The Nigerians are coming! That is the anxious cry throughout Africa, particularly prosperous southern Africa. Along with other West Africans, Nigerian merchants arrive daily in Lusaka, Harare, Maputo, Luanda, Johannesburg, and other bustling commercial centers of the region. They supply and sell heroin, cocaine, and hashish (marijuana) for local consumption and onward transmission.
Local officials are worried. So are US government leaders locked in combat with international drug-smuggling cartels.
Combating the couriers
Local police and US strategists and enforcers have begun to combine efforts to limit the now-easy transit of couriers and their bosses across the comparatively undefended borders of the region.
Zambia's Drug Enforcement Commission recently arrested Nigerian couriers with quantities of ingested cocaine. They had come from Brazil via neighboring Angola. South Africa's police commissioner in charge of combating the drug trade knows that several powerful Nigerian-run syndicates supply drugs to his country and use the porous airports of the region as transit points.
Thirty percent of heroin seized at US ports of entry in 1994 was from Nigerian-controlled couriers. In 1995, more than 700 Nigerian traffickers were imprisoned in Thailand. Nigerian smugglers have been arrested in Brazil, Colombia, Paraguay, and West Africa. South African authorities have lists of more than 1,200 Nigerian smuggling suspects in and around Johannesburg.
When South Africa was an apartheid-based pariah state, until 1994, only a handful of international airlines deigned to land at Johannesburg International Airport, the region's busiest. Now more than 50 international carriers call in Johannesburg, many from Asia (Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand), and others from West Africa (Air Afrique and Ghana Airways), and Latin America (Varig). South African Airways also flies those routes, and has organized an East African airways as well.
There are other routes into South Africa and its neighbors: from chaotic, war-torn Angola by air or overland; through poor, easily accessible Mozambique, where officials are easily bribed; via Malawi, which as yet has no drug interdiction capabilities; through Botswana or Namibia, with their ample land-crossing points; or by road or foot from tiny Lesotho and Swaziland.
It is clear to the authorities in South Africa and Zambia, the two countries in the region with the most advanced drug-trade surveillance capabilities, and to the US, with its worldwide oversight, that southern Africa has become one of the key global transshipment points.
Limited detection and ease of access to Europe has made southern Africa a drug crossroads, with heroin flowing west and cocaine east. The Nigerians also purchase locally-grown hashish and Colombian-grown hashish and ship them to Europe and then the US.
A conference with maps
At an international conference in South Africa last month sponsored by the World Peace Foundation of Cambridge, Mass., American-produced maps were unveiled showing the routes used by the Nigerians to hustle cocaine from Colombia via Brazil to South Africa or Nigeria en route to Europe. Another map shows heroin-smuggling routes from Burma and Thailand to Nigeria and South Africa, and onward to the US.
The hashish maps showed smuggling routes from South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, and Ghana to Europe. Another map showed the way in which Nigerian smugglers were using Portuguese-speaking countries as transiting points: Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, and even Portugal itself.
A chart prepared by the Royal Thai Police listed the number of Nigerians arrested and the kilograms of heroin seized from Nigerian smugglers since 1988. The chart showed steady increases from 4 to a high of 700 couriers and smugglers.
US for regional strategy
The serious drugs trade is established in southern Africa as one part of a much larger global problem. There is an indigenous market that is growing, but much larger amounts pass through the region, especially South Africa, heading north.
The US Drug Enforcement Administration, which now watches Africa from Cairo, will shortly open a regional office in Johannesburg. The State Department's Bureau of International and Law Enforcement Affairs has recently renewed its attention to the region. It seeks to foster regional strategies that cut across traditional lines of sovereignty.
At the recent conference in Johannesburg, Zambian officials persuaded their Malawian counterparts to help throw up regional barriers against drug smuggling by Nigerians and others. The Zambians and South Africans have long worked together against the common foe; the Zimbabweans and South Africans have also helped each other along their common borders.
What is needed, as a part of the global effort against drugs, is a southern African cooperative compact, training for inexperienced police, customs, and immigration officials, and new funds to counter the lavish spending of Nigerian and other drug operatives. The US, through both its international and antidrug agencies, needs to finance and provide abundant technical assistance for these efforts. Helping the southern Africans directly helps the American war on the drug trade.
*Robert I. Rotberg is president of the World Peace Foundation and coordinator of the Southern African program of the Harvard Institute for International Development.