The “phenomenon of the drugs culture” in Sierra Leone

The 11-year tribal rebel war in Sierra Leone (1991-2002), which destroyed the country’s fragile infrastructure and economy also had a devastating socialimpact on Sierra Leone’s population as it brought with it a massive increase in the use and trafficking of illegal drugs.  There was also a profound change in the demographic composition of the country as hundreds of thousands of people sought refuge in Freetown to escape the merciless and senseless slaughter upcountry. 

Following the end of the war, which saw the demobilization of tens of thousands of ex-combatants, most of whom were young, and drug addicts, no serious attempt was made by the government in office or the international community to counsel or rehabilitate these ex-combatants back into society.  And these were ex-fighters who were freely given cannabis sativa on a regular basis during the war to, as the authorities put it, “make them brave in battle”.

Shockingly, in spite of the introduction of the Public Sector Reform Programme in early 2002, which saw various sectors of the economy, including public institutions like the Army and the Sierra Leone Police benefit from financial support from the international community in order to rebuild their capacity, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency never benefitted from the programme.Whether by ommision or by design,which is a matter of conjecture, the exclusion of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency from the Public Sector Reform Programme remains the most serious mistake in Sierra Leone’s post-war reconstruction. Most disturbingly, no official explanation has been given to the people of this country why this is the case.

The fact of the matter is that the tribal rebel war brought extreme poverty, homelessness and destitution to an already impoverished and underdeveloped nation. As a result, the ranks of the destitute and unemployed swelled to unimaginable proportions.  Even hundreds of thousands of those citizens who were getting along reasonably well before the war joined the ranks of the poor and the unemployed.  The trauma, the psychological effect, and all that is evil of a society coming out of a terrible war have not been properly addressed to this day.

The above developments gave rise to a new phenomenon never before witnessed in the country’s history the “phenomenon of the drugs culture”.  Cocaine, cannabis sativa, brown brown and LSD got hold of a once decent Sierra Leonean society.  Hundreds of thousands of the young, who now constitute the majority of the population, and the middle-aged found pleasure in smoking cannabis.  Members of the security forces, namely, the military and the Sierra Leone Police, including the OSD who still remained in their jobs following demobilisation became the very heart of the new drugs culture. 

As for the ex-combatants, they went back to their families, villages, communities and towns all over the country and introduced cannabis at an unprecedented scale to a vulnerable population.  Innocent boys and girls who knew nothing about cannabis became passive smokers, while others were simply enticed or encouraged to become active smokers.

In the case of the tens of thousands of ex-Kamajors and ex-Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels, many in their teens, who had become drug addicts, the question of rehabilitating them back into society became so overwhelming, the majority of them were left to fend for themselves.  And these were ex-fighters, many of whom had committed some of the most heinous atrocities known to mankind.  Today, they are grown up men and women and the majority of them still smoke cannabis.  Sadly, a good number have gone insane or departed this world.

Daddy or mummy too, once a decent soldier, had become a drug addict and would no longer fit into society, not even the sanctuary of their own home, that is, those who had a home to go to.  And because successive governments failed to take care of them, they lost control of their focus in life and drifted aimlessly to eventually become “the lost population of drug addicts.”  In the case of those who could no longer cope, they either became insane or departed this world.  Poor souls, how cruel the world can be!

As for the illegal and repressive National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) military regime, the hierarchy of the junta made smoking cannabis fashionable.  They openly displayed cannabis in public and smoked the drug to their hearts’ content.  As ruthless and immoral as they were, the regime unforgivably destroyed the very fabric of a once highly cultured and civilised Sierra Leonean society. These half-baked men in uniform did so much damage to our country.

Today, cannabis smokers have permeated every sector of Sierra Leonean society.  There is now no distinction between the elite, the middle-class, the ordinary man or woman in the street, and the innocent-looking school-going teenager, some as young as 13, as every class is in the business of smoking cannabis.  As all of this goes on all around us, people look on helplessly in shock and utter disbelief. 

Sierra Leonean tradition has also witnessed a dramatic upheaval.  Once upon a time, respect for the elderly and civilised behaviour were norms every Sierra Leonean was proud of.  But this is now a thing of the past.  Teenagers and the young, in particular, are very insolent, behave badly at home and in public and quickly turn violent.  The psyche of our young population has undergone such a dramatic transformation, civilised behaviour and respect for law and order matters little or nothing at all.

Cannabis smokers abound everywhere with hard core criminals, some as young as 16, so quick to decide to put an end to one’s life.  And with the proliferation of competing teenage gangs, minor confrontations quickly turn violent, sometimes resulting in fatal stab wounds.  A good number of Sierra Leonean teenagers and young men and women with dual nationalities, who have been deported from abroad, have sadly introduced the smoking of cannabis and the use of other illegal drugs to teenage members of these gangs.  As innocent as they are, these teenagers have been exposed to a false concept of acceptable Western behaviour, which they have readily emulated in their desire for a role model.  The Sierra Leonean teenage culture has, thus, become one of violence and lawlessness.  The tribal rebel war apart, our country has never before been gripped by such unacceptable behaviour and lawlessness since ancient times.

The public are now helpless to the way and manner school pupils commandeer the main streets of Freetown, normally after sports meetings or football matches, bringing traffic to a complete standstill.  They find pleasure in grabbing valuables from innocent passers-by and have no hesitation in mercilessly beating up those who dare resist or get caught up within their ranks.  Even innocent people in the relative safety of private vehicles or taxis feel intimidated as these teenagers would attempt to forcefully gain access into vehicles or keep banging the vehicles with their bare fists in sheer frustration.

So what is the response of the police or the government, for that matter, to all the problems highlighted above.  It appears the answer is to recruit more and more policemen, including OSDs.  Thus, thousands of policemen have been recruited over the past three years alone.  But has the approach taken into account the underlying problem associated with the total disregard for good behaviour and respect for law and order? As scarce government resources continue to be allocated in this direction, the answer is seemingly no.

The indisputable fact is that the underlying cause of Sierra Leone’s lawlessness and criminality, and bad and unacceptable public behaviour among school pupils and young men and women is clearly attributed to the failure of successive governments to tackle the notorious illegal drugs problem, especially the use of cannabis.  The public are in no doubt that the problems associated with drug abuse pose real challenges to social security and are a barrier to economic development and democratic consolidation. But we are dealing with our young population, young boys and girls, many of them so tender and so beautiful with their future before them.  Shockingly, they have been abandoned by successive governments.  Sometimes you sit down and reflect on how it has all gone wrong, and tears flow down your eyes.

Over more than two decades on, the built-up landscape of the capital has changed beyond recognition.  Although real estate and the process of gentrification have ushered in a much needed built-up environment in the capital, the thousands of shanty houses or “pan bodies” scattered along the coastal areas and hill side of the capital are part of the new housing transformation.  These “pan bodies”, which have by all account offered solace to the poor, are now safe havens for cannabis smokers.  However, society is more to blame than these poor city dwellers that are living a precarious existence.  Our sympathy goes to them.

The gentry, some of whom live behind well protected walled-houses and rented accommodation, and have powerful connections and run fictitious businesses in the heart of the city, are the real masters of the illegal cocaine trade.  As statistics are hard to come by, no one really knows for sure how much money is involved in Sierra Leone’s illegal drugs trade, except that mansions are being built by people who could hardly give account of their new found wealth.

The unmistakable legacy of the 11-year tribal rebel war, when illegal drugs flowed freely throughout Sierra Leone and in and out of the country, is that the cocaine and cannabis trade is a very lucrative business.  In fact, so lucrative that the cocaine business, in particular, is a money making-machine and has in many ways contributed to the stupendous wealth of those involved in it. But the illegal drugs trade has devastated the social and cultural fabric of Sierra Leone, and its prospects in achieving asafe and decent society.

An entirely new development is that cannabis farms are now owned or co-owned by certain police and military officers, especially upcountry. It is hardly surprising that this is now the case as law enforcement is so weak and corrupt, which has encouraged some members of the Army and the Sierra Leone Police to get directly involvedin the cultivation and export of cannabis. In the case of the local inhabitants, their involvement is mainly due to economic reasons as the illegal drugs industry offers the most attractive opportunity of getting out of poverty.

Businessmen in the pharmaceutical and electronic industries are also deeply involved in the trafficking of illegal drugs, particularly cocaine.  Many foreigners, among them West Africans, South Americans, North Americans, Europeans and Russians, travelling to Sierra Leone on the pretext of opening new businesses are actually illegal cocaine dealers who use fake businesses as a front.  In particular, several Black British and African- Americans with dual nationalities are similarly involved in the cultivation and   export of cannabis.  Although a few of them have taken permanent residence in Freetown, the majority travel to Sierra Leone at least two or three times annually, especially during the cannabis harvest period.  Needless to say, some of them are also involved in the trafficking of cocaine.

Thus, the non-operationalisation of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency and its conspicuous absence everywhere in the country has prevented the Agency from playing any part whatsoever in reversing the “phenomenon of the drugs culture” or, contributing to the tackling of the illegal drugs trade in Sierra Leone generally.

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One Response to The “phenomenon of the drugs culture” in Sierra Leone

  1. mabinty74

    October 21, 2014 at 1:30 pm

    The first phrase of the above article is misleading. The Sierra Leone war from 1991 to 2002 was not a tribal war. There was no one tribe fighting against another. In fact that was what helped the country because if it had turned into a tribal war then it would have been difficult to end.

    Abel Jalloh

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