Self-reported drug use among secondary school students in two rapidly developing Nigerian towns


The setting
Reported use of drugs
Relevant social influences affecting drug abuse
Attitudes to drug use


Pages: 21 to 32
Creation Date: 1982/01/01

Self-reported drug use among secondary school students in two rapidly developing Nigerian towns

Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Social, Cultural and Environmental Research (CenSCER), University of Benin, Benin City, Nigeria


A 32-item standardized multiple-choice and open-ended questionnaire was completed by nearly 500 male and female secondary school students in two rapidly developing Nigerian towns. About two thirds of the students reported some exposure to alcohol, and about one quarter reported some experience with tobacco. There was much less use of caffeine, methaqualone in combination with diphenhydramine, 2-ethylamino-3-phenylorcamphane in combination with vitamins, chlordiazepoxide, diazepam, cannabis and dexamphetamine. Many students fell into the "past use" category. Parents were extremely disapproving of the use of almost any drug. Many students supported stronger penalties for the use of cannabis. Non-users claimed that drugs were dangerous to health. In addition, religious beliefs were associated with abstinence from drugs.


Despite the often sensationalized reports by the Nigerian press on the rampant abuse of drugs by young people, there is only a limited amount of scientific data on what is regarded widely as a serious social problem. Of the 12 papers on drug use in Nigeria [ 6] , only four have focused on students. Olatawura and Odejide [ 8] assessed the prevalence of drug use among a sample of secondary school students to identify areas where preventive measures ought to be taken. Akindele's [ l] clinical study of 22 university drop-outs was concerned mainly with demonstrating the wastage of manpower arising from drug use. Ogunremi and Okonufua's [ 7] study of university undergraduates showed that drug use often began in the latter half of a student's secondary school education. The most recent study by Nevadomsky [ 5] , based on a sample on nearly l,500 secondary school students, showed that students disapproved of most forms of drug use among their peers and that few students were heavy drug users.

Because of the absence of a sufficient and reliable body of data from which generalizations can be derived there is a definite need for additional surveys on drug use among students in Nigeria. Moreover, it is important that objective information on drug use should be obtained to counteract the usually alarmist reports by the local press and the uninformed opinions of the public. The above circumstances led to the inception of the present study which was undertaken to fulfil the following aims: (a)to examine patterns of self-reported drug experience among secondary school students in two rapidly developing Nigerian towns; (b)to explore the reasons for drug use; (c)to examine students' attitudes concerning the problems and penalties associated with drug use.

The setting

The survey was carried out in the towns of Warri and Effurun, which are located in the delta region of Bendel State about 98 kilometres south of Benin City, the state capital. Although the towns belong to two separate local government districts they share a common boundary which has now become impossible to distinguish as a result of uncontrolled urban development. As the locus for the oil production and refining operations, and steel production in the area, Warri and Effurun host a number of important corporations. There is also a busy port facility.

The existence of these facilities, the intrusion and rapid turnover of a substantial number of expatriate skilled workers and engineers to operate and service them, and the constant flow of goods in and out of the port have helped to create a fast-paced environment that is reflected in the large number of night-clubs, discothèques and restaurants. Prostitution is common. Gangs of thugs frequently commit armed robbery. All sorts of contraband goods are seen. Perhaps more than in any other townships in Nigeria, Warri and Effurun are experiencing the vicissitudes of rapid industrialization and over-urbanization.


There are six secondary schools, a teacher training college and a seminary in Warri and Effurun. For this study, four of the secondary schools were chosen by random selection: two located in Warri; and two in Effurun. It was known that the examination results from one of the schools were usually poor, discipline was lax and student absenteeism was high. It may be pertinent to add also that of the four schools in the sample, only one, an all-male school, had a counsellor on its staff to advise students.

Data were elicited by the use of a self-completed standardized questionnaire consisting of 32 multiple-choice and open-ended questions. The questions were based on the author's previous research, as well as on other reports regarding drug use in Africa, notably that of du Toit [ 11] , [ 12] . The questionnaire was divided into four parts:

Personal socio-economic and demographic information;

Respondents' previous and current use of selected drugs;

Respondents' attitudes to drug experimentation and effects of use;

Respondents' opinions about current drug penalties and school enforcement procedures.

The questionnaire was given to all class 4 and 5 students, who were asked to complete in within a 50-minute time limit (the normal class period).


Response rate

The questionnaires were completed by 260 male and 224 female students. Close supervision ensured a 100 per cent return rate although not every student answered every question, either because of a lack of comprehension, or of apprehension that incriminating responses might be used later to prosecute the individual, in spite of a guarantee of anonymity.

General social and demographic characteristics

The average age of the students in the sample was 17.5 years for the males and 16.8 for the females, with a range of 13 to 21 years of age for both sexes. Almost 40 per cent of the students belonged to the Urhobo ethnic group, followed by the Igbos (16 per cent) and the Itsekiri (12 per cent). This is a reflection partly of the fact that Warri and Effurun are at the dividing line between the Urhobos and the Itsekiris. It also reflects the population distributions in this section of the state. The following ethnic groups are also represented: the Ishan (10 per cent), Bini (5 per cent), Ijaw (4 per cent), Yoruba (4 per cent), and Isoko (3 per cent). The rest of the students belonged to small ethnic or sub-ethnic groups. There were also a few Asians. However, there was no apparent relationship between ethnic group status and drug use. In fact, there appeared to be no significant association between the incidence of drug use and the social and demographic characteristics of the students. Of course, the relatively small number of actual users of the drugs discussed here would probably make any statistical associations problematic.

The students were overwhelmingly Christian (95 per cent). There were a few Moslems (2 per cent) as well as a small percentage of students who professed adherence to traditional beliefs. The majority (60 per cent) regarded themselves as "moderately religious" in sentiment and practice, while 36 per cent considered themselves to be "very religious". Such a relatively high level of self-proclaimed religiosity is not unusual in southern Nigeria where Christianity, particularly in its most fundamental and literal aspects, has an exceptionally firm hold on the people.

In terms of economic status, 30 per cent of the students came from homes in which the father was a businessman (a job description which was not clearly defined); 27 per cent where the father was an unskilled worker (farmer, fisherman, driver, petty trader); 17 per cent where the father's occupation was given as civil servant (another sometimes vaguely defined job designation); 16 per cent where he was what might be described as a "high" professional (lawyer, doctor, engineer); and 10 per cent where the father's occupation was also professional (teacher, clergyman).

Nearly 82 per cent of the students - about equally divided by sex -reported that they were on very good terms with their parents ("we are very close"), and another 14 per cent claimed that "we get along but are not close". This is perhaps not surprising in a society where respect for elders in general, and parents in particular, is a deeply ingrained value. Only 3 per cent said that "we do not communicate much" and 1 per cent noted that "we disagree and argue frequently".

About one half of the students belonged to one or more social clubs. Although a few of the clubs were explicitly for the recreation of their members (Club 50, Hippies' Club, Warri Club), most formed part of the extra-curricular activities of the school (Debating Club, Drama Club, St. Jude's) or were linked to a social relief agency (Red Cross).

Reported use of drugs

The drugs reported on here are those which previous research and informal interviews had indicated were familiar to, or used by, students. About two thirds of both male and female students had some experience with alcohol, including beer, palm wine (the rapidly fermenting sap of the raffia palm), whiskey and ogogoro (a locally distilled drink similar to gin and now legalized). On one hand, more than twice as many males (37 per cent) as females (10 per cent) smoked cigarettes. The same applied to the use of Proplus 1 (10 per cent compared with 5 per cent), and Mandrax 2(10 per cent compared with 3 percent). On the other hand, Reactivan 3 was used much more frequently by females (18 per cent) than by males (10 per cent)- Chlordiazepoxide and diazepam were more frequently used by female (19.2 per cent) than by maIe (15 per cent) students. More males (7.7 per cent) than females (5.8 per cent) reported experimenting with cannabis. Dexedrine (dexamphetamine) did not appear to be widely used although Oviasu [ 9] claimed it was used frequently some years ago.

1 A preparation containing 50 mg caffeine per tablet.

2 A preparation containing methaqualone and diphenhydramine.

3 A preparation containing vitamins and 10 mg 2-ethylamino-3-phenylnorcamphane hydrochloride per tablet.

Table 1

Life-time use of drugs - (absolute numbers a )

Full size image: 2 kB, Table 1

Table 1 shows that the number of students who "tried but discontinued" the use of drugs appeared to be quite high, in some cases exceeding the number of students who continued using them. For example, 2.1 per cent of male students had discontinued use of cannabis, while only l.4 per cent claimed to be still using it. Of the males who experimented with tobacco, 61 per cent reported that they had stopped smoking; 48 per cent of male users of Proplus reported the discontinuance of the use of this drug and 62 per cent of male users of Mandrax had stopped using it. A similar situation existed in the case of female students.

Table 2

Frequency of drug use - (absolute numbers a )

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As shown in table 2, daily use was reported by slightly more than half the male students who had some exposure to cannabis, Proplus, chlordiazepoxide or diazepam, and tobacco. Again, similar results were obtained from female students. Alcohol was consumed less frequently and was linked mainly to weekend relaxation or special occasions, although overall it was imbibed by a larger number of students.

Nearly three quarters of the students who experimented with drugs may be classified as multiple drug abusers (see table 3). Among the male students, the prevalent pattern of multiple use was spirits, beer and tobacco. The typical pattern among female drug users was spirits and beer.

Table 3

Single and multiple abuse of drugs

Full size image: 1 kB, Table 3

No clear pattern of a relationship between age and initial exposure to any of these drugs emerged. Generally speaking, students first experimented with the drugs when they were between 12 and 18 years of age. Of considerable interest and possible concern, however, was the fact that some students tried these drugs as early as 12 years of age. For example, 10 per cent of the cannabis users reported initial exposure to cannabis at 12 years of age; 8 per cent of the male users and 19 per cent of the female users of chlordiazepoxide or diazepam were introduced to these substances at that age; 14 per cent of the female students first tried Reactivan, and approximately 20 per cent of both male and female students first tasted alcohol at that age.

Relevant social influences affecting drug abuse

It is possible that the use of these drugs was determined partly by the social relationships of the user to those around him, specifically his personal friends and class-mates. To arrive at some estimate of this, students were asked two questions: "Of those three people you consider your best friends at home (at school, for the second question) how many have used ' ganja' or Indian hemp? (the local terms for cannabis). It was clear that, for both sexes, "friends at home" were twice as likely to have used cannabis as those at school, although it is also noteworthy that up to two thirds of these students reported that neither their closest friends at home nor those closest to them in school smoked cannabis. It is also relevant to point out that student users of cannabis reported a somewhat higher incidence of use outside the school: 63 per cent of the male and 58 per cent of the female cannabis users claimed to have used cannabis "at home or elsewhere outside the school".

The reactions of parents to the use of alcohol, tobacco and cannabis may also be relevant in influencing the acceptability or use of drugs. Table 4 indicates how students believed their parents would react. It is clear that, in most cases, a large majority of parents would be "extremely disapproving''. At most, about one quarter of the parents would tolerate "if used in social situations only" the limited use of alcoholic beverages. It is noteworthy that few parents were reported to feel "indifferently" about the use of drugs by their children.

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Parental use of these drugs appeared to be rather limited. When students were asked to comment on their parents' use of tobacco and alcohol, 96 per cent reported that their mother did "not smoke cigarettes at all" and 80 per cent said that their father did not smoke. About 10 per cent of the fathers were reported to be "occasional smokers"; the rest "regular smokers". About 3 per cent of the mothers were said to be occasional smokers. The use of alcohol was more common, especially among the fathers. Although 66 per cent of the mothers were reported to abstain from alcohol, the same could be said for only 36 per cent of the fathers. A slight majority of fathers (52 per cent) were occasional drinkers.

Attitudes to drug use

In this section the aim was to explore the attitudes of students toward the non-use of alcohol, cannabis and tobacco, as well as their attitudes towards the use of cannabis and other drugs. Some attention was also given to students' perceptions of the physical and temperamental characteristics of cannabis users. As table 5 shows, the most frequently cited reason for non-use was "mental or physical damage". The second most common reason was the claim that they were not interested. Religious convictions played a lesser part in abstinence.

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Male users of cannabis said that their main reason for smoking it was to be "social and get along with friends" (30 per cent); others cited "kicks" (euphoric effects) (17 per cent), "curiosity" (16 per cent), "escape from problems" (12 per cent), and to "increase self-awareness" (9 per cent). Female users claimed that it gave them a respite from "boredom" (26 per cent), that it "increases self-awareness" (16 per cent), "intensifies perception and sensation" (11 per cent), or that it helped one to "escape from problems" (11 per cent). Some took it simply out of "curiosity" (11 per cent).

As far as the use of other drugs (such as Reactivan, Mandrax and Proplus) was concerned, important reasons given by the students included the enhancing of sensations (26 per cent for male against 17 per cent for female users), relaxation (15 per cent versus 14 per cent), curiosity (13 per cent versus 32 per cent), escape from problems (11 per cent versus 7.5 per cent), to get along with friends (11 per cent, males only), and as a respite from boredom (10 per cent versus 18 per cent). Neither cannabis nor the other drugs appeared to be used primarily as an "expression of resistance to the establishment" (only 1 per cent overall).

In terms of temperamental and intellectual characteristics, the great majority of students (83 per cent) felt, on the one hand, that those who experimented with cannabis were not much different from those who did not. On the other hand, they regarded cannabis users as generally "physically inactive and passive" (57 per cent). However, 22 per cent regarded them as "physically active, sporting types" and 21 per cent said they were about the same as other students.

Finally, students were asked to comment on what they thought were the risks involved in the use of cannabis. Many felt that the greatest danger was damage to one's health (38 per cent), while others indicated that addiction or dependence was a possible hazard (36 per cent). About 16 per cent stressed that the use of cannabis "makes one want to go on to stronger drugs", while 9 per cent emphasized legal sanctions against use.

In Nigeria, the penalty for possession and use of cannabis is 200 naira (about $ 350) or six months' imprisonment (formerly the penalty was 10 years' imprisonment). Nearly 74 per cent of the students believed that this was "too lenient" while only 6 per cent thought that the present penalty was "too severe". The rest thought that it was about right.

Students also supported the view that severe action should follow the discovery by school authorities of students who used cannabis, particularly if it were used on school premises. About 85 per cent said that students caught using cannabis should be expelled from school, 20 per cent suggested that they should be suspended, 4 per cent said that a warning ought to be issued, and only 3 per cent said that no action ought to be taken. It is important to note that while only 6 per cent of the male students suggested psychological counselling as the appropriate action by school officials, 22 per cent of the female students marked this as the appropriate response.


To understand drug use in Nigeria it is necessary to get some idea of the environment within which it exists. Tobacco and alcohol are, of course, readily available from shops and supermarkets without any age restrictions. Freshly tapped palm wine can be consumed at innumerable outdoor canteens and bars. Kola nuts, a mild stimulant, are available from street hawkers or at roadside kiosks which also sell sweets, bread and sardines. In most Nigerian cultures the sharing of kola nuts is a traditional and indispensable form of hospitality. Kola nuts are also consumed by the poor and the urban unemployed to ward off the pangs of hunger. Students chew them to keep awake and alert during examinations.

Other drugs, though less conspicuous, are no less accessible. Some of the most powerful Western drugs available can be obtained either in tablet form or as injections, often without prescription at local pharmacists. They are also available in the large open-air markets found in all major towns and cities. Generally speaking, sick persons, in addition to employing native elixirs and herbs, purchase the most potent Western drugs they can find, about which they may know nothing more than that they are "powerful" or available as injections (there is a strong preference for injections because they are believed to be more "powerful" than pills). Outdated drugs find a ready market among the ignorant and gullible, and the average person has absolutely no knowledge of the potential dangers and possible side effects from the use or misuse of these drugs.

Although the Government of Nigeria forbids the unauthorized use of barbiturates and amphetamines, these sometimes find their way on to the open market. Cannabis is both illegal and socially condemned and is not publicly sold, but the user can purchase it privately.

Under these circumstances, it is especially noteworthy that there has not been a rampant and almost catastrophic abuse of stimulants and depressants, at least among the secondary school students in the sample reported in this paper.

Although one quarter of the students experimented at one time or another with cigarette smoking, the author's observations after nearly 10 years in Nigeria indicate that the pattern of student use as well as the smoking habits of the public tend to be limited to one or two "sticks" each day. Indeed, this is the way cigarettes are usually sold by roadside vendors. Only among some members of the élite, especially those who have been exposed to Western ways (through education or work experience) does the consumption of cigarettes even begin to approach one packet per day. Except among a very few, cigarette smoking is not yet associated with the sentiments of masculinity, group identity, ego recognition or trend-setting that seem to be a part of the smoking culture in some Western countries. By and large, the results of the present survey indicate that most of the parents of these students do not smoke, and that they condemn its use by their children. Also, most students are acutely aware of the health hazards of cigarette smoking. It may be that the most religious students condemn cigarette smoking as a pernicious and sinful abuse of the body.

Of the drugs discussed here, alcohol was the most widely used, although its consumption was probably confined to weekends and special occasions. Indeed, for most social functions such as weddings, birthdays and even burials an abundance of alcohol, usually beer and stout, as well as soft drinks, were absolutely essential. It would thus be highly unusual for young people not to have had some exposure to alcohol. Furthermore, alcohol has been made locally for centuries, so that the contemporary patterns of alcohol consumption may have arisen as much out of the local culture as from the intrusion of foreign values. As mentioned earlier, parents were reported to be tolerant of a modest use of alcohol by their children, although the same leniency did not apply to tobacco.

Although the use of cannabis has been reported as progressing at an alarming rate among Nigerian youths [ 2] , [ 3] , the present evidence does not support the contention that the drug is widely used. Few students reported "current use" of cannabis although it may be argued that some of them failed to report experimentation for fear of disciplinary action. Most parents and students strongly condemned the use of cannabis and they recognized ist potential hazards. In addition, many students recommended more stringent penalties for its use. It should be pointed out, however, that these sentiments may have been influenced partly by the way in which the media and other public agencies link the now daily occurrence of armed robbery and murder to cannabis use. Nevertheless, some of the students who reported opposition to drug use and favoured stringent penalties, were drug users themselves.

It is somewhat surprising that stimulants and the non-barbiturate depressants or "minor" tranquillizers which were used by a proportion of the student population were not taken primarily for their pleasurable effects. By contrast, Nigerian students took stimulants mainly to prolong wakefulness and to stimulate attentiveness, particularly at examination times. Depressants were of ten employed to reduce the tensions and anxieties that examinations induced. Students used stimulants while an examination was in progress, then turned to depressants to counter the effects of pep pills once the examination was over. In other words, there was an "off", "on" and "off" again pattern of use during periods of examinations. Once examinations were over, use might be discontinued, at least until the end-of-session examinations the following year. Proplus was used by more males than females because, in addition to its use as a stimulant, it was regarded as an aphrodisiac. Reactivan was more popular among female students perhaps because it contained vitamins B 6, B 12 and C, and was therefore thought to be effective as a food substitute and dietary aid.

Chlordiazepoxide and diazepam, through their trade names Librium and Valium, have become as elsewhere, household names in Nigeria. Their use appears to be increasing. These drugs are legal and their use is sometimes linked to medical prescriptions.

Generally, the evidence presented in this paper suggests that the stresses of secondary school adolescence, such as they may be in Nigerian society, are not manifested in a widespread use of drugs, in spite of their easy availability. The results also indicate that most of the self-reported drug use described here is prompted by "normal" rather than "pathological" factors. This is, of course, consistent with Western evidence [ 4] , [ 10] . Some of the drugs discussed here appear to be linked to social events while others are conditioned by the typical stresses of life in a modernizing society. Whether or not drug experimentation constitutes a prediction of examination results is not an issue which this paper has considered, although the only evidence available from a sample of Nigerian students [ 5] suggests that it is not. The present survey presents a different picture of drug use among Nigerian students from the few available clinical studies [ 1] which tend to focus on groups of emotionally disturbed students and school drop-outs who, through drugs, may be seeking a solution to their emotional and mental ill-health. Of course there will always be grounds for acute concern for those students who are heavy drug users, although this is a situation that will have to be monitored by parents, psychologists and the appropriate school officials.



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