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Why the Anti-Drug War Is Slow

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Femi Ajayi is the director-general of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency. He speaks to a Newswatch team of Maureen Chigbo, general editor; Anthony Akaeze, assistant-editor; Ishaya Ibrahim, staff writer, on the problems slowing down the anti-drug war, the controversial Baba Suwe case, the lucrative cannabis sativa farming business and more. Excerpts:

Newswatch: What is the challenge of the battle against illegal drug?

Ajayi: I would say that the NDLEA has been doing a good job. It has had its ups and down. In terms of drug enforcement, it has also done very well in terms of arrest of couriers, barons, seizure of their drugs, confiscation of proceeds of their drugs. We’ve done quite well. Where I would say that the organisation has not done so well is in the area of drug demand reduction. The agency, though the name says NDLEA, is not supposed to be law enforcement agency alone. The agency has been more of supply reduction than demand reduction. That is what I would say is the challenge. It is not the fault of the agency anyway. When your resources are limited, you try to apply them to where you think is your priority. The priority obviously is stopping drugs from coming into Nigeria and leaving Nigeria.  Stopping drugs from coming to Nigeria because you want to protect Nigerians from the challenge of drug availability and also stopping our people from carrying drugs out of Nigeria because of the negative image that it gives our country. And you know the challenge of the availability of drugs in a country is very terrible. It leads to drug addiction, increase in drug related crimes, increase in drug related accidents and things like violent crimes like terrorism are all associated with drugs.


Newswatch: Can you talk more on drug demand reduction and what the NDLEA should be doing?

Ajayi: Drug demand reduction essentially is about raising massive awareness. Let people know the challenges and the implications of the use of drugs. The implication of trafficking of drugs so that they will be in a position to protect themselves against it, so that they would not get involved with it. It involves public education; it involves drug use education and using all the multimedia approach.


Newswatch: How successful would you say that has been?

Ajayi: The truth is that we have not even done half of it because of lack of resources.  You see, the amount of money they give the agency is always so small that by the time we allocate it to the core function of the agency, there is nothing left. You now have a situation where the commands try to do something with NGOs or schools. We have a situation where drug demand reduction has now been reduced to an annual event like the international day against drug abuse and trafficking which is supposed to be a daily affair. Apart from the fact that you need this thing on a daily basis even for the control of drugs like heroine, cocaine, amphetamine and any of the controlled drugs, there is a new tendency in town that now makes drug demand reduction indispensable.  The challenge of these unconventional drugs is that they are everyday use material. Petrol, for instance, people sniff it. They put it in a handkerchief and sniff it and it makes them high. These are not controlled substance. The only approach to stop people from using them is through education.  That is drug demand reduction. You educate people so that they will not engage in them. The advent of unconventional drugs has made drug demand reduction indispensable. The extent to which these things are abused in the northern part of the country is serious, particularly lizard dung. They sniff it. People would wake up in the morning and stay where gas from pit latrine is coming out from and sniff it just to get high. 


Newswatch: So, what is the NDLEA doing to solve this problem since you have recognised that it is a serious challenge?

Ajayi: Funds are our problem. We work as much as possible with non-governmental organisations, with schools, trying to establish anti-drug club. Generally, we liaise with organisations that can help to get the message to the people. 


Newswatch: How much will be needed for drug demand reduction?

Ajayi: The problem now is that we are not given anything for it now. If for instance on a yearly basis we can get something like N200 million for drug reduction alone, that will be fantastic. But we don’t even get anything.


Newswatch: So far, what is the budget like for your agency that the federal government approved for you?

Ajayi: Our capital budget this year is N84.5 million. Most of the agencies under our parent ministry don’t have many staff. In our own case, we are a nationwide organisation. Our staff strength is even so low. Until recently, we used to have 3,500 staff. Recently, we hired another 1,900 more. So, because of that staff strength which is bigger than any other agency under the Ministry of Justice, by the time they give us money for personnel emolument, it would have carried so much. So, when it comes to the area of capital budget, they will just give us what they like. Like this year now, initially they gave us N100 million. But they said there will be 20 percent budget cut across the board because of the projected fall in the price of oil. That is the challenge that we have.


Newswatch: We have heard that NDLEA only succeeds in arresting the small fries. Even when they have information on the big fishes behind the fries they don’t go after them?

Ajayi:  That is very uncharitable. NDLEA has been arresting some very big guys.


Newswatch: Can you mention some of the big guys you’ve arrested…

Ajayi: Have you not heard of Onuche before? You have not heard of Joe Brown Akubueze? We have been catching some big people. Akubueze smuggled 250 kg slaps of heroin into Nigeria. He was convicted for 15 years. This year we have arrested up to 96 people.


Newswatch: Are they the big people? I am talking of big people!

Ajayi: How are we going to get the big people. It is through their couriers. A lot of people say this thing because they don’t know how the drug business operates. Let me tell you how the drug business operates. In the drug trade, there are cells. Before you can get any drug baron in a place like Colombia, Peru and Mexico, it is not as easy as it is here. Over there, between the courier and drug baron, there are so many people in between. If they find out that one courier has been arrested, what they quickly do is to eliminate one or two links so that you can never get to the main person. They are so ruthless. In fact, you know how we have been getting people, sometimes, we know that somebody has drugs in him, rather than arrest him, we will not arrest him. We will be trailing him to know where he wants to go and find out who is his principal. If you arrest the courier, some people will be sacrificed to break the link between the courier and the baron.


Newswatch: Funding is one other major part of the problem. Have you made the case for more funding?

Ajayi: Yes! Every year we prepare a budget but they give us what they like. You know the implications of an indigent organisation like this (poorly equipped, poorly staffed and poorly funded, trying to fight drug couriers, drug barons who are heavily armed, heavily loaded with money) is that it increases possibility of compromise. Do you know how much we give commanders as impress per month to run their commands? It’s N130,000 per month. That one cannot buy fuel alone given the level of our operations. Do you know that our people trek into forests to go and trace cannabis sativa farms. If they see the farm, they will have to clear it manually. So, you can see the level of indigency in the organisation.  You may get to the cannabis farm and be surrounded by the owners of the cannabis farm. And that may be the end of the story for the person. We’ve lost so many people in the cause of clearing cannabis farms.  We have been talking as if heroin, cocaine and amphetamine are the real issues. The real issue for Nigeria is cannabis sativa. The rate at which cannabis sativa is being cultivated in Nigeria is alarming. Cannabis sativa is now competing with maize, cassava for arable land.  It’s a very serious issue. There are places in Edo State and Delta State where they celebrate just like the new yam festival annually the harvest of cannabis, a place like Abi. A bag 50 kg of rice is N8,000 or maximum N14, 000. But 50 kg of cannabis at a give away price is N100,000. So, how do you convince the farmer not to farm cannabis but farm rice? Which crop can you use to substitute cannabis. It’s so lucrative.


Newswatch: There are reports of extortion by staff of NDLEA at the airports.

Ajayi: We’ve not heard any official report of that. If somebody is trying to extort from you and you report that person that is when we can deal with that person. But if it is just a general statement that NDLEA is part of a cartel that is extorting money from people at the airport that will not help us.


Newswatch: In which states do we have this cannabis sativa?

Ajayi: Not in any particular order: Ekiti State, Ondo State, Edo State, Delta and some other places. But these four states are the kingpins. In some places, they put it in their ceiling. You will think it is part of the house, it is cannabis.


Newswatch: What really happened with the Baba Suwe’s saga?

Ajayi: I don’t understand what you mean by what happened. The man was arrested at the airport because he was suspected of carrying banned substances. So, he was excused from the line and was screened. The scanner showed some substances that appeared to be narcotic drugs. Naturally, as it is our practice, he was confined for observation.


Newswatch: How come after the first three days he was not released?

Ajayi: Because we used our scanners, it indicated that he could be carrying drugs. We used CT Scan, it still showed the same thing. We were waiting for him to defecate what we thought could be drugs.


Newswatch: But some doctors have said that if somebody is carrying drugs, within three days, he would excrete everything out.

Ajayi: Which doctor is that one? Is it a native doctor?  For your information SOCA had a case of somebody who was carrying drugs for 17 days. That person defecated drugs after more than 17 days. The only difference with our own is that this person was defecating but the drugs didn’t come out. In the case of this SOCA person, he didn’t even defecate for that long.


Newswatch: Is there anything that Baba Suwe could have taken that stopped the drugs from coming out?

Ajayi: I don’t know.


Newswatch: From your experience, can somebody take anything that could stop the drugs from coming out over a period of time?

Ajayi: You know I am not a medical doctor.


Newswatch: Were the scanners faulty?

Ajayi: I don’t know whether the scanners were faulty. The same scanners we have used them… It is the same scanners with which we arrested 96 people this year. If our scanner was faulty, was that of LASUTH too faulty?


Newswatch: Is it possible that somebody at the NDLEA who was observing Baba Suwe could have colluded with him not to report that he has defecated the drugs?

Ajayi: No! There is no collusion. We kept on rescanning and we saw the same thing. We didn’t finish the investigation. The man was released on the strength of having stayed too long with us.


Newswatch: But it has dented the image of NDLEA.

Ajayi: It has done nothing to our image. How has it dented NDLEA reputation? How?


Newswatch: That the NDLEA is inefficient, that it arrested somebody wrongly...?

Ajayi: We have always arrested people on suspicion. For your information, the presumption of innocence until proven guilty operates differently in the NDLEA. When we see Mr. A that could be carrying drugs, immediately we see the Mr. A, we have to bring him in and confine him because if we don’t confine him, we cannot even find out whether what he is carrying is drug or not. First, we must arrest before we find out. Unfortunately, in the conventional sense, that will be regarded as a breach of one’s right. But unfortunately, that is what the drug regime has introduced to the international society. The issue of a man presumed innocent until proven guilty, operates in a different way here because even when we still presumed that you may be innocent, yet, we have to confine you because it is in  the process of confining you that we can determine whether you are guilty or not guilty.


Newswatch: Why did the NDLEA go public with the Baba Suwe’s case?

Ajayi: We did not go public. If I am suspected to be carrying substances believed to be cocaine and I am on a queue, because I am a very popular person, immediately NDLEA official says excuse me and take me to where they are doing screening, the media already saw it. Baba Suwe merely paid the price of popularity. Immediately he was excused, that was the story. PM News went to town to say that Baba Suwe was being interrogated by NDLEA. Did they tell a lie? They didn’t tell a lie. But unfortunately when the people call us to say is Baba Suwe in your custody, we said yes. Did we tell any lie? We didn’t. Nobody calls the media to say we had arrested Baba Suwe.

Newswatch: Beyond the Baba Suwe saga, had there been cases of people whose scan showed that they were carrying drugs but had to be released because there was nothing found in them?

Ajayi: We have never found any one test positive and failed to not bring it out. This is the first time.


Newswatch: Do you suspect some foul play?

Ajayi: No foul play. The process was not completed.



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