As Drug Addiction Reaches a Crisis Liberia’s Presidential Candidates Promise Tough Remedies

Zimbabwe ghetto is a well-known haunt of drug users in Paynesville. Photo: Nemenlah Cyrus Harmon

ELWA COMPLEX COMMUNITY, Monrovia – In 2012 Cecelia’s life fell apart. Struggling to take care of nine children after the sudden death of her husband, she turned to her oldest son, then in his early 20s, for help. But he was lost to the family, a year into a drug addiction that was destroying his life.

Eleven years on Cecelia, now 52, survives by selling street food with one of her daughters here. Cecelia (we are concealing her last name to protect her family) was forced to send some of the younger children to live with her mother in a rural community.

“I felt bad because he is a child that supposed to help me because their father not living, but I have taken him from the street. I tired,” said Cecilia. She still has hope. “I am appealing to the government to help me for my child to move from the street and go back to school.”

Drug abuse is a growing problem in Liberia. There is no reliable data on user numbers but one study, by the United Nations Population Fund Liberia, found a staggering one in five Liberian youth takes narcotics. The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime’s 2023 report says Africa is a key transit route for cocaine, heroin and marijuana from South America to Europe. The amount of cocaine seized in the Sahel region – western and north-central Africa – dramatically increased from 13 kg per year in 2020 to 863 kg in 2022.

It’s not just drug users and their families who are suffering. Addiction is driving Monrovia’s growing rates of crime, according to police, as addicts steal to fund their habits. The growing crisis has made drugs a central issue in next month’s elections. Major candidates have tough policies on what they say they will do.

Joseph Boakai, the opposition Unity Party’s presidential candidate and former vice president, has vowed a war on drugs. During the observance of International Day Against Drugs Abuse in June Boakai said drug abuse is a threat to Liberia’s national security and needed to be elevated to the status of “national emergency”.

Boakai said the exposure of Liberians to drug abuse and addiction, would have enormous health, social, economic and security implications for the country. 

Some of the $US100 million drug confiscated in Monrovia. Photo courtesy by LDEA Facebook page.

Cllr. Tiawan Saye Gongloe, candidate of the Liberian People’s Party, renowned human rights lawyer and former solicitor general, said strengthened policing of drug importation would be his administration’s priority. Worryingly, Gongloe said Liberia Drug Enforcement Agency (LDEA) officers have told him in confidence that most of the drugs coming in the country pass through legal entrance points and are facilitated by top government officials.

“We will back the law enforcers,” said Gongloe in an interview. “We will use the intelligence network of government, the NSA (National Security Agency) and others to actually check on those who are the real importers of drugs in this country and deal with the supply side.”

He said drug addicted youth would be rehabilitated, given skills training and deployed back into the society as productive citizens.

Cllr. Tiawan Gongloe, candidate of the Liberian People’s Party with running mate Dr. Emmanuel Yarkpawolo

The Collaborating Political Parties of Alexander B. Cummings failed to provide this reporter its policy on drugs. Campaign spokesperson Atty. Lafayette Gould did not meet several promises to provide this information by deadline.

Drug policy was not a major priority during the beginning of President George Weah’s first six-year term. But as the crisis picked up, along with pressure from international donors, the government signed into law the Control Drug and Substance Act of 2023 designed to boost law enforcement’s powers to police the drug trade. It also removed the possibility of bail from drug arrests. 

In September 2022 law enforcement, with support from the U.S. authorities, seized a shipment of 520kg of cocaine worth about $US100 million. A few months later another $US40 million of drugs was discovered at the Freeport of Monrovia. But the government’s commitment to cracking down on the trade came into question when the case against four men charged over the importation was thrown out. This week the head of security at Robertsfield International Airport was suspended pending investigation after another drug haul was allegedly discovered.

There is no way of knowing how much escapes the law enforcement net. The LDEA doesn’t have the capacity to police all drugs coming into the country, according to Michael Jipply, Communications Director for the Agency. 

“There is limited capacity of security officers at the LDEA, in terms of the kind of equipment, devices, accessories we need to enhance our operations and also the issue of the limited manpower,” said Jipply. He also pointed to Liberia’s porous borders. “The numerical strength of the LDEA is not commensurate with our population.”

The Liberian government is not just failing to police importation, it has done little to help addicts recover, according to experts. The lack of sustainable drug prevention programs in Liberia has contributed to the increased rate of drug abuse according to the Global Action for Sustainable Development April 2023 situation report. The report said there are more than 866 ghettos in Monrovia that serve as home to chronic drug users. The report concluded that “Liberia is losing a generation to drug (misuse) and if practical actions are not taken void of politics and donor-driven programs, we will inherit a situation more challenging than we ever imagine, including high criminal activities, unemployment, increase SGBV, HIV/AIDS, teenage pregnancy, TB, etc.”

The government took a step to help users in June 2022 when it launched a national fund drive the “Rehabilitation and Empowerment of At-Risk Youth”. At the launch at the ministerial complex in Monrovia President Weah committed $US1 million in government funds. He promised to raise another $12.9 million from donors. But it took more than a year for the project to begin recruiting youth.

About 105 people volunteered this August according to a press release from Jarlawah A.Tonpo, Deputy Information Minister. The users came voluntarily from the Pelham Building on Center Street and around the Invincible Park communities in Sinkor. The release said users were taken to the E.S. Grant Memorial Hospital in Duport Road, the Star Base on Bushrod Island and the Mother Rescue Center for detoxification before rehabilitation.

In a text message Minister Tonpoe did not answer how much of the remaining $12.9 million had been raised. In response to questions about the pace of the project he said, “We are not doing hurry, hurry things here with this At-Risk Youth program. There are processes involved.”

Liberians working on the front lines of the crisis expressed skepticism about promises made in an election campaign.

“During these kind of political seasons people will make statements for people to praise them,” said James Koryor, Executive Director Global Action for Sustainable Development, a civil society organization that advocates for better approach to drug enforcement who trained at University of Ghana School of Law.

James Koryor, Executive Director Global Action for Sustainable Development. Photo supplied.

Koryor said the issue has become “a major challenge for our generation” that needs serious funding and a “specialized and dedicated institution to address it.” He pointed to the absence of real data. Candidates are making promises that are “not based in evidence”.

Koryor pointed to the fact that the government has not told the public on how much of the $13.9 million program for At-Risk Youth has been raised and he questioned why the project had begun operations more than a year after the launch, with weeks to go before the election. 

“These are politics to say ‘yes, you are making these steps,’” Korkor said.

Josephine Kolubah of Jojo Hope House of Substance Freedom with some of her clients. Photo supplied

Meanwhile, more children like Cecelia’s are falling prey to drugs. John Momo, a 27-year old 7th grade dropout, has been living on the streets, battling addiction, for nine years at the infamous Zimbabwe ghetto in Paynesville.

“Life here is bad,” he said. “We are here smoking drugs. Nobody is coming to help us. We not understand anything for our life here. It’s difficult for everybody in this building.”

Momo is one of hundreds of drug addicted youth living in destitution here. When this reporter visited this month almost everyone appeared dazed and intoxicated. The area reeked of marijuana smoke. Some addicts squatted in a makeshift building right next to the ocean. Women traders at the back of the building sell foods but Momo said dealers also appear regularly. He and friends said they sell beach sand to make money for drugs.

Momo said he was desperate to break free and he is clear on how that will happen.

“I will tell the government to put stop to the dealers them. Once they stop the dealers them, you will see, we the consumer, we will not get chance to even see the drugs to smoke it. But once we seeing it, some of our friends them don’t have the heart to leave it,” he said. “Even if you not go to rehab, when no drugs dealers around the perimeter, you will see that our brothers them will start changing, ourselves will start changing one by one, one by one.”

Josephine Kolubah, the Executive Director of the Jojo Hope House of Substance Freedom, a local organization helping addicts recover, wants the government to focus its fight on tackling importation.

“I think borders, the airlines, and whatever means the people are coming into this country with this much drugs, I think it needs to be dealt with, the government really needs to look into that so that our work can actually be seen or else we will be fighting a losing battle,” Kolubah said.

This story is a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the “Investigating Liberia” project. Funding was provided by the Swedish Embassy in Monrovia. The funder had no say in the story’s content.