Drug barons target air passengers with small luggage
•New security measures at airports, airlines staff face enhanced monitoring •NDLEA warns passengers on luggage handling
Authorities are rolling out a number of enhanced security measures in airports across the country following reports of criminals planting hard drugs on innocent passengers.
These measures follow the discovery by the authorities that air passengers with little or light luggage have become targets of criminals planting extra luggage laden with hard drugs on them.
As part of the measures, airlines will now be asked to design a document for each of their passengers to sign detailing the number of luggage they are checking in and the contents.
In addition to the above is an increase in security monitoring of airline staff members that are directly or indirectly involved in the checking in of passengers’ luggage.
There are also plans to dismantle shops in the general area of departure halls which are suspected of harbouring these banned substances.
Commander of the Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport command of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), Mr Ambrose Umoru, who confirmed these measures to Saturday Tribune, said the agency was determined to put a decisive stop to the criminality of the few who smuggle drugs into and through the airport.
“These criminals usually claim that they have excess luggage. They, therefore, bribe airline baggage handlers to help them tag bags with names of passengers who do not have enough luggage. Sometimes even the airline staff may not know they are being used for drugs but because bribe money is involved, they do it for them,” the NDLEA commander disclosed.
He advised travellers to ensure that no one without official mandate handles their luggage for them just as he warned them against taking luggage or parcels from anyone.
Speaking on the role being played as the statutory government agency responsible for fighting drug-related crimes in the country, the principal staff officer, public affairs, of the agency at its headquarters in Abuja, Mr Jonah Achema, said in order to restore confidence in the traveling public since the news on the activities of the drug cartel has been put in the public domain, a lot of official efforts are ongoing to tackle the menace head-on. He did not give details.
According to Achema, it was through NDLEA’s efforts that criminals that used to operate at the Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport were not only arrested but prosecuted.
His words: “We are doing everything to ensure we bring this criminality to the end. NDLEA is doing everything possible to rid the airports of this drug cartel. It may interest you to know that it was the efforts of our officials that exposed the activities of the drug cartel.”
Reacting to the insinuations doing the rounds that some officials of the NDLEA formed part of the drug ring at the airports, he waived the insinuation aside, saying anyone who has such evidence should release it.
Hajj/Umrah passengers should be vigilant
In the intervening time, watchers of the aviation sector are of the opinion that passengers travelling out of Nigeria, particularly those heading to Saudi Arabia for either hajj or umrah (lesser hajj), need to be wary of airport workers milling around and pretending to be handling their travel documents, including their luggage, as they may be doing so to plant drugs in their luggage.
Again, it has become a necessity that passengers should henceforth take the pain to check the boarding pass and baggage claim tags attached to their passports as any of the cartels working at the check-in unit may include additional claim tag on their passports which may implicate them when they get to their destinations.
This becomes pertinent in the face of the ongoing tragedy befalling many Nigerians abroad, particularly at the hands of the Saudi Arabian authorities over drug charges.
NDLEA at Kano airport has confirmed that a cartel with cells at the various airports may be responsible for the death of innocent Nigerian travellers in Saudi.
The names the NDLEA gave as being responsible for the implication of an innocent passenger, Ms. Zainab Aliyu at the Kano airport are Messrs Idris Umar Shehu (alias Umar Sande), Sani Suleiman, Nuhu Adamu, Udosen Itoro Henry, Sani Hamisu and Ms Rhoda Adetunji.
They were charged with conspiring to export Tramadol to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and illegally checking in additional baggage containing the banned substance and linking same to Ms. Zainab Aliyu and Ibrahim Abubakar, passengers on board Ethiopian Airline flight ET 941/ET 402 to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on 24 December, 2018.
It was gathered that while one of those arrested, Rhoda Adetunji, was an airport worker, an accomplice, Udosen Itoro Henry, was a staff member of the Nigerian Aviation Handling Company (NAHCO).
It is a grievous offence for anyone to carry drugs into Saudi Arabia. The offence attracts capital punishment by beheading.
Many innocent Nigerians travelling to the holy land had met their untimely death at the hands of the Saudi authorities on the grounds that drugs were found in their luggage.
Presently, there are more than 23 Nigerians on death row in Saudi Arabia over drug trafficking offences. A Nigerian widow, Mrs Kudirat Adesola Afolabi, was recently put to death by beheading in the Middle East country for alleged drug trafficking.
The continued arrests and execution of Nigerians in Saudi Arabia has thrown the Federal Government and ordinary Nigerians into confusion with efforts ongoing to unravel the sudden rise in drug peddling between Nigeria and Saudi Arabia.
Fingers are being pointed at workers across the country’s airports, especially Kano and Lagos.
With the latest arrests made by the NDLEA, observers say it is probable that many of those who have been executed and on death row were only implicated by the cartel which is said to cut across the airlines, ground handling companies, NAHCO, Skypower Aviation Handling Company (SAHCO), the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), NDLEA, Nigeria Immigration Service, airport police and others who have access to sensitive parts of the airport.
It was gathered that members of the cartel are strategically positioned such that outbound passengers and their profiling must pass through them.
In the course of the profiling of the innocent passengers and the check-in of their baggage, unknown to passengers, the cartel targets light passengers with one or no baggage at all to achieve their aim.
Having identified their target unsuspecting passengers, after issuing them their boarding passes with their light baggage checked in with the assumption that their baggage have been checked in, they are allowed to proceed through the immigration point and other screening points to the boarding point. This is a critical point for any traveller and the cartel as most passengers, in the course of rushing to board their flights, don’t bother to check their boarding passes or luggage claim tag on their passports.
Hajj agents’ experiences
Some hajj agents who spoke to Saturday Tribune said the criminal act would have been curtailed if the baggage loading areas of the airports are installed with security cameras.
“The baggage handlers, after checking in your luggage, send it downstairs for loading. This is when they have the chance to plant drugs in your suitcases and bags. There is problem at the luggage loading bay downstairs. Obviously, if there are security cameras installed at the baggage loading bay, the authorities would have been able to play it back and see what transpired but this is not the case. It is sad that those who might be innocent are being killed like chickens.
“There is the need to enlighten passengers. You checked in four bags but unknown to you, the cartel would have added additional luggage claim tag to the original four fixed on your passport. On getting to Saudi Arabia, the authorities there say you have one more bag and at this point, they ask for the tags put on your passport and discover that there are five as against the four that belong to you. Unfortunately, the camera that could have been your saving grace is not working,” one of the hajj agents said.
Is FAAN culpable?
The FAAN, which is responsible for making the airport environment vis-a-vis passengers’ profiling and travels seamless, has been accused of not having the critical gadgets like security cameras installed to expose such criminal acts.
According to the spokesperson of FAAN, Mrs Henrietta Yakubu, it is not possible that cameras at the baggage loading bay are not functional. Yakubu promised to take Saturday Tribune’s correspondent on an inspection of the baggage loading bay to prove that the cameras installed there are actually working.
Handling companies’ reactions
Officials of the two major handling companies who spoke to Saturday Tribune on the condition of anonymity, agreed that the cartel exists but alleged that personnel of the other relevant bodies at the airports are neck deep in the crime. They, however, called for security cameras to be installed at the critical points.
A one-time military commandant at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, and now the Managing Director of Centurion Security Services, Group Captain John Ojikutu (retd), traced the genesis of the crime to the failure of the relevant security agencies to place priority on outbound drug trafficking.
According to him, if an intelligence report by an Israeli resource person at a workshop on networking government security agencies in 2010 in Nigeria had been embraced, the present situation would have been avoided.
“The problem with us in our environment is that we hardly learn any lesson from past experiences. Drug trafficking got to a head in the 90s with the stories of the likes of Gloria Okon. There was a privileged intelligence report from an Israeli resource person at a workshop on networking government security agencies working at the airports with aviation operators in 2010. The report revealed that over 70 per cent of trafficked drugs that came from the West African sub-region transiting Europe to the United States was from Nigeria.
“According to the Israeli, it was the premise that the planners of the Abdulmutallab failed bombing attempt on the Delta Air Lines in December 2009 based their plan, that inbound trafficked drugs are given more security attention than the outbound. That premise, which was not given attention by those who attended the workshop sponsored by the NCAA, is still the pattern of today’s trafficking and that, to me, was and still a task for the NDLEA and Customs who were at the workshop which included the police, DSS, FAAN security and immigration.
“Some airlines, international routes, airport and land border posts are notorious and are known to the agencies as ‘software’ for drug trafficking. These are not too difficult to identify if, and only if, those responsible are crafted in the art of knowing who and what they are looking for.
“With what we are hearing now from Saudi Arabia, there are many accomplices among the airport staff and worse still, in security. It is insider’s threat if we take the information from Saudi further the way the Israelis carved the Abdulmutalab case. How did Abdulmutalab get through the airlines pre-passenger screening or how did he get through immigration screening even when he was on government watch list? How many traffickers or domestic terrorists are on the NDLEA, DSS, immigration and FAAN security watch list? How many times is security profiling conducted on the airport staff? The airport security auditors should be looking regularly for the presence of abnormal and absence of normal on the airport staff,” Captain Ojikutu said.
According to the security expert, all the shout over security cameras is not the most important but the personnel manning those gadgets and their motive.
“Close Circuit Security Cameras are desirable but what is essential is the attitude of the operatives. No matter the sophistication of an equipment, if the operatives do not have the right skills or attitude, it is just an equipment. What if there is no power or the equipment suddenly goes bad? That is very common, or if the equipment is deliberately put out of use? This is also possible with those with bad mental attitude. That is why the recruitment of airport staff working in the security controlled areas like the whole baggage screening areas must be thorough with background checks appropriate for the job,” he added.
For Mr Abel Adetunji, a regular traveller and an airport worker, “the way we handle the case of terrorism is the way we should handle this case. It is a bad experience that, if not urgently handled, may batter the image of the country and the travelling public. Above all, it may lead to shedding of the blood of more innocent passengers. Therefore, the Federal Government and its agencies, including FAAN, should put their arsenal together and go after these cartels and stop them from continuing the havoc.”