- How Illicit Substances Get Into Passengers’ Bags
- Agents, Handlers, NDLEA, FAAN, Customs Fingered
Sandwiched in-between military installations just about a 10-minute drive from the densely populated Kano city centre, the Malam Aminu Kano International Airport (MAKIA) is, at least, free from Kano’s characteristic noise and smug – but not from the blistering sun that pummeled the length and breadth of the commercial town Thursday. Not even hours of torrential rainfall the previous day was enough to disperse the heat, which weather reports put at over 40oc.
But the topic bothering people’s mind and dominating discussions at the airport is hardly about the weather. A scandal of international dimension recently broke after a Nigerian girl was arrested in Saudi Arabia – a country with capital punishment for drug offences – after a bag containing drugs was tagged in her name. Zainab Aliyu was released from a Saudi jail on Tuesday and handed over to Nigeria’s diplomatic staff after the intervention of the Nigerian government at the highest level – that is after she had spent seven months in detention.
Zainab was spared beheading because it was found that the bag containing the contraband only had her tag but did not belong to her. Since the case became public, arrests have been made and suspects charged to court.
But the stage for her troubles was set here at the Kano airport, the first airport to receive an international flight in the country as far back as 1922. Once again, it is in the news and making headlines, but not the kind of news that staff and people doing any business with it will want to hear.
Members of staff are afraid of talking to strangers about the Zainab saga and the existence of a drug cartel around the facility.
However, reliable sources were able to recreate a complete mosaic about the activities of the drug cartel that put the lives of passengers they secretly burden with their illicit cargo in harm’s way.
How drugs are planted on unsuspecting passengers
Despite a decline in economic activities spanning many years in Kano State and the Aminu Kano Airport in particular, the facility is still able to maintain a significant number of international passengers, most of who travel for businesses all over the world. One route still retaining a steady flow of passengers is Saudi Arabia. For this destination, just as there are many outbound passengers, there are also a lot of outbound commercial goods for the Saudi market, mostly targeting Nigerian consumers based in the kingdom.
For this group, items ranging from food to cosmetics are exported through the airport, mostly by people described as agents. Yam, kolanut and gels are the popular items for export.
About five airlines do the Saudi route, with the Saudi Air flying Wednesday, Monday and Saturday. Because of the number of airlines (Egypt Air, Ethiopian Airlines, Tarco Airlines and Badar Airlines, in addition to Saudi) and flights on that highway, only Thursdays have no flight going to the kingdom within a week.
The agents either travel by themselves to deliver or get the goods transported as part of other passengers’ baggage – and that is the window that the drug gang is always out to exploit.
Depending on airlines, passengers can be allocated 35, 40 or 45kilograms for their luggage and anything exceeding that will attract a charge. While some passengers are aware of it, others are not. And some others are not only aware, but also make the unused kilos available for sale to agents with goods to export. Airline handlers, working for the airlines, on some occasions, scout for passengers willing to exchange their permitted check-in weight. Some spaces are, however, sold and tagged in a passenger’s name without their knowledge.
In the event, for instance, that an agent has an item to send to Saudi, he can directly approach the passenger through a handler or get the handler to secretly include it as part of the passenger’s baggage by tagging it in the passenger’s name.
Other than agents who move yam and cosmetics through MAKIA, there are those who use the airport to smuggle out drugs. These merchants of death have their way through the system. People in this category are from Kano, Kaduna, Katsina and other states, some of them repatriated from and banned from visiting Saudi. They, however, maintain a clientele of drug users in the kingdom.
When a bag containing illicit substances comes into the airport’s departure gate, like every other item or individual, it passes through a scanner, after which it moves to the desks of customs, Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) officials and the National Drugs Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) before it finally arrives at the airline’s counter, where it is tagged.
A security personnel attached to the airport told Daily Trust on Sunday that the cartel ensures that the bags are given free passage by the security personnel by paying certain amount in bribes to the security. The cartel also settles the airlines’ handlers. According to him, it is because of this collaboration that the substance is not detected by the scanner at the entrance to the departure hall and is not seen by any of the services conducting physical searches on passengers’ belongings. It is alleged that this type of collaboration between drug dealers, compromised airline handlers, NDLEA, FAAN and customs officials that almost cost Zainab of her life in the hands of Saudi officials.
Daily Trust on Sunday learnt that because many of the security personnel at the airport have stayed there for so many years, they have become friends with some of the agents. Because of that relationship, even if the agent does not come by himself with the goods, all he needs to do is to put a call to the security men, telling them who he is delegating to bring them. Once they come, sources said, nobody searches them.
While security agents actively or passively aide the export of drugs, airline handlers also play a key role in getting the bag right onto the aircraft, it was gathered. It was learnt that if a passenger is unaware of the existence of allocation of certain kilos to him, the handlers could cut a deal with the owner of the good and tag the baggage in the passenger’s name. Handlers can get between N5,000 and N10,000 for finding a tag for an agent’s bag.
Any passenger not checking in a bag or not exhausting his allotted kilos is a potential victim of the atrocities of the drug cartel and their collaborators, as hard drugs can be checked in and flown to Saudi in his name. After arriving the country, the baron’s Saudi-based collaborators will claim the bag, but when it is discovered to be containing drugs, they abandon it, at which point Saudi officials trace it to the innocent passenger whose name is on it.
An international businessman who has business dealings in Saudi believes the cartel has informants within the Saudi system who tips it not to come for the bag at the Saudi airport whenever it is detected to contain drugs. He said that was what must have happened in Zainab’s case, otherwise the real owners of the parcel would have been arrested when they came to pick it. But because they didn’t show up, the lady was traced to her hotel room and arrested.
Their unwilling drug mules
Zainab was not the first victim, as investigation by Daily Trust on Sunday has shown that under similar circumstances where drugs were found in a bag that was identified as her own, in 2017, two Nigerians, Bashir Usman and Maikasuwa Hamdal, were arrested by Saudi officials over drug offences. The duo was later found to have been incriminated by drug-laden bags tagged in their names. Four staff of an aviation handling company were arrested and charged to court. Usman and Hamdal were later released from Saudi custody.
The NDLEA at MAKIA last arrested a resident of Daura in Katsina State, Hamisu Safiyanu, after two women from his village were intercepted with drugs at the airport en route to Saudi Arabia. Safiyanu was accused of inserting Tramadol in their bags and charged to court. Out on bail, on April 24, he was arrested with the same offence when an old man from his village was found to carry Tramadol and Diazepam on his way to Saudi. Investigation showed that Safiyanu planted the drugs on the passenger.
Another source disclosed that the security agents may not be part of the ring, but they may be taking bribes to refuse to do their duties. He said it was not unusual for bags to go into the departure area without being searched because security men on duty “have been settled.” If a drug dealer is the one doing the settling, they may not even know what cargo they have passed, he said.
When the Zainab incident happened, NDLEA officials arrested some agents, handlers and port security officials who were on duty the day she flew out of the airport. An airline handler who spoke on condition of anonymity to Daily Trust on Sunday faulted the mode of the investigation. He argued that the NDLEA, FAAN and customs officials who were on duty that day should equally have been arrested because, as he claimed, the passenger’s bags and the one planted on her were supposedly searched by the security officials before they got to the handlers.
The handler said it would be difficult to end the cartel’s penetration of the airport if security agents who act suspiciously are not interrogated when cases like Zainab’s happen.
His assertion was, however, dismissed by Mr Ambrose Umoru, the commander of MAKIA NDLEA command, who said none of the suspects arrested had made a statement accusing any of the security personnel on duty that day of collaboration. He said if they had been implicated, they would have been arrested.
Asked why the security agents were not able to detect the bag that got Zainab in trouble as it passed by them, he said the incident happened on a day that the airport was crowded with passengers who overwhelmed security checks, making it difficult for the illegal item to be discovered.
But an official of the FAAN who does not want to be quoted, reinforced the case against the NDLEA, saying they were the ones trained to detect such items and cannot, therefore, have no defence for failing to do their work.
He said FAAN officers were trained to find explosives, guns and other prohibited items in passengers’ bags, but that they were not trained to handle drugs.
According to him, in the past, FAAN security personnel often discovered contraband items and handed them over to the relevant security organisation, recalling that the recent was an elderly person who was arrested with drugs on his way to Saudi Arabia and was given to the NDLEA at the airport.
Similarly, the spokesperson of the Kano/Jigawa command of the Nigeria Customs Service, Isa Danbaba, absolved customs personnel attached to the airport of any hand in drug-related cases. The public relations officer denied that customs officials were accepting bribes to allow drugs to pass, saying customs’ interest at the airport was to check prohibited items going out of the country and tax merchandise coming in.
Attempts to speak to FAAN did not succeed. The spokesperson, Maimuna Tadafe, of the authority in Kano declined comment, saying she was not authorised to speak to the press.Calls to number she provided to FAAN’s and other official were not snswered.
Six accused persons – Idris Umar (alias Umar Sanda), Sanni Suleiman, Nuhu Adamu, Rhoda Adetunji, Udosen Itoro Henry and Sani Hamisu – will be arraigned before a Federal High Court in Kano for allegedly planting illicit substances in Zainab’s luggage. Their arraignment on three-count charge bordering on conspiracy, export of illicit drugs and trafficking of unwanted substance to Saudi Arabia, contrary to the provision of the NDLEA and punishable under section 14(b), Section 11(b) and Section 20(g) 2014 Act, has been slated for June 10.