One of the many of challenges Nigeria is currently grappling with is how to reduce to the barest minimum, cases of trafficking in hard and illicit drugs in the country.
Hardly does a month go by without the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), the body statutorily responsible for tackling the menace, recording at least 30 to 40 arrests at the airports and across the country.
In the past few months, many Nigerians have been treated to a theatre of the absurd as drug suspects have been paraded with various kilograms of hard drugs concealed in different parts of their bodies (mostly their private parts), their footwear and luggage.
There was a particular case where a couple, out desperation to be rich, carefully concealed the drugs in the diapers of the two kids who were on a trip with them to Europe.
Surprisingly, in spite of the seeming tight security network put in place to apprehend drug traffickers at the exit and/ or entry points of the nation’s shore, the drug ring is getting bigger and bigger.
The frequency of arrests these days is both alarming and scandalous; making many believe that the illicit trade is one of the most viable businesses Nigerians can go into.
From 2006 to date, close to 6,000 persons have reportedly been arrested and over 80 per cent of them convicted of hard drugs related offences.
But the high number of arrests and convictions has not deterred others from joining the train of drug peddlers. Almost on a daily basis, the number of those involved in illicit trade continues to grow.
Penultimate week, NDLEA made what many see as a mind-boggling discovery at the Tin-Can Island Port, in Apapa, Lagos. The agency impounded a container load of cocaine worth N4 billion from a major international drug syndicate that smuggles cocaine from South American countries to West Africa.
The hard drug, which was about 450 kilograms and unlawfully imported from Chile, is believed to be the second largest seizure in the country and was neatly concealed in customized floor wood inside a container which was cleared and taken to a private warehouse at Iganmu, Lagos.
It will be recalled that there was a large seizure of cocaine at the same port in 2006 where 14.2 metric tons of similar substance worth N14 billion was intercepted by the anti-drug agency.
Drug seizures at the ports are usually very large because of the relative ease of transporting containerised goods in vessels and the volume of imported containers. Therefore, when the agency intercepted this latest consignment, not many were surprised at the magnitude of the quantity.
The agency disclosed that the clearing agent and other people closely linked to the seizure were also apprehended to ascertain their level of involvement as all the clearing documents had fake addresses on them.
The anti-drug agency, it was believed, had kept tab on the consignment which originated from Chile and passed through Peru, Bolivia and Antwerp in Belgium till it arrived at the Tin Can Island Port. And, the N4 billion estimated street value could double if it found its way to Europe.
A recent report indicates that Nigeria’s war against drug trafficking, though commendable, still remains a Herculean task. No matter the haul of arrests being recorded by the anti-drug agency, many analyst continue to believe that the fact that Nigeria still ranks among first class countries in this illicit and criminal business is no good news for the NDLEA and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) ), or for the Nigerian government.
Though hard drugs like cocaine and heroin are not produced locally, they are reported to be available in very large quantities in the country. Even marijuana or Indian hemp, which is commonly produced locally, is reportedly being cultivated by people on a very large scale across the country.
Newspapers and NDLEA have reportedly stumbled on many large farms of hemp, either as direct result of investigations or tip-off by concerned citizens.
There was a time in this country when narcotics or dangerous drugs meant ‘common neighbourhood Indian hemp.’ Nigerians were largely ignorant of the names and potency of the other drugs in the narcotic family.
But when in 1984, Bernard Ogedegbe, Bartholomew Owoh and Akanni Ojuolape were arrested, tried and publicly executed by the Mohammadu Buhari/Tunde Idiagbon military government for trafficking in hard drugs, the era of innocence among Nigerians in terms of exposure to the dangerous substances and their knowledge began to varnish.
Over the last twenty years, Nigeria has gained notoriety for being a drug-trafficking nation. So how did the country get to this sorry pass? Many analysts believe that the problem emerged over time, moving in tandem with other factors including drugs’ availability, the nation’s poor economic conditions, drug markets in Europe and the development of networks with Africans who had moved abroad.
They argue that the problem has become so bad that today, Nigerians hear more about cocaine, heroine and other narcotics than they hear about common malaria drugs in the media.
They say the image of Nigeria has suffered more from the menace of hard drugs than from anything else. The menace has added to the ever growing list of why foreigners continue to lose faith in the country and Nigerians.
Apart from the image problem however, hard drugs have the potential to destroy social life, particularly among the nation's youth population. According to Interpol, the emergence of Indians in the sub-continent of African as a major source of supply for heroin in the international drug market marked a turning point for African criminal circles dominated by Nigerians.
Traffickers sourced production routes to the Golden Triangle and Golden Crescent in Asia and expanded their ties into South America.
Nigeria-South Africa-Rio de Janeiro is now one of the products’ easiest trade routes. Nigerian criminal groups are now believed to be active in some 60 countries around the world.
The traffickers themselves have also become more organised, adopting increasingly complicated strategies for moving their products and frustrating drug control efforts.
But the argument has always been made that in the case of sophisticated drugs like cocaine and heroin, Nigeria is not an end user, that it is only a transit route for these hard drugs.
However, available evidence seems to indicate otherwise. There is a growing ring of hard drug users in Nigeria. The statistics for this is not hard to find; it is available on the streets of the country’s major cities. The hordes of irritating miscreants flying the social space are, in most cases, creations of hard drugs.
In the country today, there is so much damage that hard drug causes to the individual and the society. Apart from creating an army of deranged and socially unfit citizenry, addiction to drugs also has other disastrous implications for the society. It engenders criminality and imbalance in the social order.
The fact that many countries of the world have adopted a tough punitive stance on drug-related crimes is enough indication of the enormous threat it poses to the human society.
Many Nigerians cried blue murder when one of their citizens was hanged in a foreign country while another was given a slap on the wrist back home in Nigeria for even a worse drug offence than the one the executed Nigerian committed.
For instance, last year, China executed one of its top officials in the State Food and Drug Administration, though not for peddling hard drug. Zheng Xiaoyu was sentenced to death in May and finally executed for approving drugs that were substandard.
He was accused of taking bribes and the drugs he approved were said to have caused the death of some innocent Chinese. Because of this, Zheng had to pay with his life.
Were it in Nigeria, Zhen’s crimes would have been considered petty and treated with kid gloves. Drugs regulatory authorities and other agencies saddled with the responsibilities of apprehending drug offenders have committed more heinous crimes.
The inability of the nation’s justice system to decisively deal with drug offenders is obviously one of the reasons for the resurgence.
The feeling of many a Nigerian is that the inability of the law to deal with people caught with hard drugs usually sends a wrong signal to the public that drug offences would only attract mild punishment as long as the judiciary could be compromised.
This feeling has been given much credence by the upsurge in drug offences and the increasing number of Nigerians that are being apprehended almost on a daily basis both in Nigeria and abroad.
The chairman of the NDLEA, Alhaji Ahmadu Giade again called for stiffer penalty for drug offenders if the anti narcotic war is to be taken seriously.
According to Giade, we are absolutely opposed to a situation where drug offenders get away with light sentences. It is counter productive and definitely not encouraging for the drug war. He however assured that the Agency is exploring both legal and political options to remedy the ugly trend.
Also speaking following the re-arrest of three drug ex-convicts attempting to smuggle narcotics out of the country at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport (MMIA) Lagos, Giade called for a critical assessment of the implications of drug trafficking and the monetary value of drugs in awarding punishment to drug culprits.
He stated that a one year sentence for an accused caught with drugs worth over N10 million is grossly incommensurate.
The grave implications of drug trafficking on the individual, family and society must be appreciated by all. Every act of drug trafficking affects the image of our country.
The economy also suffers from money laundering activities just as the health condition of drug addicts further deteriorate. We must strive to get the punishment right for drug crimes.
This will naturally complement supply control efforts of the Agency. On the contrary, if the attraction is higher than the punishment, more people will be attracted to narcotic smuggling. It is laughable that some drug suspects may even start planning the next trip from the day of their arrest Giade stated.
Speaking in the same vain, a criminologist, Mr. Samson Edegbai called for stiffer penalty for drug peddlers, adding that prosecutors of drug-related offences should always charge traffickers under relevant laws that give little or no discretionary powers to judges
Prosecutors of drug-related offences are urged to always charge traffickers under relevant laws that give little or no discretionary powers to judges.
Judges that are in the habit of imposing light sentences on drug offenders should be put on the spot and sanctioned, if found to have breached their oath of office.
The sole purpose of a sentence may not be deterrence but it is an essential part that renders a sentence useless if its import is lost on a convict and would-be criminals.
The majority of criminals who were treated with kid gloves often lack the capacity to take advantage of the opportunity, which light sentences offer, to turn over a new leaf. This is often the case in criminal matters to which trafficking in drug belongs.
Again, plea bargaining, a principle that has crept into the nation’s justice system, should have limited application in critical areas of social and economic concerns, such as trading in hard drug and official corruption.
The sheer size of the damage that drug trafficking and corruption have caused to the economy in terms of battered image abroad and stunted economic growth is such that it is virtually criminal to attempt to bargain with those who inflicted these injuries, he said.
The consensus therefore is that if the drug war must be won, then the war strategy must change. The business must be made as unattractive as possible for active and would-be traffickers.
This means that societal and constitutional changes must be made to make illicit drug trafficking unattractive.
By DAVIDSON IRIEKPEN,
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