June 28, 2021 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1585

Opioid Painkiller Tramadol Abuse By Boko Haram And Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP)

June 28, 2021 | By Ali Karami*
Africa | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1585

Wherever there is supply, there is a corresponding demand driving the supply. In Nigeria, tramadol, an opioid painkiller, has been used for years by Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) to embolden its militants during fighting.[1] As explained in an Al-Jazeera report, tramadol "binds to opioid receptors in the brain and spinal cord, leading to a sense of euphoria."[2] Users say that it relieves pain and hunger pangs, calms anxiety, increases strength, and boosts confidence.[3] Since 2018,[4] the drug has been prescription-only in Nigeria.[5] Despite government efforts to restrict its use,[6] traffickers have been caught smuggling it into the country.[7] Drug traffickers and smugglers are also managing to bribe their way into the country in a bid to distribute it to their addicted clients.

Tramadol (Source: Twitter)

Tramadol Smuggling In Nigeria

According to media, "Nigeria's porous borders" have allowed tramadol to be smuggled in from neighboring countries such as Benin – a country that is, according to U.S. State Department, the world's second largest destination for tramadol after the U.S.[8] Many traffickers caught smuggling the drug by Nigerian authorities have confessed to distributing it to Boko Haram and ISWAP militants. These traffickers have identified prominent insurgent and terrorist buyers who will pay much more than the regular market price. In 2019, Nigeria's National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) said that it had also arrested a police officer for supplying 59 kilograms of tramadol to Boko Haram militants in Borno state in the northeast of the country.[9]

On April 2, 2021, Nigerian media also reported that the NDLEA in Taraba State had arrested Adama Issa, 35, from Chad, and charged him with being a major supplier of tramadol to terrorists in the country. Issa was reportedly arrested with 21.7 kilograms of tramadol in 225mg and 250mg form. The arrest came a few days after the arrest of a 70-year-old terrorist from the Republic of Niger who also supplied illicit drugs to Boko Haram.[10]

In early June 2021, the NDLEA in Lagos State intercepted a total of 34,950 capsules of tramadol and the anti-anxiety medication diazepam (Valium) as they were en route to Boko Haram in Borno State and arrested Mohammed Isah, 25, who had been recruited to move the drugs from Lagos to Borno. Under interrogation, Isah said that he had been offered N50,000 (around US$121) to transport drugs to Boko Haram and that he had accepted the offer because of financial strain on him because his family had been displaced by Boko Haram activity and is now residing in an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp.[11]

Mohammed Isah (Source: Twitter)

(Source:, February 17, 2018)

Former Boko Haram Fighters Talk About Tramadol Use

Nigerian analysts assessed that tramadol has played a role in the kidnappings, rapes, killings, and terrorism perpetrated in northern Nigeria by terrorists in the country. NDLEA chairman Muhammad Abdallah also stated that the "insurgency" in the northeast is a result of "tramadol abuse."[12]

In 2019, the media outlet Africa Arguments reported on the tramadol experience of former Boko Haram member Adamu Musa, who had managed to escape the movement. Musa, who had been "abducted along with a dozen other boys" in Gwoza, a local government area of Borno State, said that his first mission was to join "a group of militants that would attack a nearby community and kidnap more fighters. Musa and the other young boys were tasked with chasing men who tried to escape," wrote Africa Arguments.

Before his first mission, Musa recalled that he was forced to take several tramadol tablets. "Everyone took it before leaving the camp. Even if there was nothing else in the camp, there was always tramadol... Whenever we took tramadol, nothing mattered to us anymore except what we were sent to do... Because it made us very high and very bold, it was impossible to go on a mission without taking it," said Musa, according to the report.[13]

Boko Haram militants (Source: Twitter)


Nigerian journalist Olatunji Ololade stated that in addition to tramadol, Boko Haram members use other illegal substances. "Members of the cult are drug dependent. They binge on psychotropic substances, including omi gota [known also as 'gutter juice,' a blend of cocaine, codeine, tramadol, Indian hemp, and black currant juice], colorado [a potent 'gutter juice" hallucinogen variant, aka 'Black Mamba'], pamilerin [another 'gutter juice' variant], codeine, cannabis, Rohypnol [known as a 'date rape' drug] and tramadol," Ololade wrote.[14]

In February 2021, NDLEA chairman Mohammed Buba Marwa said that 90 percent of crime in the country is linked to drug abuse. "Nobody in his right sense will take up arms to kidnap, rape and kill innocent people. Therefore, if we are able to tackle the issue of drug abuse, most of the security challenges the nation is facing now would have been solved. We also need to take this war as a battle to save our children and women, and ultimately our society and the country at large," Marwa said.[15] In 2018, Nigeria's Office of the National Security Adviser also stated that most of Boko Haram's violent crimes, in particular suicide bombings, are carried out under the influence of drugs.[16]

Some analysts believe that if the Nigerian government can stop the smuggling of tramadol in the country, it will weaken Boko Haram because of the group's dependence on the drug to carry out attacks. Dr. Bala Muhammad, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Communications at Nigeria's Bayero University, Kano, said recently that one of the main pillars supporting terrorism in Nigeria is drugs, and that solving this problem would effectively curb terrorism in the country.[17]


*Ali Karami is a MEMRI researcher and a political commentator from Jigawa state, Nigeria.


[1] The Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), an ISIS-backed movement that split off from Boko Haram in 2016.

[2], April 9, 2019.

[3], April 22, 2019.

[4] It is worth noting that in 2018, the Nigerian House of Representatives proposed a N2 million fine and a two-year jail term for corporate offenders of the ban on Tramadol and codeine in the country. Individual offenders, according to the proposal, would have been subject to a N500,000 fine and two years' imprisonment or both., May 22, 2018. In 2018, Nigeria also recalled 2.4 million bottles of cough syrup containing codeine after national outrage earlier this year over endemic use of opioids., July 31, 2018.

[5], January 27, 2021.

[6] The UN's World Drug Report 2018 stated that seizures of pharmaceutical opioids – mainly tramadol in West and Central Africa, and North Africa, accounted for 87 percent of the global total in 2016., June 26, 2018.

[7], January 27, 2021.

[8], April 20, 2019.

[9], November 12, 2019.

[10], April 2, 2021.

[11], June 5, 2021.

[12], June 26, 2020.

[13], March 15, 2019.

[14], June 17, 2021.

[15], February 22, 2021.

[16], March 13, 2021.

[17], June 18, 2021.

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