankers.’ They told stories of their friends who had won big things. They now bet religiously. It was obvious that the betting companies are now the most lucrative industries in Nigeria. Their only competition in that champions league must be illicit drug dealers and the makers of funny alcoholic bitters.
“I wondered how the betting companies succeeded in giving hope to the hopeless whom they were effectively draining. I noticed that winnings were broadcast far and wide. The few who won spread the gospel of ‘empowerment.’ But losers never told their tales. So everywhere you went you heard only about those who had won. And that kept hope alive and burning.”
He added: “More betting companies are being born. The companies let the poor bet in small bits. One hundred naira is enough. With pastors everywhere promising financial miracles even to minimum wage earners, gambling may have come to stay.
But the effect could take a while to set in. When the extremely poor become addicted to gambling an epidemic of frustration will brew. Crime will proliferate and a major social upheaval may follow. Tales are already being told of company staffers disappearing with company funds. And betting has been implicated. But it’s still early days.
“ The government must warn the youths about the long term consequences of a gambling habit. I know the government makes money by taxing the gambling houses. But the government must be more concerned about the moral and financial health of the youths. It must fall on the society and church to discourage betting on football matches. It is being advertised as sports, but it’s not.
“I know that many churches of today engage in all sorts of borderline gambling in raffle draws. But the churches and mosques must see the coming danger and warn the youths not just about tramadol and codeine but about betting and gambling. Someone has to resume the inculcation of moral values in the schools. The society has to find a way to valorize hard work and discourage search for sudden wealth. We no longer have taboos. But there was a reason why our ancestors found gambling repugnant. Our religious leaders must speak the language. They must tell the youths that gambling is caused by a bad spirit. Perhaps that way the message will sink in. I bet, yes I bet, that the country will pay for this if it doesn’t act now.”