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Concerns as illicit drug smugglers shift base to seaports

By Adaku Onyenucheya
13 July 2022   |   4:09 am
Illicit drug trafficking has become a serious social problem in Nigeria as government battles smugglers and perpetrators who now leverage vessels and seaports to ply their trade.

Cannabis sativa and heroin intercepted along Southwest waterways by the Western Marine Command of the Nigeria Customs Service.

Illicit drug trafficking has become a serious social problem in Nigeria as government battles smugglers and perpetrators who now leverage vessels and seaports to ply their trade.

Substances often smuggled by merchants and traffickers through the seaports include cocaine, hashish, cannabis sativa, codeine syrup, heroin, opioids, colorado and tramadol, among others.

Stakeholders have called for more efforts to rid the country of this menace in the maritime industry.

Last Friday, the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) intercepted a 20 feet (ft) container laden with 150 cartons of 250 milligrams (mg) of prohibited tramadol tablets at Apapa port.

The container was falsely declared as having a static converter and switches. However, each of the cartons contained 72 rolls with each roll containing 10 packets. A packet contains 10 sachets.

According to the Customs Area Controller of Apapa Command, Comptroller Yusuf Malanta, the drugs were tracked from the port of loading in Singapore to Hong Kong, then China and several ports of call to the port of destination in Apapa where it was intercepted by officers.

The Apapa command had also in the first quarter of 2022, intercepted hard drugs including tramadol, codeine syrup, and other contraband valued at N1.143 billion

The Western Marine Command of the Nigeria Customs Service had between February and May 2022 seized 32 sacks containing 2,520 pieces of Cannabis sativa, weighing 1,437 kilogrammes with a street value of N168 million on a wooden boat along Lagos waterways.

Also, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) last Wednesday, stated that a total of 4,349.25 kilogrammes of assorted drugs were seized in the Lagos inland waterways alone between January to May 2022.

The Chairman/Chief Executive Officer of NDLEA, Buba Marwa gave the figure at a Port Industry Town Hall meeting organised by Journal NG help in Apapa, Lagos, with the theme: ‘Towards a Drug-Free Port Environment.’

The anti-drug agency boss who was represented at the meeting by the Commander in Apapa port, Ameh Inalegwu, said the figure was in addition to the two commercial vessels that were seized in November 2021 in connection with illicit drugs importation.

He said the seizure of 74.119 kilograms (451, 807 tablets) of “jihadist drug” known as Captagon in Apapa port, held everybody spellbound.

In his presentation titled: “Evolving a Drug-Free Port Environment: A Call for Concerted Efforts,” Marwa said the maritime industry is at the heart of these components.

According to him, several arrests and seizures have been made aboard vessels laden with huge quantities of illicit drugs at the ports.

He said apart from cannabis sativa, which is known to be cultivated in commercial quantities, the seizure of pharmaceutical opiates like tramadol being exported from Nigeria raises questions such as “how did these large quantities of drugs get into the country?”

Terminal in TinCan Island port, Lagos. PHOTO: SUNDAY AKILOLU

The NDLEA boss said a huge portion of these drugs come into the country through the water ways.

“NDLEA has equally resolved to maintain a strong presence at the ports, which explains the monumental drug seizures and the series of engagements of stakeholders, ranging from bonded terminal owners/operators, shipping lines and agencies as well as other critical stakeholders within the maritime sector,” he said.

The Registrar of Council for the Registration of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN), Sam Nwakohu, in his paper on the “Imperatives of Freight Forwarders Compliance in Fight Against Drug,” said the fight against drug trafficking is a huge challenge in the country’s maritime domain despite government’s battles with importation and smuggling of the substance into Nigeria.

He said several arrests made by the security agencies have unraveled a mixture of barons, importers, couriers and unfortunately freight forwarders, being agents and shippers as well as haulage operators being accountable for drug smuggling into the country.

“I refrain from unraveling the identities of the many freight forwarders and clearing agents who were arrested in connection with these seizures because the cases are already in court,” he said.

According to him, packages of narcotics are either concealed within cargo inside a container or the structure of the container itself.

He said the drugs are also hidden in the walls or below the floor of the containers and vessels.

“Reefer containers, used for goods that need to be temperature controlled during shipping, have been discovered to provide opportunities for hiding packages in the refrigeration units.

“Packages are alleged to be placed by some rogue employees working for shipping companies or terminals,” he said.

The CRFFN boss, however, noted that the increasing number of freight forwarders, including clearing agents and haulage operators who are arrested in connection with drugs and other prohibited imports shows the need for compliance by freight forwarders and other stakeholders.

The Assistant Comptroller General of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) in charge of Information Communication Technology (ICT)/Modernisation, Aliyu Saidu, stated that ships have become the only option for smuggling drugs since they were the only mode of transport that remained largely unaffected.

According to Saidu, who was represented by the Acting Controller in charge of Non-Intrusive Inspection, Paul Ekpeyong, the smuggler, upon discovering that perishable goods are more likely to receive casual and hasty inspections due to their nature, started using refrigerated containers and bulk cargoes, especially fertilizers to peddle drugs.

On the consumption of drugs by port users, the National President of the Association of Maritime Truck Owners (AMATO), Remi Ogungbemi, said truck drivers consume drugs and alcohol peculiar to the nature of their job to enable them to confront and resist the hostile forces of the port environment.

He blamed the indiscriminate drug intake by truck drivers on oppression, extortion and dehumanisation by different security agencies and hoodlums as well as the unjust hijacking of trucks by road traffic enforcement agencies.
Other reasons he noted are prolonged standing in the queue for several days without eating well, taking bath and inadequate sleep at night to watch against container burglars and truck part thieves, as well as in the scorching sun and heat from the truck engine.

The AMATO boss also stated the inability of authorities to stop or control the indiscriminate sale of alcohol and drugs by vendors in the port environment, which he said encourages the abuse and consumption to the detriment of safety, public peace, security of life and property in the port environment.
“Our port access roads at night cannot be distinguished from nightclubs due to the activities of drug and alcohol vendors,” he said.

On the way forward to addressing the menace destroying the youths in the country, the President-General of the Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria (MWUN), Adeyanju Adewale, stressed the need for concerted efforts in addressing the drug trafficking problem in the ports.

“Indeed, drug trafficking represents a major challenge for Nigeria and port users/operators. This is due to the rather porous nature of our security structure in our ports, jetties, and terminals,” he noted.

The AMATO boss said while stakeholders are working to make the port environment free from drugs, they should at the same time work towards removing the cause of drug intake as a necessity in response to hostile forces around the port environment.

Saidu, on his part, reassured that the Customs deployment of non-intrusive inspection (NII) will further suppress the smuggling of drugs and other contrabands through the ports.

He said the process involved the use of an x-ray to expose the contents of cargo on a computer screen for analysis, rather than the manual process with numerous human errors.

“The NII system also supports the detection and prevention of contraband, including weapons of mass effect, illicit drugs and other prohibited materials from passing through our borders by sounding an alarm when such is detected. This also allows officers to view areas that would be otherwise difficult to inspect,” he explained.

While Marwa said the task of keeping the ports drug-free as well as ensuring the security of the nation is the primary responsibility of the operators in the maritime industry, he said stakeholders at the ports must be able to resist the lure of lucre and the temptation of what drug traffickers offer, noting that no amount of money is compared with the sanctity of human life.

The NDLEA boss further said to curb the high rate of consumption of illicit drugs and narcotics by truck drivers operating in the Nigerian ports, there would be the need to commence urine tests on truck drivers, adding that any of them found to have consumed drugs will not be allowed to drive into the terminals to pick up any consignments.

On his part, the Director-General of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), Dr. Bashir Jamoh, said the country’s maritime security infrastructure, otherwise known as Deep Blue Project, has been reset to help the country fight the smuggling of illicit drugs and narcotics into the country.

He said the agency has been doing a lot to breach easy access to drugs and other illegal substances through the seaports.

He also added that the agency is making efforts through the deep blue mechanism to hunt down perceived drug peddlers that operate on the sea.

Jamoh who was represented at the event by the Special Assistant on Communications and Strategy, Mr. Ubon Essien, stated that NIMASA is not only making efforts to reduce the inflow of illicit drugs and narcotics into the country but also sensitising Nigerian youths on the dangers of drug use on lives and the society.