Drugs Strain US-Nigeria Relations

Rift over heroin trafficking comes at a time when Africa's most populous nation is making its third shift from military to civilian rule

AMERICA'S demand for heroin has contributed to a rapidly expanding network of Nigerian "drug barons," who now account for at least a third of the heroin seized at United States airports, US officials say.

This has soured US-Nigerian relations at a critical time for the West African nation.

A presidential campaign is under way in Nigeria for the Dec. 5 election. The military government, in power since 1985, promises to step down in January. The US is encouraging the transition as a way to promote democratic reforms in other African countries where dictators or military governments are still in charge.

But interviews with both Nigerian and US officials, and testimonies before the US Congress, reveal deep mistrust over the drug issue on both sides.

"We believe more effective use could be made of equipment at the airport," says one US official here, blaming Nigeria for not doing enough to detect drugs at the country's main international airport in Lagos.

"The US is the biggest market for drugs," a Nigerian official retorts.

Nigeria is not a source country for heroin, but criminal organizations based in Lagos smuggle heroin from Southeast and Southwest Asia into the US and Europe, according to Melvyn Levitsky, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics matters.

In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee May 20, Mr. Levitsky also said Nigerian smuggling is expanding to include cocaine from South America to Africa and Europe.

Nigerians "have begun recruiting other African nationals, Americans, Europeans, and Asians as couriers," he told Congress. Thirty-one percent of heroin seizures at US airports involve Nigerians. Another 11 percent involve other Africans "probably recruited as couriers for Nigerian smuggling organizations," Levitsky said.

At New York's John F. Kennedy Airport, the main port of entry for heroin smuggled into the US by air passengers, 48 percent of the heroin seizures involve Nigerians directly, he says.

(John E. Hensley, Assistant Commissioner of the Office of Enforcement, US Customs Service, told Congress in May that Ghanaians also smuggle heroin from Ghana to New York via Europe. Ghanaians, he said, are making some inroads into the West African narcotics trafficking that once was the exclusive domain of the Nigerian drug barons.)

Nigerian officials, meanwhile, are bristling over the increase in luggage and body searches of many Nigerians at US airports. Officials here also react with anger to US accusations that the Nigerian government is involved in the drug trade.

The searches of Nigerians are a "humiliation," says Fulani Kwajafa, chairman of Nigeria's National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA). An internal Nigerian document is more blunt, calling the searches: "inhuman, embarrassing, disgusting, and disgraceful."

"We appeal to you," Mr. Kwajafa told reporters here, "to send a message to US officials who see every Nigerian as a drug carrier. The contrary is the case. Search those who deserve to searched - not just any Nigerian."

Kwajafa says the Nigerian government is making headway at curbing drug smuggling. Instead of criticism, Nigeria deserves "a pat on the back" for its anti-drug efforts, he says.

US officials acknowledge the pressures facing the Nigerian government because of the poor economy. Riots broke out in May in Lagos over a temporary shortage in gasoline. And many Nigerians express impatience with the military's failure to leave behind a strong economy.

"Corruption ... is a serious problem limiting the effectiveness of counter-narcotics enforcement" in Nigeria, Levitsky told Congress. He referred to the "unauthorized release of drug suspects" from Nigerian police custody. More than 100 have escaped or been released since 1989, according to US estimates.

Privately, US officials have accused the Nigerians of compromising drug intelligence, of warning suspects in time to escape arrest. "There is bound to be a black sheep," says Kwajafa, head of Nigeria's NDLEA. "I'm not saying NDLEA is a saint."

But another Nigerian official says of the US suspicion: "We resent that a lot. No other country has accused us of compromising information." Nigerian officials accuse US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents in Nigeria of running their own intelligence network, with their own informants, and making arrests without clearing it first with top NDLEA officials.

The DEA, which has several agents in Nigeria, is "overzealous, ... out of control," one Nigerian official said.

"Our people do not operate alone," counters a US official. "Some joint operations and arrests have been made," the official said, referring to operations made with Nigerian drug agents whom the DEA trusts.

Despite the apparent mistrust, there is some dialogue under way between the two governments to find ways to improve cooperation in the fight against drugs.

Nigerian officials express concern about increasing drug abuse inside the country.

"There has been an increase" in drug use in Nigeria, Kwajafa says. "Traffickers must create local markets" if they cannot get their supplies out of the country.

US officials say they hope that that concern will lead to greater efforts by the Nigerian government to control drug smuggling and are exploring ways to improve cooperation.

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