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Lagos: drugs, firearms and youth unemployment are creating a lethal cocktail in Nigeria’s commercial capital

LAGOS is the most populous city in Africa and a regional economic giant, having West Africa’s busiest seaport. It is the centre of commercial and economic activities in Nigeria.

The city’s population is estimated to be 20 million people. The existence of informal settlements makes it difficult to come up with a more precise number.

ADEWUMI I. BADIORA, Senior Lecturer, Department of Urban and Regional Planning, Olabisi Onabanjo University

Lagos has grown rapidly since Nigerian independence in 1960 when its estimated population was 763,000 people. In the 1980s, its population reached 2.7 million. The government of Lagos state estimates that 86 young migrants arrive every hour.

This rapid urbanisation has been poorly managed. The result is crumbling public infrastructure, poor sanitation, poverty, and shortages of employment opportunities, food, social services, housing and public transport.

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These challenges combine to make the city susceptible to criminal activities. Organised crime and violent conflicts are a public safety and security challenge.

The issue of crime has been with Lagos for years. In 1993, the Nigerian government described Lagos as the “crime capital of the country” with the emergence of the “Area Boys”, a group of social miscreants.

The 2017 statistics on reported crime incidences in Nigeria by the National Bureau of Statistics show that Lagos has remained in a class of its own. Lagos State had the highest percentage share of total cases reported with 50,975 (37.9%) cases recorded.

I have been researching various aspects of crime and insecurity in Nigeria, particularly in the country’s south-west. I currently lead the African Cities Research Consortium safety and security domain research in Lagos.

I contributed to a recent paper about residents’ experiences and perceptions of safety in six African cities: Nairobi, Bukavu, Freetown, Mogadishu, Lagos and Maiduguri.

My research identified various drivers of insecurity in Lagos. They included youth migration and unemployment; inequality and poverty; the visible network of organised youth criminal groups; proliferation of small arms and drugs; inadequate preparedness of the city government; police corruption; the high rate of out-of-school children; and poor urban planning.

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I argue that for residents to feel secure, the government needs to include these drivers in approaches to solving security challenges in Lagos.

Unemployment, firearms and drugs

In my African Cities Research Consortium safety and security domain research in Lagos, unemployment and the proliferation of small firearms and drugs stand out as trends.

A survey on Navigating Unemployment in Lagos, Nigeria revealed that 48.31% of the respondents were unemployed and the majority were between 25 and 34 years old.

In Lagos, youth of 18-40 years make up about half of the population, equalling over ten million people facing high rates of unemployment. I do not have current unemployment data but in its fourth quarter 2020 nationwide survey, the National Bureau of Statistics estimated a 37.14% unemployment rate in Lagos, and 4.52% underemployment rate.

According to my research participants, drug abuse and illicit arms have become serious issues. Some of the city precincts in communities such as Ikorodu, Somolu, Agege, Bariga, Ojo, Oshodi, Mushin and Badagry have become warehouses and destinations for firearms and drugs.

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A recent survey published by ENACT Transnational on organised crime in Africa has shown that between 2010 and 2017, the largest supply of live ammunition transported into Nigeria illegally was intercepted at Lagos. This was made up of 21,407,933 items of live ammunition and 1,100 pump-action guns.

Most of the illegal weapons pass through ports in West Africa; some are imported over land borders. While the country’s law forbids random possession of firearms, my research respondents say it is surprisingly common for young miscreants to carry firearms in Lagos.

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The police have confirmed that hooligans acquire illicit firearms from local blacksmiths who make them, and from corrupt security officers.

In 2022, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency discovered a warehouse in a residential estate in Ikorodu with 1.8 tonnes of cocaine. This was the largest single cocaine seizure in the country’s history.

In November 2023, security agents intercepted cannabis in Ibeshe, Iworoshoki and Badagry, and in January 2024, the drug law enforcement agency intercepted cannabis at Ikeja.

Impacts of unemployment, small arms and drugs in Lagos

Findings from my research in Lagos show respondents perceive high levels of violent crime in the city. Youths aged 13 to 40 are mostly the perpetrators.

While there are no accurate statistics of daily violent crime incidences, residents are complaining.

In 2022, the police reported that no fewer than 345 people were murdered in Lagos – the highest number in years.

Young people have formed themselves into street gangs. My research respondents spoke of violent encounters in which their assailants used firearms and were often under the influence of alcohol or drugs or both. This was the experience of 18 respondents, out of a sample of 50 randomly selected respondents.

Some respondents described street gangs in Lagos who are constantly high on drugs and have no regard for human life. Other respondents said drugs were accessible and affordable even for unemployed youth. Respondents believed that a combination of a large youth population, unemployment and easy access to drugs and illicit firearms was proving deadly.

Preventing and treating the issues

The crime triangle in Lagos – youth unemployment, drugs and illicit arms – requires urgent attention.

My study in Lagos shows that a widespread sense of economic hopelessness exacerbates the use of drugs and firearms by young people in Lagos. Youth who embrace this culture of violence are those who feel that they have no stake in the city and no trust in the government to provide opportunities for them.

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Thus, the state and communities must address the lack of opportunities and alternatives, reaching out to marginalised youth and providing them with an environment in which they can lead a fulfilling life. An effective strategy provides legitimate activities and job opportunities for them.

Government action is required to ensure that opportunities exist for training in a trade or life skill. This would enable youth to make better choices and find productive employment. They could be socially responsible and play an active role in the city rather than becoming a threat in their communities.

The government has the authority to control the supply and use of firearms and drugs.

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Special operations should be directed at drug addicts and unlicensed firearms carriers. The approach should be to disrupt the market for illicit arms and drugs.

Security agencies can work with communities to discover new dealing locations and make buyers feel vulnerable and uncomfortable through sting operations – pretending to be dealers or users.

Urban planning approaches could also be applied such as inclusive planning of informal settlements, installation of security cameras and street lighting, limiting access to problematic streets through road changes, removal of transport stops used by drug and firearms users and their dealers, and improved signage.

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By ADEWUMI I. BADIORA

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