The media was awash with the news of a 29-year-old Nigerian air hostess, Chinwendu Uwakaonyema Ogbonnaya who bagged a 5-year jail term for trying to smuggle narcotic drugs into the United Kingdom. The cocaine in Ogbonnaya’s luggage weighed 2kg and the value was put at £ 250,000 as it turned out to be high grade when it was tested.
There have been many like her, for instance, most of those on the social scene in the mid 1990s and late 90s knew Toyin Abraham aka Toyin Igbira, a Lagos based celebrity. Many knew her to be a celebrity and a textile merchant, nothing more. Things however changed in 1997 after several months of trying to nab her, she walked into the NDLEA Chairman’s officer on her own volition and demanded for General Musa Bamaiyi’s price. The rest became history, she was convicted for illegally dealing in 5kg of heroin and she bagged a 2-year jail term. In 2002, she was again caught with over 300 grammes of heroin in 72 wraps. She was got another two years.
The two wives of an Ibadan businessman were caught in the mid 90s when NDLEA officers swooped on their husband’s company and met them in the process of packaging hard drugs. The women and their husband served various jail terms.
Also, way back in 2007, Hairat Ashake Alade, a businesswoman at the popular Balogun Market in Lagos Island became the guest of the NDLEA when she was on her way to Bombay. The false bottoms of two empty bags in her luggage yielded well-stuffed sachets of cocaine. The story of Toyin Oluyinka was somewhat similar; she too did small scale business on Simpson Street, where she ran a kiosk. She was apprehended on her way to London with a bag containing cocaine. She claimed she was promised a reward of € 1,000 just to deliver the bag. In April 2010; Osatohawen Esohe, who was then pregnant, was arrested at the Murtala Mohammed Airport. While under observation, Esohe who was already past the first trimester of pregnancy excreted 27 wraps of cocaine which weighed about 350 grammes.
In February 2011, Vivian, a 39-year-old single mother and Economics graduate was nabbed with heroin weighing 1.5kg carefully concealed in three black parcels and hidden in her hair by a stylist. She was arrested in Lagos as she was about to board a flight to China.
Also pathetic was the case of Ozekwe Franca, a 59-year-old grandmother from Umunya, Anambra State who was arrested while trying to export 1.5 kg of cocaine to London via a British Airways flight last October. During interrogation, she disclosed to NDLEA officials that she carried the substance for a fee of £ 5,000.
The women caught in the act gave different reasons for their involvement in the illicit drug trade. Hairat Ashake Alade revealed that she met an old friend whom she had not seen for about fifteen years and that it was the friend who introduced her to the business. She said she declined when Tunde mentioned drugs, he however said he would introduce her to someone who would help her jewellery business in Balogun Market. She eventually went to meet the person in Ibadan and was given two bags to deliver in India for a reward of N 100,000.
Toyin Oluyinka too told a similar tale, she claimed she met an old friend who promised to give her business a boost. As she had travelled out on a number of occasions working in Nigerian restaurants in London, the friend asked her to bring her passport and after a few days, he called her to go to a hotel in Ijeshatedo where she was given a bag containing drugs.
Street Journal’s investigations revealed that a number of factors predispose women to the prying eyes of barons looking for drug couriers. One of such factors is poverty. It was found out that a number of the women involved in drug trafficking were willing to do anything, legit or not just to make money.
For some others, pressing needs forced them into the drug trade. In the case of pregnant Osatohanwen Esohe, she claimed she needed money to take care of herself and her yet unborn child as the father to be had abandoned her with the pregnancy. Vivian, the Economics graduate arrested in 2011 belongs to this category too. She claimed to have been diagnosed with cancer and having spent all she had, she needed money to go for treatment abroad. That was why she opted to be a courier.
Not all drug couriers are however in need, some are driven by sheer greed and the love of ostentatious ways of life. An example was a Yoruba actress arrested at the Murtala Mohammed Airport in Lagos some years ago. A number of those who want to be listed among celebrities have been caught in the web of drug trafficking.
Many still remember that after serving jail terms of two years in 1997 and 2004, Toyin Igbira was again declared wanted by the NDLEA in 2007. Her name cropped up again on the wanted list when one of her couriers was caught just as he was about to board a London bound aircraft. In the course of interrogation, he mentioned Alhaja Toyin as the owner of the consignment he ingested. Meanwhile Toyin Igbira had been preparing for a talk of the town wedding. The wedding was meant to shake the London and Lagos social establishments. To make the wedding grand, she needed funds.
Street Journal found out that like most business people, drug barons prefer using minimum capital to generate maximum output. As such, the days of going the extra mile to procure visas for intending couriers have long gone. There is a high preference for those who have travelled a couple of times before, especially because they know their ways around as well as the basic rules guarding air travel. Barons also try as much as possible to court people with valid visas.
It has been found out that using people with valid visas comes cheaper than trying to procure visas so the bait used lies in the amount offered. In most cases, the person travelling sees the offer as a way of making extra cash, especially since he or she has planned the trip already. The thought in most minds is that the extra cash would come in handy either for shopping or for boosting business ventures after returning home. And for wannabe celebrities, the cash could form part of the payment of a new automobile or what would be sprayed a musician at the next big party.
Most barons sit atop well organised cartels that comprise of informants, hit men, peddlers and couriers. Most times, the informants do the job of scouting and toasting old, new and prospective couriers. They are the ones normally seen by the couriers until the very last minute. They meet them in like eateries and hotels, in most cases, if the mode of trafficking involves ingestion, hotels are used and the courier ingests the well-packaged drugs under careful supervision. They hardly talk to couriers at home to avoid the risk of being busted, especially in case something goes wrong in the process of trafficking.
And in most cases, going back is not an option, so even if the price is not right, the courier can hardly back out since it is an open secret that whoever backs out could be hit. Couriers are thus compelled to act according to the instructions passed down by the barons.
Street Journal found out that some cartels also go the extra mile of applying spiritual measures. Where that happens, the couriers are sometimes warned of the effect on naming names in case there are hitches on the trip. At times, oaths are taken to be sure that even when couriers are caught, the boss remains protected, and that explains the inability of many couriers to disclose the secrets of their paymasters.
Street Journal also found out that prospective couriers are often assured that they would not encounter any problems at the airports as the barons often paint a picture of having agents among the law enforcement agents, especially at the point of departure. The courier thus embraces the job with assurance of safe passage.
Street Journal also found out that instead of serving as a deterrent to others, the punishment meted out to drug convicts goes a long way in prompting others to join the illicit trade. Despite the stipulation of Part II, Section 11, sub-section b of the NDLEA Act that: “Any person who, without lawful authority exports, transports or otherwise traffics in the drugs popularly known as cocaine, LSD, heroine or any other similar drugs shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to be sentenced to imprisonment for life”, and the prescription in Sub-section (d) of the same section that “Any person who, without lawful authority knowingly possesses or uses the drugs popularly known as cocaine, LSD, heroine or any similar drugs by smoking, inhaling or injecting the said drugs shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term not less than 15 years but not exceeding 25 years”, drug offenders in Nigeria still get away with slaps on the wrists, thanks to the discretionary power of the judiciary.
A case in point is that of Toyin Igbira, after her arrest in 1997, she was arraigned before Justice Daniel Abutu of the Federal High Court on a two-count charge of unlawful dealing in 5 kg of heroine and exportation of the same. She was sentenced to two years imprisonment. The same Toyin Igbira was arrested again in 2002 with 675 grammes of heroin and was arraigned before the same Justice Abutu who sentenced her just a few years before. She was again sentenced to two years imprisonment.