Zainab Aliyu’s ordeals resonate calls for improved measures to tackling drug trafficking at Nigerian airports

Zainab Aliyu’s ordeals resonate calls for improved measures to tackling drug trafficking at Nigerian airports

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After putting so much hard work into his spare parts business at ASPAMDA market, Lagos, Chukwuemeka (not real name) still fed from hand to mouth. The business environment seemed rather hostile for him to break even. Rather than making gains, he discovered he started eating into his capital, then he thought it was time to seek other legitimate means to earn a decent living.

So, it was with excitement and optimism that he received the ‘good’ news that his uncle would love to sponsor him to Indonesia to hustle and earn something reasonable. Being an orphan, he thought this was God’s way of compensating him for his losses.

He had set out for the journey with his luggage, including one given to him by his uncle to help deliver to a friend at Indonesia. Getting to the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA) with his uncle to bid him farewell, he was met by security agents and at every point his uncle would tip officials with a sum of N1,000 to N3,000, just to ensure his nephew isn’t searched.

At some point, Chukwuemaka had to ask his uncle why he didn’t just allow the security officials search him, rather than waste money at multiple security points, just to avoid search. His uncle grinned, tapped his shoulders and said, ‘Son, you won’t understand. In any case, I won’t want to stress you at all. It could be tiring having to bring out everything inside your bag just for search purpose.’

After getting through the Lagos airport, Chukwuemeka arrived Indonesia airport. While waiting in the queue to pass through the immigration, his name was called out at the terminal for questioning and he innocently rushed out.

This was where his trouble began. The bag his uncle gave him had methamphetamine and tramadol. There was no amount of explanations Chukwuemeka gave to the security agents that was good enough, as his uncle refused to pick his calls or reply his sms (messages).

With no relatives or friends to testify on his behalf, in less than two weeks, after his arrest, poor Chukwuemeka was tried and sentenced to death by hanging.

This case is not an isolated case as many innocent people have died without knowledge that drugs have been planted in their bags.

Zainab Aliyu’s case

The recent case of Zainab Aliyu, a Nigerian student, who some Nigerians at an airport were said to have deliberately planted drugs into a bag tagged with her name without her knowledge, has brought to the fore the evil being perpetrated by some airport staff, ground handlers and airline workers.

Aliyu was arrested in Saudi Arabia on suspicion of trafficking Tramadol, a banned drug, in December 2018. She claimed it was planted in her luggage by unknown persons.

President Muhammadu Buhari had directed Abubakar Malami, the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, to intervene in the case. After four months, the Federal Government successfully secured the release of Aliyu.

While Aliyu was lucky to have been snatched away from the snare of death, several other innocent Nigerians could not live to tell their own stories. Why Aliyu embraced freedom, there are many other people, who had been condemned and are waiting for the hangman, yet they are innocent.

Recently, Abike Dabiri, the Senior Special Adviser to the President on Foreign Relations and the Diaspora, had expressed sadness at the execution of Kudirat Adesola Afolabi, a Nigerian lady, in Saudi Arabia after the country’s courts found her guilty of drug trafficking.

Afolabi was executed as a result of an alleged delay by the Nigerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to inform the Saudi authorities of an investigation which had established that she was not the owner of the luggage tagged in her name in which the drugs were said to have been discovered.

“We have had cases where truly they didn’t commit the offence. We have appealed to the Saudi Authorities to make the trials fair, open and ensure that justice is done. Even if you are going to die, you will know that you die for an offence you committed,” Dabiri was quoted as saying.

“So, while we appeal to Nigerians going to Saudi Arabia, we know it is tough, obey the laws of the land. Even Kolanut is treated as a drug.

“We have 20 of them in Saudi, this (Afolabi) is the eighth to be executed and we are hopeful that maybe we will be able to save the others.”

Illegal modes of drug trafficking

Drug couriers have continued to deploy new tactics in packaging the drugs to avoid suspicion by officials at the airport.

The illegal mode of taking these drugs out of the country include the use of false bottom, electronics, stocking them inside food stuff and most recently the use of starched cloths.

The drug couriers starch the cloths together with the drugs and if they are successful, they are able to detach the drugs from the starched cloths after processing them.

Explaining the mode of operation of the criminals, Ambrose Umoru, commander of the Aminu Kano International Airport command of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), said they “usually claim that they have excess luggage. They, therefore, bribe airline baggage handlers to help them tag bags with names of passengers who do not have enough luggage.

“Sometimes, even the airline staff may not know they are being used for drugs but because bribe money is involved, they do it for them,” Umoru said.

He said travellers should not allow anyone to handle their luggage except such a person has the official mandate to do so. 

Top destinations of drug couriers

Top destinations of drug couriers arrested include Nigeria, South Africa, Indonesia, DR Congo, India, Mozambique, Dubai and Saudi Arabia.

Ahmadu Garba, the MMIA Commandant, NDLEA, revealed that 30.14percent of the suspected drug couriers arrested during the year 2018 were coming into Nigeria and the remaining 69.89percent were destined to different countries of the world with 13.70percent of them going to South Africa, which has the highest number.

Garba disclosed that most of the drug deportees came from South Africa with 30percent, Thailand 23.75percent, United States of America (USA) 12.50percent and Ethiopia 10percent.

Airport Authorities respond

Following Aliyu’s case, authorities of the Nigerian Airport agencies had adopted fresh measures to deal with the reported incidences of hard drugs found on innocent travellers in foreign countries.

Airlines are now required to design a document for each of their passengers to sign, stating the number of luggage they are checking in and what they contain.

There will be an increase in the monitoring of airline staff members that are directly or indirectly involved in the checking in of passengers’ luggage.

Also, plans are on the way to dismantle shops in the general area of departure halls which experts say could be used to harbour the hard drugs.

Umoru said that “the agency was determined to put a decisive stop to the criminality of the few who smuggle drugs into and through the airport”.


Number of drugs impounded by NDLEA

 NDLEA recorded a total of 5,377.125kilogramms of drugs impounded at MMIA, Lagos in 2018, representing over 400percent increase.

In 2017, the agency impounded 1,266.400 kilogramms of drugs; however, the number quadrupled in 2018 as a result of the significant increase in the number of tramadol seized at the Lagos airport.

Ahmadu Garba, told journalists that the agency was able to record such tremendous increase as a result of the trainings acquired by the officials of NDLEA to identify suspects, corporation of airlines and significant increase in the number of tramadol seized at the airport.

He explained that out of the total number of 5,377.125kilogramms seized by the agency, 5002.900 were tramadol, representing 93.04percent.

He said other drugs seized include cocaine, heroin, cannabis sativa, methamphetamine, ephedrine, psychotropic substance and dummy, adding that 25 people were convicted.

He further explained that during the period under review, seventy-nine males and one female, making a total of 80 Nigerians were deported for drug-related offences as against 139 deported in 2017, showing a decrease of 42.45percent.


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