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Nigeria braced for war with drug lords

The military junta may have a dismal rights record, but it is tackling the burgeoning narcotics trade, David Orr reports from Kano
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The woman stood before the general, her gaze downcast, her bare feet shackled. She was heavily built, in her late forties, and her face was blotchy and unhealthy-looking.

Mama Laide, as she was known among local traders, had been arrested at Kano airport. Customs officials had found 550g of cocaine concealed in her hair. According to her ticket, she was bound for Amsterdam, although her passport also contained visas for Switzerland and Britain.

"Look up so people can see you," growled General Musa Bamaiyi, head of the National Drugs Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA). "How many children do you have?" Glancing nervously towards where the general sat, the woman replied that she had eight children.

"Why didn't you give the drugs to your own children first, instead of taking them abroad for other people to become addicted to?" he asked. But the woman had nothing more to say. With a wave of his hand, he gestured for her to be led away.

It was a day of triumph for General Bamaiyi. He had paraded a convicted drug courier before the assembled Kano state officials, army officers and policemen. He had presided over an impressive little spectacle: the burning of 700kg of cannabis, heroin and cocaine seized in Kano state, northern Nigeria. The bonfire was still smouldering as the guests sipped their soft drinks and congratulated the general on his tough anti-drugs speech.

Nigeria has a dismal reputation among international drug- control agencies. It is one of only four countries to have been blacklisted by the US for not co-operating in the worldwide fight against drugs: the others are Burma, Syria and Iran. For years Nigeria has been known as a transit point for drugs entering the US and Europe.

Now, it would seem, Nigerians are extending their role in the world drug trade. No longer, anti-drug agencies say, are they simply facilitating the passage of drugs through their country or acting as couriers. They are now heavily involved in trafficking and distribution.

Their range is extensive. It is estimated that 40 per cent of heroin entering the US is smuggled in by Nigerian drug-rings. Nigerians are said to control 80 per cent of drug distribution in Atlanta and several other cities with large black populations. They are also said to be taking control of drug distribution in many parts of England, especially in the north-west.

One foreign drugs expert based in Lagos says that Nigerian operators are taking on the cartels in Colombia, Brazil and Turkey.

"Nigerians now have the worst reputation for drug-trafficking of any nationality worldwide," says Antonio Mazzitelli of the United Nations International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP). "The Nigerians are business people and they're very good at it. Before they were content to be employed; now they're employers themselves. They buy directly from a producer in Latin America, ship directly to the UK and sell it on the streets."

What makes it particularly difficult to break up the Nigerian drug-rings is their flexible structure: a trafficker can work for one drug baron one week, then switch to another "firm" the following week.

The web of ethnic ties which binds this loosely connected fraternity is well-nigh impenetrable from the outside. "Trying to stamp out Nigerian drug-trafficking", Mr Mazzitelli says, "is like trying to make a piece of jelly stick to the wall."

Despite the military government's appalling record on instituting reforms, the Nigerian authorities appear to take the drug issue seriously. Already Nigeria has lost millions of dollars of American aid because of the blacklisting. Two years ago the NDLEA, known to be riddled with corruption, was shaken up. Earlier this year it was granted extra powers, enabling it to investigate and seize bank accounts suspected of holding laundered drug money.

International drug-control experts do not believe there is evidence of direct involvement in the trade by the military government. Corruption, however, is endemic in Nigerian society, and co-operation between political figures and drug barons cannot be ruled out. According to diplomatic sources in Lagos, General Bamaiyi has stood on so many high-ranking toes that pressure is growing inside the government for his removal.