Drug traffickers find West Africa coast ideal transit point

Last year alone, the quantity of hard drugs seized at Lagos, Nigeria's international airport increased by more than 500 percent - the number of arrests by more than 450 percent. These seizures amounted to 37 kilograms, worth more than $10 million. And 119 people, including 46 women were arrested, according to Abubakar Musa, Nigeria's Customs and Excise Director.

During the past few years, there has been a similar sharp rise in drug trafficking all along the West African coast.

``Lagos, Abidjan, and other West African cities are becoming increasingly important transit points to the USA and Europe,'' a US official said recently. ``Traditional routes are more and more tightly controlled so new West African and other indirect routes are now being tried.''

Much of the West African drug traffic comes from India and Pakistan with travelers going through Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Nairobi, Kenya; or a West African capital before flying to a European capital.

``Traffickers try to cover their trail by passing through several African capitals,'' a drug enforcement official explained.

In Abidjan, Ivory Coast's capital, the first seizures of hard drugs were made in 1986 when 16.2 kilograms of heroin and 8.3 kilograms of cocaine were taken, Emile Gondo, director of narcotics, says. Nearly 1,000 people were arrested in the country for drug use and trafficking. Of those, 20 percent were women and 12 percent were under 12 years of age.

There are a number of reasons for the rapid rise in the West African drug traffic in recent years, drug enforcement analysts say.

Drug barons are increasingly turning to West Africa as traditional routes became more risky because of tighter controls. Surveillance at African airports has been notoriously lax. Frequently airport personnel are prepared to wave travelers through in return for a ``dash'' (bribe).

In addition, police and customs officials have concentrated on currency, gold, and diamond smuggling and often had difficulty recognizing drugs, observers say. Though punishment is harsh for anyone caught moving drugs, the monetary reward is immense in Africa, where many people earn less than a dollar a day.

Analysts credit greater awareness and security measures as key factors to the increase in documented arrests and seizures. A series of seminars and training courses financed by the United Nations and the United States have enabled West African police and customs officials to detect traffickers more easily. These seminars, including one organized by Interpol in early March, deal with methods of collecting and using information on drug trafficking and to encourage regional cooperation. Interpol is an international organization through which many nations cooperate to curb internationally organized crime.

It was only two years ago that efforts to collect data on the drug trafficking in Nigeria began. In May 1985, a special Nigerian drugs unit was formed under Interpol.

Nigeria's unit now has 33 agents. Of those, about six have been specially trained in detecting drugs. Airports and ports have been equipped with instruments to detect drugs. The US Drug Enforcement Agency has its only official in sub-Saharan Africa. He is based in Lagos.

The death penalty for smuggling drugs was lifted in August. The import, manufacture, processing, or growing of cocaine, LSD, heroin, or similar drugs is punishable by life imprisonment. Drug export or trafficking is punishable by 20 years imprisonment. Buying, selling, or dealing in drugs is punishable by 14 years imprisonment while the use or possession of drugs brings 2 to 10 years.

Despite the lucrative trade, there is comparatively little local use of hard drugs in West Africa so far. Such drugs, a doctor in Abidjan pointed out, are beyond the financial reach of most Africans. But observers say that the increase in trafficking does not bode well for the future. Peter Blackburn recently returned from an assignment in Nigeria.

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