In Nigerias fight against drugs and drug abuse, there are many people on the front line playing their part. Keji Hamilton is one of them.
Hamilton oversees the House of Joy Rehabilitation Center in Lawanson, Surulere, Lagos. He is doing his bit to treat the rising number of young drug addicts hooked on codeine, Tramadol, cocaine and other drugs.
Underneath his mission to rehabilitate drug addicts, Keji Hamilton has a captivating story to tell. He too has been a drug addict. For 10 years he was hooked on marijuana, cocaine and heroine. During this period, he was a key member in Fela Anikulapo-Kuti's Egypt 80 band.
On a hot sunny afternoon in downtown Lagos at his office, Hamilton candidly shares his thoughts about Nigeria's war on drugs, how he became an addict, how he kicked the habit, preached the Gospel to Fela and what the government should be doing about drug abuse in Nigeria.
If you want to know the true situation of things on the streets concerning drug use culture and abuse, this is the interview to read.
Read the excerpts below;
Pulse - In May 2018, BBC Africa released a documentary on codeine abuse in Nigeria. What are your thoughts about it?
Keji Hamilton - It was a nice documentary but I am shocked that it is until BBC aired a documentary that the Nigerian government is now concerned about codeine. If after people like us have had several interviews on NTA, about 3, 4 years ago and it is now that they are just waking up? Well, that's all right.
It's not banning codeine that is the issue. If you ban codeine that does not stop drug abuse because codeine is just one out of many drugs. If you ban codeine what have you done about Tramadol, Rophynol, Evo stik, sewage sniffing, skunk, burnt tyres, pawpaw leaves, Arizona? What have you done about all these drugs?
It is not banning the product. We need to find out why are these young people doing drugs because there are fundamental problems that push people to abuse drugs. First, we address these problems, number two, don't just deal with users by arresting or persecuting them, but find ways to help them stop abusing drugs.
The government needs to be involved in setting up mega-rehabs that can take in about a thousand drug addicts. This would also provide jobs opportunities because for a rehab that will house about a thousand drug addicts, you need a care staff of over 600 people.
As it is, drugs are in every state in the country. These are the things the government needs to put in place. If you want to kill a product, kill the market. As long as there are users there will still be production.
Pulse - How big would you say the drug abuse problem is in Nigeria?
Keji Hamilton - It is very big. It is too big. The first time that I saw cocaine was in the year 1984 in Nigeria. And that was when I started taking cocaine. The drug problem is so big if cocaine has been here since '84 and you know before I knew about cocaine it would have been around for a decade already.
It's a big thing, so big that from the visiting of my secondary schools and all that, these kids are involved in drugs. I caught a Primary 5 boy with a polythene bag of Tramadol. He was selling it to his schoolmates. The problem is vast. The drugs they take are just too many. It's a big deal.
Pulse - What is the leading cause of drug addiction among youths in Nigeria?
Keji Hamilton - There are fundamental problems that lead to drug abuse. The first thing is that we look at what makes them take drugs. Number one, emotional pain and stress. When you talk about emotional pain, then you are talking about some pains in the psychology of a human being. There is nowhere in the world that young people have serious emotional pains like Nigeria. You can just see it all over the whole place.
Let's talk about schools. Most of our public schools are always going on strike. Now when a kid is supposed to be in school but is at home, and there is no light at home, he has boredom to struggle with. So the next thing is an escape. So what will be the escape? Drugs. He has to create a false happiness.
In the North, they say a lot of the girls are doing drugs, codeine and all that. When you take a 10-year-old girl and give her in marriage to a 65-year-old man, that's a permanent psychological pain. So this girl will take something that will make her go into what we call apathy.
What about unemployment? Is there any plan for the graduates and undergraduates? The pain is very high so that is why they are going into drugs. Poverty level also. I was on a radio and a guy called in and said the reason he takes Tramadol is that it helps him forget about food because he has no money to eat. Anytime he takes Tramadol he forgets food, which is true.
Pulse - How long have you been running this drug rehab centre?
Keji Hamilton - Well, House of Joy Rehabilitation Centre owned by the Redeemed Church of God, Apapa Family kicked off in 2009. We have our 10th set now because we admit in February and they stay till December so that they can be detoxified and they spend the second half learning a vocational skill.
Pulse - What has been the success rate?
Keji Hamilton - It is between 55 and 62%.
Pulse - How many recovering drug addicts do you have in the rehab centre presently?
Keji Hamilton - I have 24 but the centre is a 45-bed capacity. Right now we have 24, ranging from the age of 17-45 years old.
Pulse - What has been the challenges of running this rehab centre?
Keji Hamilton - The challenge will always be financial because when you keep about 24 people in a place, they have to eat breakfast, lunch and supper. There are other expenses like their toiletries, medication and all that. It is plenty of money. Apart from that, we don't really have many challenges even though we are a faith-based rehab meaning we don't use medication to get them out of drugs because we also understand that drug abuse is spiritual.
We use both counselling therapy, prayers, deliverance and teachings. We have drawn up 36 subject curricula with 31 lecturers that come in to take them lectures. This is what we do here.
Pulse - Has there been any input from the state or Federal Government?
Keji Hamilton - Where are they going to come in from? They are not going to come in. The government needs to partner with places like this. Yes. Like I said earlier if the government really wants to solve this problem they need to invest in mega rehabs if they are interested in the young people of this nation.
Pulse - Which drugs do Nigerian youths abuse the most?
Keji Hamilton - The underlying drug is cannabis. That's for young adults but when you talk about teenagers, prescription drugs- codeine ranks very high then Tramadol.
Pulse - Former President Olusegun Obasanjo has said that marijuana should be decriminalized. What are your thoughts on this?
Keji Hamilton - We are Africans if the whole world is legalizing marijuana that's not the reason for us to legalize it. You see I remember when the United States was about to legalize medical marijuana under (Barack) Obama. I told the people that money is the drive behind it. A couple of days later I was proven right because Obama said apart from it taking care of people with terminal sickness, it is also going to boost the economy. Money will continue to be the root of all evil.
Now, if you legalize marijuana and you say it is medical, supposing I have a brother that has medical problems and I also use marijuana, he will just be using his license to help me get the drug. I still stand to say that the fact that marijuana has a negative effect on our reward system in the brain I don't think it is something that should be legalized. It shouldn't.
Pulse - Can we look into your drug abuse past? How did you get into drugs?
Keji Hamilton - Yeah, somebody introduced me to marijuana on campus, the University of Ibadan and I dropped out of school. And when I dropped out my plan was to do music but my father and I had a disagreement. I just decided to go to where music was happening and that was Kalakuta Republic.
In less than two years after I got into marijuana, I was introduced to coc (cocaine) and H (heroin). Somebody was watching us and we were playing a show, by this time Fela was in jail under the then military government of Buhari and Idiagbon.
So when I jumped down from the stage, the guy said 'the way you play your guitar on stage is very charismatic. Young guys like you there is something they use to enhance their performance on stage'. I said 'what is that?' and he said 'cocaine' and I said I have never heard about it.
That's how I was introduced to cocaine and heroin. In fact, as I was smoking the cocaine I started feeling funny and he said 'if you are felling funny then you step down with heroin'. He brought out another brown powder popularly called 'brown sugar' or 'gbana' in Nigeria. From then on it was experimentation.
Even when we travelled on tour, I started to experiment with foreign drugs, hashish, PSP, LSD, name it.
Pulse - And the drugs never affected your performance on stage?
Keji Hamilton - It never did but of course, the withdrawal symptoms were there. And the urge led to several lifestyles that were wild. How do you raise money to maintain the habit of cocaine? Many other things came into play like crime and all that.
Pulse - In a previous interview, you did say you were notorious with the police at this point in your life.
Keji Hamilton - I was involved in crime. If you say crime, whether it was robbery, stealing...Area F police station was like my house. Every month I must get there. I would be locked up there for one thing or the other. And there was a time I had to some little time in Kirikiri Medium, awaiting trial cell.
Pulse - Was this while you were still in Fela's Egypt 80 band?
Keji Hamilton - Yeah.
Pulse - How long were you a drug addict?
Keji Hamilton - From 1984 to 1994.
Pulse - Not many people who were drug addicts for a decade are lucky to start a new and sober life. How did you beat the addiction?
Keji Hamilton - It was supernatural. There was one day I was in front of the (Afrika) Shrine and a policeman said to me that the DPO had put the word out that 'the next time they arrest me, they should waste me'.
At that time I was with one of my prostitute girlfriends who left us when I was talking to the policeman. When she came back three hours later, she told me that there is a place she wants me to go and check out in Surulere. It was a guest house in Ojuelegba off Apena street where girls take rooms and hang out for their deals.
I started staying there and one particular night, May 7, 1994, I escorted her and two of her friends, we were all staying together in the room, to Ojuelegba roundabout. As they left, I branched a place called Texas in Ojuelegba and I bought two wraps of cocaine and two grams of H. I got back to the hotel room and I decided to smoke the coc. I put it on the burner and as I flicked the lighter, I heard a voice from somewhere that said 'if you do not stop this lifestyle you will die this year'.
I ignored the voice and I took it. I started vomiting blood. That is what led me to God. I stood in the room and took off my clothes and I said 'you this Jesus that I have been hearing about, if it is true you can save, there is only one thing I want you to do for me, deliver me from drug addiction and I will serve you with the days of my life'. And that was it. I have been clean for 24 years.
Pulse - The point at which you gave up your drug addiction, were you still a member of the Egypt 80?
Keji Hamilton - No, something happened between me and Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Before I left, I had started tripping. I was getting very close to running mad because when Fela would be playing a song called 'Country of Pain' I would be crying while playing the keyboard. And Fela would just turn and say 'spirit don catch Keji o'. I was at that stage.
One day we were playing and Bash Ali came up to The Shrine and sprayed Fela dollar notes. Normally, when he sprays Fela's bouncer Anigboro would go on stage and pick the money. That night when Bash Ali was spraying Fela I told myself 'this Fela is always collecting all these money, today it is my turn.' I got that money by force and I left. I went straight to Isale Awori in Ikeja. They have different drug joints there, I went to get some of it. Before I came back to Shrine, Fela had been told what happened, that I made away with his money.
Fela gave orders that they should go and get me. Of course, they couldn't get me. I was a terror on my own. I scared them and they left. I went with the money and came back to the hotel room and of course, after a few days, I realized that the money was gone. I needed drugs. I had to go back to Shrine.
Unknown to me the boys had been summoned that when they see me they should beat me up. So I got to the Shrine that day and I got the beating of my life. I was almost dying inside the gutter. There were over 23 guys smashing my head with planks and they were shouting 'dey say make we kill you'. It was the anti-crime police that delivered me from their hands because they had smashed my head to the point that I lost control and I fell into the gutter.
As they were smashing my head in the gutter, I heard a gunshot. I was hearing voices. The guys were saying 'dis matter no be una matter. Na Fela matter.' Then there was a second gunshot so the boys ran away. It was the police that brought me out of the gutter.
I went back to the hotel, after two weeks I was cured. Anyway, that was it, as at that point I knew it was time to move on.
Pulse - In 1994 you had stopped using drugs. 1997 was when Fela died. Did you have an opportunity to preach to him before he passed away?
Keji Hamilton - After I got born again in 1994, sometime in '95/96...when I became born again things were really tough. I had destroyed my passport because I knew that was the only thing that would take me back to Kalakuta. Number two, I didn't want my family to help me because I felt had failed them. They sent me to school and I had dropped out. I had wasted 10 years. I was cut off from my family but life became so tough. I wouldn't call it tough, I would call it training. If I didn't go through that part, I won't be here.
One day the hardship got too much and I decided to go back to Kalakuta. I was actually on my way there when I got to Maryland, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, this scripture dropped into my heart 'Though your outer man is wasting away your inner man is being renewed.' I got myself back and wanted to go back home but the same voice said go back to Kalakuta and preach to Fela so I went.
As soon as I entered Kalakuta, the boys there just rushed me 'ah Baba Keji, Baba Keji, bring Igbo for am'. I said 'please I don't want Igbo'. Another boy said 'baba no dey smoke Igbo too much like that, go bring gbana for am', I turned it down. They brought coc and I turned it down also. They brought Gulder, I turned it down too.
I had climbed upstairs and sat down in the big sitting room. Somebody went to tell Fela I was around. I heard his voice 'ehn Keji! I knew he would come back.' Fela came to the sitting room. He said 'Keji see you, I knew you would always come back.'
I told him 'Fela by the way I didn't come back. I came here to tell you about a power that has taken hold of me'. He said 'which power?' I said Jesus but as I said the name he said 'Stop that! What do you mean?' He stood up and said I should never mention that name around here and he left.
I brought out tracts, as I was sharing it, he came back said 'Keji! If no be you I for talk say make dem brush you'. I left.
The second time that I went as I was getting there that day he was dressed up getting ready to play a show in Water Parks. I waited at the door, as he was coming out, the girls were ready on the coaster bus.
I told him 'Fela I come see you', he said 'I wan go play you no fit see me'. That was the last time that I saw him. The fact that he could not grant me an audience to share the Gospel was very painful.
Pulse - Back to drug abuse, there are children of the rich and wealthy who are drug abusers. They don't have to deal with poverty and unemployment. So why do they take drugs?
Keji Hamilton - Emotional pain is emotional pain. A rich man's son that hardly sees his father because his father is very busy. It is the same thing.
Pulse - What is the biggest success story of your rehab centre?
Keji Hamilton - Every success story is big. I just got a list of the people that left here that are working. There's a guy that is an estate developer. There are others that are now pastors.
I can't forget those that wrote the JAMB exam while they were here and they passed. Now they are in school. That's a big one.
Pulse - What are the future plans for the rehab centre?
Keji Hamilton - I want it to be bigger. For now, we only take in men because you can't put male and female in the same building.
Pulse - Working class people also take drugs. Why is this so?
Keji Hamilton - Stress. Nigeria is a stressful country. It's stress that makes working people take drugs. Delayed salary or no increment salary despite working in an office for 10 years. What do you expect?
Pulse - Why don't Nigerians respond to drug addicts in a positive way?
Keji Hamilton - This is because in Nigeria, back in the days, people don't want to hear that your child is taking Indian Hemp. The stigma associated with drug addiction in Nigeria is very bad. I think we should be more caring towards them because when we find the reason why they use drugs, you would know it is involuntary. Drug addicts should be shown, love. A drug addict is a human being like you and should be treated as one. We should also remove this notion that a rehab centre is a psychiatrist hospital.
I am not a psychiatrist. It's not all cases I will take here. I would take cases of drug addiction.
Pulse - Do you think Nigeria can win the war on drugs?
Keji Hamilton - Has America won the war? There are fundamentals we must address. The politicians have a strong role to play.