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A ‘narco-state’: No one has the data, so where did Liberian opposition leader Joseph Boakai get figures on drug abuse?

Despite concerns about drug abuse and addiction in Liberia, there are no credible statistics on the extent of the problem in the country.

This article is more than 8 months old

  • We found Boakai’s claim that 20% of Liberian youth use narcotics in a United Nations press release, but the source of this statistic is unclear. 

  • Other agencies, including the country’s drugs enforcement agency, health ministry and statistics office, said the information to make such a claim was not available.

  • Similarly, there is no publicly available data to support the claim that 13% of the general Liberian population is “affected” by drug addiction.

Liberian opposition leader Joseph Nyumah Boakai is alarmed by the rise of drug abuse and drug trafficking in the West African country. 

Boakai, the flagbearer of the Unity Party, is seeking the top job in Liberia’s presidential election scheduled for 10 October 2023. He served as vice president under then president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf between 2006 and 2017. 

He ran for president in 2017, losing to incumbent George Weah. But as he prepares for another try, Boakai is worried that the country is turning into a “narco-state”.

Speaking at a press conference on 26 June 2023 to mark the United Nations’ International Day against Drug Abuse, he called for increased action and cooperation in the fight against drug abuse.

He shared some startling statistics.

“It is estimated that two in ten youth in Liberia are users of narcotic substances. Some estimates have it that about 13% of the population is affected by drug addiction,” Boakai said (at the 7:30 minute timestamp in this video).

His party’s spokesperson also posted Boakai’s statement on Facebook, making the same claims. 

We took a closer look at the two claims.

Claim

“It is estimated that two in ten youth in Liberia are users of narcotic substances”.

Verdict

Unproven

In his speech, Boakai did not provide any evidence for his estimates. When asked for the data, United Party secretary general Amos Tweh promised a response. We'll update this report when he does.

We found the same claim in the first sentence of a press release issued on 4 July 2022 by the Liberian office of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the UN's sexual and reproductive health agency.

We emailed UNFPA Liberia to ask where they got this statistic, but have yet to hear back.

The government ministry responsible for youth affairs has issued the National Youth Policy, which defines young people as those between the ages of 15 and 35.

Narcotics are drugs that dull the senses, relieve pain and cause addiction. They are classified in a global convention signed in 1961, to which Liberia is a party.

The Liberia Drugs Enforcement Agency (LDEA) is the government agency under the justice ministry responsible for combating the use of narcotics and dealing with drug abuse and addiction. 

Michael Jipply, the LDEA's chief of communications and public affairs, told Africa Check there was no publicly available data on drug abuse in Liberia. No study had been conducted in the country, he said.

 “[It] is quite unfortunate that the information you seek from the LDEA right now is not available consistently or accurately,” said Jipply. 

“The LDEA … has not been able to collect accurate and consistent data on the number of drug dependent people in Liberia due to lack of funding and support to assist in the process,” he said. 

We also contacted the Liberian Ministry of Health. A spokesperson said the ministry had no such data. Neither did the country’s statistical agency, the Liberia Institute for Statistics and Geo-Information Services

Lack of data makes estimates difficult

Other sources echoed this. A 2022 report by the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, a US agency that fights crime and drug trafficking worldwide, noted that while “drug use among the country’s youth was a growing public concern” there was no data.

 “Due to poor transportation and communications infrastructure and a lack of capacity and interest within the Government of Liberia, there is no reliable data on drug consumption or overall trends within Liberia,” the report said

Marijuana was the most widely available, along with heroin, cocaine and the synthetic opioid tramadol, according to the report. 

“There are no recent data available on current drug use within Liberia, though anecdotal reports indicate that drug use has increased in the emerging middle class and is common in the expat and Lebanese communities,” the US agency added. 

“Due to a lack of resources and capacity, the government has conducted very little drug prevention, rehabilitation, or treatment since the 1970s (pre-civil war).” 

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the UN's drug control agency, recorded a prevalence of drug use of 7.52% among 15 to 64-year-olds in 2017. Data is not disaggregated for young people between 15 and 35.

Liberia did not submit data to the UN agency until 2022, when it responded to the annual report questionnaire. However, the details of the response are not public.

Given the lack of publicly available data to prove or disprove this claim, we consider it unproven.

Claim

“Some estimates have it that about 13% of the population is affected by drug addiction.”

Verdict

Unproven

Drug addiction refers to a “chronic, relapsing disorder characterised by compulsive drug seeking and use despite adverse consequences” and is “considered a brain disorder, because it involves functional changes to brain circuits involved in reward, stress, and self-control”. That’s according to the US National Institute on Drug Abuse.

This data should have been available from the Liberian authorities. However, as the LDEA, the Ministry of Health and the statistics bureau all said they did not have the data, it is difficult to verify the claim. 

Until the data is available, we again rate the claim as unproven.


This report was written by Wremongar Joe, a reporter at the Centre for Media Studies and Peacebuilding in Liberia, during the 2023 Africa Check Fellowship in Nairobi, Kenya. The fellowship was sponsored by the US Department of State.

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