..Invade Lagos airport

Louis Ibah

Worried by the fragility of the Nigeria economy that has seen more job losses than new ones created over the last three years, more of the nation’s youths are now flooding its international airports seeking opportunity to traffic prohibited drugs into and out of the country.

Narcotics experts have estimated that Nigeria’s ‘hard’ drug market may be worth over $3.5 billion annually with trading in cocaine being the most lucrative of the business and likely fetching traffickers about N7.5 million per kilogramme (kg), followed by heroine, which attracts about N5.2 million per kilogramme on street value.

The motivation

Most analysts who spoke to Daily Sun on Nigeria’s rising drug trade believe that the country’s increasing unemployment rate, which moved from 14 per cent three years ago to 18 per cent, in 2017/8 according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), without doubt serves as a major incentive for drug barons to recruit more of its unemployed and greedy youths into the illicit trade.

National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) Commander for the Lagos International Airport, Mr. Garba Ahmadu, told Daily Sun that at the root of Nigeria’s drug trafficking menace “lies greed and the lust for easy money.”

“Only greed will push a man or woman to stake his life to traffic drugs even to countries in Asia and Middle-East having capital punishment for both drug traffickers and users,” Ahmadu said.

“Such a person must first place the lust for easy money above the value for life; in this case, both his own life and the life of the end user of his product,” he added.

According to Ahmadu, between 2016 and 2017, Nigeria recorded a sharp rise in drug trafficking and related cases, with cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, cannabis sativa, ephedrine, phenacetin, rohypnol and recently, tramadol, ranking as the major illegal substances, which traffickers now choose to trade on. Except for methamphetamine and cannabis, which are produced locally, the other narcotics are produced outside the country with Nigeria’s porous land and air boarders only serving as inter-links for traffickers to freight them to end users elsewhere and at home.

In recent months, the impact on the lives of the users of tramadol in drug syrups in the northern part of Nigeria had forced the government to come up with more stringent regulations on their import and usage.

Lagos airport trade route

Although NDLEA is present in Nigeria’s international airports, seaports and border crossings, its latest data shows the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Ikeja, Lagos, as the major point of entry and exit for nation’s drug barons.

That, however, does not imply that traffickers are not utilising the Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport, Abuja; Akanu Ibiam Airport, Enugu; and Malam Aminu Kano Airport, Kano, for their illicit trade. The only difference, perhaps is just that the numbers are fewer in those airports for various reasons adduced by the NDLEA boss.

According to the NDLEA Commander at the MMIA Lagos, Mr. Garba Ahmadu, Lagos International Airport only happened to record more number of traffickers because of its strategic location – being a sort of mini-hub – with connecting flights linking not only Nigeria but West African countries to more European, Asian, and American countries than other international airports in the sub-continent.

“There is no major or renowned international airline that does not fly into MMIA to pick passengers in addition to having connections to other airports in the world. This makes Lagos the most suitable airport for drug traffickers,” Ahmadu said.
An NDLEA data made available to Daily Sun also indicated that in the 28-year history of the agency, it was in 2017 that it recorded the highest seizure and arrest of drug traffickers at the MMIA.

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In 2017, the NDLEA confiscated drugs valued at about N1 billion from traffickers at the Lagos international airport. It could have been more, but for the absence of the requisite technology to detect traffickers has forced drug law enforcement officers to still rely largely on manual checks and natural intuition to apprehend traffickers.

“Year 2017 was an all time high on total seizure of drugs. We seized about 1.3 million kg of drugs and it wasn’t an easy task apprehending these traffickers because they are not just becoming more desperate and greedy, but also more ingenious on how to beat the checks we mount at the airports,” said Ahmadu.

“In the first four months of 2018, we have sized 187kg of drugs with 28 suspects arrested and it could increase in the months ahead. The only challenge we have is with equipment but our officers are on top of their game given the training and experience they have gathered over the years and the intelligence often received from our foreign partners,” he added.

Obsolete machines

Investigations by Daily Sun further revealed that most of the scanners deployed to check drug trafficking at MMIA have become obsolete and traffickers are very much aware of this hence their strategy of using carbon and other dark foils to wrap their consignments to make it impossible for the scanners to detect.

“There are many instances where the machine will scan a passenger and his luggage with nothing being detected but if we watch the body language of the passenger and proceed with luggage or bodily scan, we will discover large quantity of drugs on the person,” a security official at the Lagos airport told Daily Sun.

“Drug is trafficked either by ingestion or concealed in a luggage. Every empty space is a channel for traffickers to ply their trade. So we still rely more on manual checks and information from intelligence that enable us to profile passengers to know their history, records and apprehend traffickers among them, the machines always fail,” said the official.

Airlines and ground handling firms

Traffickers don’t work in isolation; they certainly find in some airports, airlines, and ground handling firms’ staff allies to assist push through security checks. In Nigeria, staff of the Skyway Aviation Handling Company Limited (SAHCOL) and the Nigerian Aviation Handling Company (NAHCo) that handle cargo for airlines and passengers have been found to be part of the large network of the drug cartel involving Nigerians.

In repeated raids on the warehouses of these firms, security establishments had discovered hundreds of kilogrammes of banned drugs either imported or about to be exported by Nigerians. And in the same vein, until it ceased its international operations, some members of Arik Air cabin crew were found to be involved in aiding drug traffickers. Nigerian workers in such foreign airlines like Emirates, Ethiopian Airways and South African Airlines have also been complicit in drug related crimes.

Airline and ground handling staff, no doubt, enjoy less security scrutiny which enabled them walk unhindered with tools and goods into areas where passenger movements are restricted. It is this advantage that is often exploited by traffickers. But airport sources also point to the fact that some of these staff are poorly remunerated by their employers, which also makes them vulnerable like every fresh recruit in the drug trafficking chain.

Way forward

The Nigerian government needs to make additional investments in the acquisition of requisite technology that can be mounted across the country’s international airports to facilitate easy detection of drugs on couriers as existing scanning machines are have become obsolete. There is also the need to invest in the training and re-training of the personnel of the various security establishments manning the airports to make them to be fully abreast of the usage of the machines.

In recent years, there has been very little education or public enlightenment programmes on the dangers of drug abuse as well as the penalties at home and abroad for traffickers.

Government, therefore, needs to commit more funds into drug-related sensitisation and awareness programmes, especially among vulnerable youths in the country. But above all, the President Muhammadu Buhari government has to step up its economic reform programmes to create a vibrant private sector that would provide jobs for millions of Nigerian youths who have taken to drug trafficking and substance abuse owing to frustrations occasioned by lack of jobs or idleness.