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Seychelles: a tropical paradise with the world’s worst heroin problem

With just over 100,000 people, Seychelles is Africa’s smallest country by population. It is an archipelagic state of 115 islands in the Indian Ocean, 1500 kilometres from East Africa. It also has the world’s worst heroin epidemic. This is a long-running issue with has appeared in world headlines several times over the past decade. The most recent publicity to his ghastly issue was on a BBC Africa Eye documentary narrated and produced by a former heroin addict.

Government statistics show that between 5,000 and 6,000 Seychellois were addicted to the drug in 2019. The numbers are small in absolute terms, sure, but they represent nearly 10 percent of the country’s working age population, according to a 2022 report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC), an international civil society organisation.

Heroin use in the Seychelles has grown so much that it is no longer an afterthought for traffickers targeting other East African countries. According to the GI-TOC report there is a dedicated channel bringing in the substance straight across the Indian Ocean from Afghanistan.

Seychelles’ archipelagic nature, alongside its vast exclusive economic zone, make its coastal waters nearly impossible to police against the dhows — large sailing boats — that are primarily used to ship in the drug. What’s worse, cocaine use is also on the rise, piggybacking on the channels already established for heroin.

The human toll of the epidemic is tragic. The BBC documentary highlights the deaths, incarceration, and poverty of those who use heroin — and their loved ones. These effects would be tragic anywhere in the world but they are particularly harrowing in a country this small.

The Seychellois government, in its effort to mitigate the problem, has seesawed between a hardline anti-drug policy (before 2017), a treatment and harm reduction approach (2017-2022), and back to a hardline crackdown (since late 2022). So far, none of these approaches seem to have worked. Addiction rates have remained relatively stable through all three periods after peaking in 2018.

The pre-2017 crackdown was too little too late, and coincided with the largest explosion in addictions — from 1200 addicts in 2011 to 4300 in 2018. The harm reduction era which succeeded it, during which thousands of addicts enrolled for a government methadone programme, seemed to stem the growth in addictions, but it may have lowered the price of heroin, bringing it within the reach of more users.

In late 2022, a new government reverted to the hardline position, granting sweeping powers to anti-narcotics police units, which have now ramped up raids and arrests. It will take time for its true impact to be seen, but it is already antagonising traffickers and sellers. Additionally, the fact that the drug trade is a significant vector for corruption in the country complicates the sincerity of the renewed crackdown.

I know too little about this country and its epidemic to try suggesting a solution. But I do know that, whatever approach the country chooses, it is highly unlikely to have a lasting effect. Such problems often have roots so deep and embarrassing that radical honesty and vulnerability is required to acknowledge them, and I do not think these qualities are in abundant supply in the corridors of power in Seychelles.

Here’s what I mean.

Seychelles is Africa’s most prosperous country, with a nominal GDP per capita of over US$20,000. Its economy, anchored on high-end tourism and a thriving fishing industry, is the only one in Africa classified as high income by the World Bank. Its human development index is higher than all African countries, apart from Mauritius. It should, by rights, lack nothing. Yet it does lack something quite important.

The country is exceedingly short of families. It has one of the highest rates of single motherhood in the world. In 2021, according to a news report, 79 percent of all births in the country were out of wedlock. A Wikipedia entry whose sources I traced back to a document from the early 1990s says that, in Seychelles, “Unwed mothers are the societal norm […] men are important for their earning ability, but their domestic role is relatively peripheral.”

This is, in fact, the unintended theme of the BBC Eye documentary. Its subjects all hail from backgrounds mirroring the claim. Single mothers struggling to raise balanced children; listless solitary young men wandering the ghettos, weighed down with inconsequential cares; girls with exceedingly low expectations for the men in their lives. And, throughout the film, the eerie absence of fathers.

In no society that I know of is a tradition of broken families a recipe for success. Seychelles is not an exception. And unless the country’s cultural concept of the ideal family changes, I highly doubt that the government’s anti-drug efforts will constitute anything more than an endless and increasingly more expensive game of whack-a-mole.

Mathew Otieno is a Kenyan writer, blogger and a dilettante farmer. Until 2022, he was a research communications coordinator at a university in Nairobi, Kenya. His article is printed with permission
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