Africa, Headlines

SIERRA LEONE: Tighten Security to Curb Drug Trafficking

Lansana Fofana

FREETOWN, Jul 25 2008 (IPS) - Nineteen suspects, including eight men from Colombia and Venezuela, have appeared before a Freetown High Court on charges of smuggling illegal drugs into the country.

The court appearance follows the seizure of a Venezuelan-registered aircraft on July 13, when it crash-landed unannounced at Sierra Leone's international airport. The crew abandoned the aircraft and fled in a vehicle which had crashed through a fence to get them. But they were caught shortly after by state security. A total of 45 suspects will be prosecuted on charges that also include unlawful possession of firearms and malicious damage to government property.

Since civil war broke out in the early 1990s, Sierra Leone has been used as a transit point for traffickers in hard drugs like cocaine and heroin from South America to Europe and the United States. In just the last eight months, dozens of arrests have been made at the airport, involving British, American, Nigerian, Dutch and Asian nationals. Many more have managed to escape with the alleged collusion of airport officials and security operatives.

"It is a serious national security problem," says Francis Munu, the assistant inspector general of police. "We have made several arrests but the fact is, the airport lacks adequate surveillance equipment to deal with the problem."

Munu says the airport requires sophisticated modern techniques like metal detectors and sniffer dogs and that the security forces at the airport must be armed with the necessary logistics to deal with this highly co-ordinated network of drug smuggling.

The drug monitoring agency of the Economic Community of West African States has described both Sierra Leone and Guinea Bissau as the major routes for trans-shipment of hard drugs in the sub-region. In both countries, the security apparatus is weakened by lack of resources, corruption and widespread poverty that makes it easy for traffickers to coopt poorly-paid security personnel.

"Both Guinea Bissau and Sierra Leone share similar histories of conflict with weakened state institutions, massive corruption and poverty," says journalist and social commentator Richie Olu Gordon, "which makes it easy for traffickers to ply their trade through these routes."

Gordon says says Nigeria was foremost in the illegal trans-shipment of narcotics in the 1980s and 1990s, but the breakdown of civil authority in several countries in the region has created an opportunity for drug traffickers.

The laws in Sierra Leone on drugs are pretty lax. No matter the quantity of drugs impounded, a suspect can plead guilty and get off with nothing more than a $1000 fine, or a light prison sentence. This has allowed hundreds to escape the net because drug traffickers are easily able to pay for their release.

Just as the first batch of suspects made their appearance in court on July 24, the country's Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Abdul Serry Kamal, urgently tabled an anti-drugs bill before parliament. The new bill will impose mandatory custodial sentences in all drug cases, and impose tighter security measures at the country's only international airport. The bill is expected to pass into law within a few days, meaning that those standing trial, if convicted, will not escape with just paying fines, according to the attorney general's office.

What is worrisome to the authorities here is the effect the growing drugs smuggling network is having on the local population. During the civil war, drug traffickers were closely linked to warlords of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), who traded so-called "blood diamonds" for drugs, weapons and ammunition. Drugs were smuggled into RUF strongholds from neighbouring Liberia, whose president then Charles Taylor – presently on trial in the Hague – was believed to be the main patron of the RUF.

Dr. Edward Nahim, Sierra Leone's only psychiatrist, told IPS that the situation of drug abuse in the country is alarming. "About 90 percent of all admissions in the mental hospital are drug-related. There is serious psycho-social disorder among the youths and the cases keep growing with the influx of hard drugs in the country, as a result of activities of traffickers."

Nahim says most of the drugs staying behind are as a result of local collaborators who get both cash and drugs for facilitating the activities of the drug traffickers: "The drug lords don't always travel with cash and so it is easy for them to transact business using drugs. This is why a lot of the drugs stay behind, correspondingly increasing local consumption."

President Ernest Bai Koroma, who took office in September last year, has vowed to pursue the latest drug scandal to its utmost conclusion. "I shall leave no stone unturned in pursuit of this matter. I cannot allow our country to be used as a transit point or final destination for narcotics," the president has said in the wake of the drug bust.

Sources at the Office of National Security here in Freetown told IPS the government plans to set up a collaborative partnership with its counterpart in Guinea Bissau to jointly deal with the problem.

Journalist and commentator Gordon says there are deep divisions in Guinea Bissau's security forces, which makes it hard to deal with the narcotics problem: "There are elements within the Guinea Bissau military that protect the powerful drug cartel and so it makes it difficult for the police to effect arrests in that country."

Gordon also accuses the Sierra Leonean security forces of collusion with smugglers.

"The latest cocaine hauls in Sierra Leone and Guinea Bissau have drawn attention to the fact that West Africa is now a major trans-shipment route for South American drugs heading for Europe and the United States," Gordon concludes.

The court trials in Freetown are expected to be fast-tracked because of public anxiety as well as pressure on the government from its bilateral partners in whose countries the drugs allegedly end up.

The spokesman for the president, Alpha Kanu, has said the government will move fast to secure funds to procure modern surveillance equipment for the international airport as well as empowering the security forces there to be more pro-active.

"We now consider it a priority to upgrade our international airport so that traffickers who think this is an easy route will be tracked and dealt with," Kanu concluded.

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