The secrets behind the drug trade in Sierra Leone

20 July 2008 at 05:38 | 3141 views

By Alpha Rashid Jalloh, Patriotic Vanguard Freetown Bureau Chief.

The 700 kilogram narcotics recently impounded at the Lungi International Airport, Sierra Leone’s only international airport, have attracted world attention. It has been the biggest catch in Sierra Leone, but what should be known is that that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

It is not a new phenomenon. The trade has been gong on for a long time and several arrests were made over the years but sometimes the fines were so paltry compared to the magnitude of the crime. One of the biggest problems African countries are facing in the fight against drugs is the involvement of Western countries when their citizens are arrested with drugs.

When it is others, they raise hell and howl. Take the case of Nigeria, where culprits of European descent, when arrested, are released after heavy pressure . Same with Sierra Leone. Just wait and see: the Europeans and American so far arrested are going to be the first people to be released. This is a vivid manifestation of double standards in the crusade against drug trafficking.

Back to Sierra Leone. The household talk in the last couple of days is the drugs catch at Lungi International Airport in which eleven foreigners , several Sierra Leoneans , including a police Local Unit Commander have been arrested.

Several years ago I wrote a story detailing the drugs network linking Sierra Leone, South Africa and Belgium, for the Gemini News Service in London, which was later bought over by Panos Institute.

My more than a decade and a half of practicing journalism instilled a curiosity in me to study certain phenomena. Over the years, I had tried to study society and its dynamics. It led me to find out what are the true causes of war, juvenile delinquency and crime in general. My several years of probing into these issues led me to discover that there is connectivity between drugs, war and crime.

For the sake of clarity let us start with the drug network in Sierra Leone and see how it has operated over the years. There are three stages in the drug transactions: the source, the transit point and the destination. There are the king pins who have the money, they hire agents who do the buying and then several agents are hired in several countries to serve as conveyors for the drugs. These agents in the transit and destination points operate business enterprises which are merely fronts. They infiltrate government officials, security agencies and airport workers.

For a long time Nigeria served as a source for drugs and narcotics supply in many parts of Africa . During the war in the West African state of Liberia , drugs were sold to rebels and then proceeds derived were taken through Sierra Leone . Many of the dealers traveled by road from Nigeria to Liberia and then entered Sierra Leone though porous borders. When the war spilled into neighboring Sierra Leone , the trade then shifted. Dealings were done in the capital Freetown and through the Revolutionary United Front rebels.

There were reports of several ECOMOG so-called peace keeping soldiers dealing in drugs. By the time the war ended the drug empire had enlarged. It was taken from Nigeria through Sierra Leone to South Africa from where it was taken to Belgium . The conveyors would then travel by train to the UK.

A second route involved traveling through South Africa to America and those who braved it to the United States do not do so through crowded airports in Washington or New York . The syndicate had to involve several people that even included plane crews.

In Sierra Leone, when ever the “cargo” arrived, it would be cleared by either customs officials, airport staff or security guards which means it is open to the public and many times it was done at night and conveyed by hired vehicles to a sub agent who contacts a local king pin to pay the money involved. Sometimes the route involves going from Nigeria to Sierra Leone , Guinea Bissau or Gambia and then to the Canary Islands from where local boats could be used to remote destinations in Spain.

Drug dealing is very lucrative and the operators therefore offer irresistible temptations to public officials. In Sierra Leone today there is a rush to get rich quick and there is no questioning on the legitimacy of wealth despite the persistent cry against corruption. These irresistible temptations are used to lure cops, airport officials, custom officials and public servants.

The number of “Ghettos” (places where drugs are sold) are increasing every day. Go to Lumley Street in the centre of Freetown and Krootown Road in the west and many urban areas in the country, you find out that boredom and frustration and idleness has made these places an ideal spot for the lumpen youth. Incidentally, the number of violent crimes is increasing. There are still many murders for which the police cannot find the culprits which has made life very scary. During the war, the lumpen youths formed the bulk of the fighting forces and ended up amputating limbs, burning down houses and torturing many. Looting was the order of the day as they need enough money to satisfy their drug habits.

The recent discovery of 60 million dollars worth of drugs on board a plane that landed “without permission” is therefore a tip of the iceberg. The arrest of Colombians, Venezuelans and an American and the fact that it originated from Venezuela reveals that a new source had emerged to compete with Nigeria in the drug trade over the years . Not surprisingly, a top police official S. I. S. Koroma, who is the local unit commander has been arrested. Also, the team manager of the country’s national team, Mohamed Sesay, has been arrested together with a member of staff of a Nigerian bank called First International Bank and many more. As at the time of writing this article not less than fifty people have been rounded up and detained by the police.

The Assistant Inspector General of Police in charge of Operations, Francis Munu, says no stone will be left unturned to bring culprits to book but paradoxically while the police were unloading the drugs from the plane after the discovery, a packet disappeared which has caused the minister of Information Ibrahim Ben Kargbo to express surprise. It is a vivid manifestation that drugs are like a virus, if you get too close you might end up being infected.

But why were the crew members who went with the drugs to Sierra Leone traveling with weapons? Some say it’s natural for drug dealers to travel with arms but others vividly remember the 80s in Togo when mercenaries arrived with drugs and alcohol and started a fight at the airport. When they were arrested searched and interrogated it was revealed that they were hired in Europe to overthrow President Gnasingbe Eyadema. Which ever school of thought is right, the fact is drug syndicates are posing a threat to peace in Africa. In many areas where they operate they end up arming disgruntled elements to launch a rebellion because the drug trade becomes more lucrative in an atmosphere of instability when security mechanisms are weakened.

Currently there have been reports that the Federal Bureau of Investigations in the US, International Police Organisation (INTERPOL) and Scotland Yard in the UK are helping in the investigation. But who is the big boss(Capo di Capo) behind the trade? That is serious home work for them.