The Commodification of Human Lives and the Death of Altruism

The Commodification of Human Lives and the Death of Altruism

Friday, October 9, 2015 8:55 am


Adebayo Lamikanra: "Anyone with a memory of those days will have no difficulty in recollecting that 1985 was the year in which Nigeria began to unravel as the so called government of the day began a sustained and systematic attack on all the nation’s institutions knocking them off one by one until there was none left to defend the integrity of the nation."

Adebayo Lamikanra:
“Anyone with a memory of those days will have no difficulty in recollecting that 1985 was the year in which Nigeria began to unravel as the so called government of the day began a sustained and systematic attack on all the nation’s institutions knocking them off one by one until there was none left to defend the integrity of the nation.”


By Adebayo Lamikanra.
At the end of August 1984, I travelled out of Nigeria to attend a one year fellowship programme in Sweden. What was remarkable about that journey was that four or five wide bodied jets were to leave Muritala airport within a few minutes of each other which meant that thousands of passengers were to be processed through airport formalities within a very short time and my previous experience of being part of that process was that it took the whole of the ensuing journey to get my breath back as I needed to recover from the hassling, jostling and near violence which I had to go through in a building in which the air conditioning failed virtually all the time. My journey to Sweden was however different from previous occasions by its orderliness and the ease with which it was accomplished. Everything worked almost to perfection as both the passengers and airport staff were on their best behaviour, but then everyone had learnt or had been taught the meaning of decorum by the previous government which had just been overthrown in what has been described as a palace coup and consequently were on their best behaviour.

I came back for Christmas a few months later and the story had changed quite dramatically. I arrived back in the country shortly after dark and called my doctor brother to come and pick me up at the airport. It was a miracle that I found a phone but that is another side to the story but it was very lucky that I did because when I got through to him and told him that I was going to take a taxi home, he told me in unmistakable terms that on no account was I to leave the airport until he arrived there to take me home and when he did, he showed up in his ambulance, his explanation being that it was not safe for anyone to drive around Lagos at night hence the need for an ambulance disguise. I thought that he was being paranoid but his explanation for what I had regarded as his paranoia was convincing. His speciality was surgery and in that capacity he was called out almost every night to extract bullets from those who had been unlucky to run into armed robbers but were lucky to have survived the encounter with their lives even though they were hanging on to those lives by the slimmest of threads. I left a country which by all indices was sane but came back four months later to find a country which had been plunged into anomy and has remained in that state for thirty dark years.

Anyone with a memory of those days will have no difficulty in recollecting that 1985 was the year in which Nigeria began to unravel as the so called government of the day began a sustained and systematic attack on all the nation’s institutions knocking them off one by one until there was none left to defend the integrity of the nation. In a few short years thereafter the nation was stripped of virtually all social infrastructure so that roads fell into dangerous disrepair, electricity supply dwindled to next to nothing, educational institutions lost their way in the thicket of neglect which was made to grow around them, getting petroleum, even obviously adulterated petrol to buy was often a bridge too far and the middle class was all but wiped out as prices of everything took off like rockets and hitherto comfortable Nigerians were reduced to a shocking level of poverty forcing many of them trained at societal expense to become professional and economic vagrants in other more fortunate countries all over the world. To rub salt into grievous injury, the government put together a committee which came up with the startling and patently false conclusion that the flight of professionals from Nigeria was in the overall benefit of the country. This was the time when the issue of fake drugs began to invade torment the minds of Nigerians with nothing on those minds but howto invent strategies with which to cope with strictly existential matters.

Kristin Peterson: “The book, Speculative Markets: Drug Circuits and Derivative life in Nigeria written by Kristin Peterson, an Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of California in Irvine is a bold and imaginative attempt to investigate the impact of fake drugs on the Nigerian market and situate that phenomenon within a global context which is where it properly belongs.”

Kristin Peterson:
“The book, Speculative Markets: Drug Circuits and Derivative life in Nigeria written by Kristin Peterson, an Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of California in Irvine is a bold and imaginative attempt to investigate the impact of fake drugs on the Nigerian market and situate that phenomenon within a global context which is where it properly belongs.”

The book, Speculative Markets: Drug Circuits and Derivative life in Nigeria written by Kristin Peterson, an Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of California in Irvine is a bold and imaginative attempt to investigate the impact of fake drugs on the Nigerian market and situate that phenomenon within a global context which is where it properly belongs. The problem of fake drugs is one of the consequences of the many conditions attached to the series of loans obtained from the IMF and World Bank by the Nigerian government against the expressed wishes and advice of Nigerians. The conditions attached to the loans can only be described as punitive and compliance to them led to the hollowing out of the Nigerian economy which in conformity with the neoliberal concept of the primacy of market forces was deregulated, partly privatised and wholly abandoned to malignant external forces hell bent on vacuuming funds from all over the world into an increasingly dysfunctional USA economy. With its every economic initiative dictated by the IMF and World Bank, the Nigerian government was reduced to playing the role of an enforcer within a very restless polity and who better than the military to play this spoiler’s role, a role which was played with clumsy efficiency by a succession of regimes, military and pseudo civilian headed by increasingly ruthless Generals who understood their role as police men and played it without any hint of subtlety or finesse.

With the value of the beleaguered Naira falling steeply against the US Dollar by the day, human life now had a shockingly low price and any method of acquiring the suddenly precious foreign exchange became legitimate and expedient. Men were prepared to risk their very life to obtain foreign exchange by trading in drugs of the hardest variety and using the ‘capital’ thus obtained began to trade in pharmaceuticals, just as they traded in pirated CDs and indeed, any other product of western technology, now manufactured in the East. Many of these products were of scandalously low quality and others were frankly fake, produced with the sole purpose of taking money from buyers without giving them the benefit of any service. For most commodities, the danger to the user was not very high but for drugs, it amounted to the commodification of human lives since all drugs are by their very nature toxic, most of them dangerously so and need to be produced to a high quality standard and their use supervised by suitably trained personnel. Paradoxically, a fake drug may be completely harmless whilst a drug produced to the highest standard may be very dangerous when used without adequate supervision, especially in a country like Nigeria where drugs can be purchased from uncontrolled and unsupervised premises and dispensed by persons without any pharmaceutical training whatsoever. This lack of pharmaceutical expertise is what makes the untrained traders in pharmaceuticals particularly dangerous to the welfare of Nigerians.

Peterson's book

Peterson’s book

Kristin Peterson has carried out a scientific study of a nebulous subject, one which has more than a hint of illegality attached to it even if its practice is right out in the open. In a society with scant regard for scientific study, her efforts were beleaguered with many difficulties ab initio so that the study was beset with limitations, some of them strong enough to cripple the project. She interviewed a great many people in the course of her study but it is apparent that not many, if any of them were prepared to throw much light on the subject and so, the opaque nature of the subject places a severe limitation on any attempt to subject it to anything approaching a scientific study. Apart from the fact that the people who sell drugs at Idumota and all such places realise that they operate outside the protection of the law and are therefore vulnerable to prosecution and even frank persecution at the hands of so called forces of law and order, Nigerians in general are averse to providing truthful information on any subject, especially one of a scientific nature such as this one.

The possibility of gathering reliable information under normal circumstances is therefore remote and when the interrogator is blatantly foreign to this environment as in this case the veracity of information veers very sharply towards zero. Another difficulty confronting the author is the paucity of reliable technical information covering the subject of the incidence of fake drugs in Nigeria. For example, I have tried without success to find the results of a reliable empirical study of this subject that has been published in a journal that has a solid reputation for a rigorous peer review process. Various people have given figures which vary so wildly that they cannot be reliable and may even be fake. They read like guesses arrived at in an attempt to fit an agenda; high, in order to boost the extent of the problem or low to show that the problem is being rigorously tackled.

Given the difficulties attached to this kind of research the success of this book depends significantly on the work done on the motives and motivation of those who make their living in the purely speculative manner in which they do so and this is only to be expected given the author’s background in Anthropology. She has shown that with the rise of neoliberal theory and practice, capitalism is being governed by the dark forces of human greed leading to the commodification of the people that are supposed to be served by the market and in doing so feed the relentless growth of inequality within and between the various countries of the world. This, in my mind can only lead to the type of Berlin Wall moment which marked the end of global bipolarity and led to the rise of the global derivative market now warping the lives of people around the world. What is likely to fill the vacuum created by the ensuing crash is anybody’s guess but, already some serious economists are talking about a post-capitalist future.

In spite of the limitations of this study, Kristin Peterson has managed to provide a great deal of food for thought for people who have acquired the capacity for creative thinking.

Professor Adebayo Lamikanra teaches Pharmacy, Obafemi Awolowo University Ife

Read Kristin Peterson’s interview with TheNEWS, entitled, “How Fake And Substandard Drugs Get To Nigeria” here: http://thenewsnigeria.com.ng/2015/08/how-fake-and-substandard-drugs-get-to-nigeria/


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