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Airport drug cartel: The inside story

Sunday, 28 April 2019

News Feature

Nigeria is obviously grazing the surface of the nation’s booming drug trade. Despite the huge investment by both Nigeria and foreign countries, especially, the United States, which donated some body scanners to the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) some years ago, traffickers are daily emboldened in carrying out their nefarious activities using the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos and the Abuja airport.

The drug barons who head the cartels and their couriers don’t operate in isolation, they work as a group. At Nigeria’s international airports, findings have revealed an existence of a network that involves airlines and airport workers who aid drug traffickers.

The recent arrest of some baggage handlers at the Lagos airport exposes again the magnitude of the problem and the modus operandi of the cartels which many victims are oblivious of until they are caught abroad where the penalty is capital punishment, in many cases.

There is a real risk of this happening especially before clearing inbound or outbound Customs at the Lagos airport.

Someone can deposit a package in your bag by distracting you, then retrieve it after the customs check with another distraction – if you get searched and the drugs are found, it’s your neck on the line – literally.

One of the six suspects arrested recently confessed how they smuggle drugs through other passengers without their knowledge.

The suspect said that the substance was concealed in two luggage and was first checked-in on a Sunday on a flight (name withheld).

He revealed that rather than put the two bags on board on Sunday, they moved the departure of the bag to Monday, but when it was weighed again, the contents in the bag had increased from 22 to 26 kilogrammes, which drew the suspicion of National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) officers at the tarmac who kept surveillance on the two bags.

These suspects who work at the airside and export shed of NAHCO had been involved in different criminal activities at the airport, but their attempt to courier cocaine out of the country was exposed this time through intelligence.

They packaged the two bags for a flight to Addis-Ababa on Sunday but left it till Monday to add to the contents, which attracted suspicion.

But the heinous activities of these airport cartels were further highlighted when a Nigerian lady identified as Zainab Aliyu Zainab was accused of entering Saudi Arabia with tramadol. Zainab was arrested by Saudi Arabia Police on December 26, 2018, shortly after arriving for Lesser Hajj. Zainab, a student of Maitama Sule University, Kano, had travelled from Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport (MAKIA) in company with her mother, Mrs. Maryam Aliyu, and sister, Hajara Aliyu. She was later arrested over allegations that a luggage, bearing her name tag, contained the unlawful substance.

However, while in detention, the NDLEA received a petition from Zainab’s father, seeking a probe of his daughter’s ordeal. Consequently, the NDLEA Commander in charge of MAKIA launched an investigation, which culminated in the arrest and arraignment before a Federal High Court in Kano of seven staff of the airport.

According to a report of the investigation, a suspected cartel in the airport had planted the tramadol-bearing luggage on Zainab. In the report, which has since been forwarded to the Consul- General in Jeddah for action, it was further established that Zainab who, like her mother and sister, had only a luggage, was not aware that a second bag had been labeled in her name. From NDLEA investigations, it was revealed that Zainab Habibu Aliyu is not the owner of the second luggage tagged in her name.

Zainab’s travails started on December 24, 2018. On that day, Maryam Habibu Aliyu and her two daughters, Hajara Habibu Aliyu and Zainab herself, who are students of Maitamia Sule University, Kano, were to travel to Saudi Arabia for Lesser Hajj.

The three passengers had one luggage each. At the Departure Hall, three bags belonging to the three passengers were given to one Bako A. Salisu, who weighed the bags, tagged and gave the labels to the passengers.

Immediately the luggage of the passengers were checked in, Rhoda Adetunji, an official of the Airport Authority (one of the accused persons) approached them, asking for their remaining luggage as the luggage checked-in by the passengers were lower than the total weight they were entitled to travel with – two of their luggage weighed 36kgs while one weighed 17kgs.

The passengers ignored Rhoda Adetunji and went to the arrival hall to purchase yellow card and by the time they came back from the arrival hall to the departure hall, screening for boarding had already started and the three passengers went for boarding.

They never consented to nor knew that any other luggage was tagged to the name of any of the passengers.

“On 26th of December 2018 about 12.45 midnight, the Saudi Arabia police came to the hotel room of Maryam and her daughters in Saudi Arabia to arrest one of her daughters, Zainab, on allegation that one of the luggage tagged to her name and passed has prohibited drugs, tramadol. Zainab is presently in detention in Saudi Arabi awaiting investigations and prosecutions. Following receipt of the complaint, seven people working at MAKIA were arrested in connection with the offence. Chief Executive Officer of Aglow Limited, an aviation support services company, Mr Tayo Ojuri, gives insight into the cartels’ mode of operation. He said: “If you look at what happened, it is possible.

They tag the luggage against a name which is possible. Once you check in, they can generate another tag. May be you check one bag in and once you turn around, they can generate another tag in your name for another bag or two. Let us clarify it: when you go to Dubai, you see a lot of these traders at the airport and when they see you coming and you are not carrying luggage, they approach you; that is exactly what happens.

“They can now tag that second luggage in your name. Obviously you don’t know the content of that luggage. That turns into security issue and that is why the airlines often ask whether you packed your baggage yourself or received any luggage you are not sure of its content. It is when you get to your destination that you need the baggage handlers. Baggage handlers are the ones that do things like that.

That’s where the challenge is.” A former Commandant, Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos, Group Capt. John Ojikutu (rtd), also weighed in on the menace of airport drug cartels. “That is the situation in that airport. Having a single line of control, is the only way you can hold somebody responsible. The other thing you should know is that we don’t plant cocaine in this country.

These people bring it in from outside. It is when they come in that they get caught. They don’t get caught when they are leaving the country. You have to do a research on that on your own. They pick them mostly when they are coming in. When they get caught here, it means that the courier did not pay them well here.

The whole thing is in connivance with the police. “When I was the Commandant, Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos, some policemen would come to me to say that an important person would be arriving on a foreign airlines. When that person comes in, they will assist him with immigration. They were not arresting them, they were giving them cover.

They would purposely come to escort them out with the deceit that they were going to interrogate them. I stopped all that when I got to the airport. On the baggage tag, it is a real network at the airport. They do it in connivance with baggage handlers, touts and sometimes airline officials. It is a complex issue.

A major African airline is a major courier for drug traffickers in and out of Nigeria. We have had 13 people like that on one flight.” A frequent traveller who spoke to our correspondent, Adebisi Banjo, said she was surfing the web and saw a video of how drugs could be smuggled into people’s bags without their knowledge and was shocked.

She said: “I just realized how easy it is for criminals to breach our bags…scary. The only thing you can do is know if your bag was opened, but you can’t prevent it from being opened by them.

“For those of us who travel to Asia and other countries where the consequences of being caught with drugs can be lethal, this is not an idle issue. I lock my luggage regardless of what anybody says. I think I may start strapping checked bags with special tape or plastic as well.

“One would think that there are easier ways to smuggle drugs on airplanes. The worst you would have to do is to bribe a few baggage screeners to make sure they don’t open the drug bags.” Another airport user who spoke on condition of anonymity stated said: “The problem is that if it happens, the consequences in some (international) locations can be so personally devastating that it pays to be extra-vigilant and take all practical precautions to avoid being the victim. As for taking stuff out of my luggage, never had it happen in my decades of travelling, though it is a much more widespread occurrence in the travelling population.”

At an average cost of $160 per gram in Saudi Arabia, 1, 138g of cocaine would amount to $171, 000 (about N62.4 million at the rate of $1 to N360). This compelling financial attraction may be the reason Nigerians and other nationals attempt to smuggle cocaine into Saudi Arabia and other countries despite the death penalty.

Instead of lamentation, many believe that the Federal Government should swing into action to check the ugly trend. The practice is damaging the country’s image and government can actually stop it.

Aggressive advocacy on the negative implications of carrying drugs to Saudi Arabia should be launched and government should provide more scanners at airports to detect criminal activities.
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