Cannabis farm owners in the Niger Delta of Nigeria’s South-South region are creating a new kind of drug cartel. This new cartel type is defined strictly by blood relations, and it frequently involves parents recruiting their own children, by pulling the kids out of school. This has introduced a new direction for a drug trade that is already a major headache for law enforcement and public health administrators in the region.
Investigation into the rise of the new generation of drug lords in the South-South region reveals that public anxiety is rising about this new phenomenon. The investigation has been carried out in Akwa Ibom Delta and Cross River states, the three most notorious states for cannabis consumption and trafficking.
In visiting these three states, Newswatch correspondent learned how many teenagers are now actively hawking illegal drugs, mainly cannabis (popularly known as Indian hemp), in the major cities, at venues such as nightclubs, parks, hotels, oil depots and brothels. A government source, who wished to remain anonymous, told Newswatch that the involvement of school-age children hawking illegal drugs has made the marijuana more available throughout these states.
Ruth Obi, Akwa Ibom State Commander of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), remarked that “children as young as 15 are being recruited by [their] parents.” Obi encounters child drug traffickers on a routine basis. In 2014, 56 youths were found to be carrying drugs for both sale and personal use when arrested in Akwa Ibom, an increase from 35 in 2013.
Obi is clear that there is a direct correlation between the new clandestine family drug cartels, and the increasing withdrawal of school age children from classrooms. She believes that the seriousness and scale of the withdrawal of school-age teenagers to work in drug cartel businesses for their parents call for urgent action from the Nigerian Government, the South-South Governors’ Forum, and other organisations that should be advocating for child protection.
She also says that there is a link between the new cartels and the escalating wave of militancy in the oil-rich South-South region of Nigeria. This region is now witnessing an upsurge in violent crimes such as kidnapping (of oil workers, politicians, and politicians’ family members), insurgency, sexual violence and armed robbery. According to Obi, the teenagers supply drugs to offshore workers, including insurgents: “They assist their parents in exporting the drugs to pirates who come through the high sea of Nigeria and Cameroon”.
The 2010 NDLEA annual report also linked the increase in kidnapping in the Niger-Delta to high consumption and trafficking of illicit drugs like cannabis, cocaine heroin and amphetamine.
On September 2, 2014, seven health officers working for the Niger Delta Development Commission in Abua/Odual Local Government Area of the state were abducted; four expatriates and two Nigerians were also allegedly kidnapped recently in Buguma, Asaritoru local Government Area of the State. Other prominent persons who have been victims of kidnap in the state include a renowned poet, Elechi Amadi, former Vice Chancellor of the University of Port Harcourt, Prof. Nimi Briggs, former Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) President, Okey Wali (SAN), and Dean of the Church of Nigeria, Anglican Communion, Most Reverend Ignatius Kattey.
The birth of the new cartels
The use of children for smuggling drugs seems to have begun in earnest around 2007, when a widespread practice of child labour trafficking in Akwa-Ibom, Cross River and Delta States was largely brought to an end. This practise involved parents sending their children to work in the city as houseboys and housemaids for rich families, for which they were paid by traffickers. In some cases no job existed, and instead the children were forced to become sex workers.
The intervention of various Non-Governmental Organisations helped to put an end to this trade. One of these NGOs was The Family Life Enhancement Initiative (FLEI), founded in 2007 by Ekaette Unoma Akpabio, wife of the Akwa Ibom State Governor, as a channel for implementing social and humanitarian programmes in the state.
The FLEI built alliances with various women groups at the grassroots, as well as with related government agencies and ministries, including the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Social Welfare and the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP). The links created with the latter, for example, were especially useful in reducing the incidence of child labour and child trafficking in Akwa Ibom.
This participatory approach paid off handsomely. Almost immediately it became illegal for parents to send their children to become houseboys and maidservants for the rich, in the cities. Many parents adopted an alternative plan, involving their children in the drugs business.
The first state coming under the microscope in our investigation is Akwa Ibom. Cannabis seedlings are brought into the state from other states for cultivation, because the seedlings are scarce in Akwa Ibom. It is only recently that cannabis farm owners started planting in the state. Obi says that in Akwa Ibom, rates of drug use are higher because it is a consumption state — the drugs that enter are locally consumed. According to her, 15% of Akwa Ibom teenagers use drugs. ‘Combined’ –a mixture of cannabis and local gin — is a common drink for youths. “Be it in a wedding, burial, child-naming ceremony, house-warming and any occasion at all, the drink is ever present. Almost everybody has tasted it at one time or the other”,she stated. Cocaine, heroin, and other hard drugs are consumed in Akwa Ibom, including mixtures of heroin and cannabis and of cocaine and cannabis.
In Akwa Ibom, huge quantities of drugs are smuggled by 17 to 22 year-olds, secondary school students and undergraduates alike, running the drugs for their parents. “Some teenagers [traffic drugs] for their parents and bosses and they do it during school hours, after school, including late in the nights”, Obi explained further. “A couple of years ago, we arrested some boys and girls from one family between ages 17 and 18 years. In their case, it was like their parents were into the business and latter died and they took over ‘the family business’ sort of; so they just inherited the business and we were able to arrest them and they went to prison”.
Drugs are hawked on the streets of notorious hideouts, including State-Abak and Akar Roads. These are very long roads where the young dealers just sit around while the dealers higher up in the chain come and distribute the drugs to them. On receiving the supply, the teenagers hawk for the dealers, and anybody who wants to buy drugs goes there to purchase them.
“But the NDLEA constantly raid places, such as Etuk and Nkemba Streets and we are as well after the barons,” NDLEA said.
“The drug barons here take care of the teenagers and they support community projects and when you come around to make arrest, they see you as an enemy coming to attack their influential persons. They don’t care what the baron is doing as long as he puts food on their table’s. Some traditional rulers are not supportive of the war against illicit drugs but we keep going to them and enlightening them on the dangers of drug to the youth. We go with sufficient fire power in collaboration with mobile policemen and when they see them, they comply”, Obi said.
Travelling on to Delta State
Reports from Delta State are not encouraging. If you ask any NDLEA officer where the primary cannabis hub in Nigeria is, do not be surprised if the answer is Delta State. Delta State supplies drugs to the South-West, South-East and North-Central regions. Many teenagers in the state know the monetary value of trafficking in cannabis, although they often remain ignorant of its health hazards. Teenagers often obtain their wares from cannabis farms deep in the forests of Delta State, although Ameh Inalegwu, the assistant commander in charge of operations of the Delta State Command of the NDLEA, said that his agency has recently destroyed these farms.
Inalegwu told our correspondent that the teenagers are initiated into the illicit deals by the drug barons, who are typically 30 to 40 years old. He explained to Newswatch that teenagers as young as 10–15 years started dealing drugs, as apprentices working for the big barons in the business. Besides, trafficking drugs, they also use them as an enhancer and morale booster to confront any security challenges.
A visit to some secondary schools in the capital of Delta State, Asaba, indeed suggested that drugs are used and sold by children as young as 11 years old, who often belong to several gangs. In the local Government Area of Sapele (towns like Gana, Amukpe-Ogorodo and Mac-Facin), children were seen openly using and trading cannabis while older figures sat and watched. “In Ogwashi-Uku Polytechnic, a high school, drug trafficking and use among students is a common phenomenon. If we dislodged a ‘joint’ (meeting point) a couple of times, they resurfaced again,” says Inalegwu.
Inalegwu further says that teenagers make huge sales of drugs during events such as birthday parties, burials, naming ceremonies, and political gatherings. According to him, these occasions are incomplete without the use of cannabis. “During these festivities, teenagers are meant to sell drugs at a cost a little bit higher than non-occasional days.”
A one-day visit to a traditional wedding in Ogwashi-Uku was an eye opener for our correspondent. The wedding party saw guests using their own personal mixtures of cannabis, as teenagers offered various types of marijuana for sale.“To the Deltans, it sounds strange that cannabis trafficking and use is prohibited because it’s never seen as a bad thing. “Drugs are grown, stored and distributed from here”, Okechukwu Nwaonyeosisi, a resident of Ogwashi Uku, told our correspondent.
Risk of a drugs war?
A visit to Abii in Delta State, a town notorious for cannabis plantation and for its large concentration of storage facilities, shows it to be a reservoir of all types of drugs. In Abii, cannabis is stored for Ondo and Ogun States, until its maturation for distribution; teenagers and some armed gangs guard and secure the storage facilities.
Inalegwu describes going to Abii as going into a war zone. But, in spite of the clandestine security apparatus of the drug lords in Abii, NDLEA officers still undertake operations there on a quarterly basis, and seize more than three tons of cannabis on each raid. Inalegwu claimed that 15 to 35 suspects were arrested per month during such raids.
This is dangerous work. Inalegwu told Newswatch Times Magazine that in August 2014, the agency recorded casualties at Emuebendo, when the officers of the agency were shot by the gang leader alleged to be running the drug farm. In Kwale, another gang leader shot an NDLEA officer, who had attempted to arrest him.
Again, teenagers are heavily involved. Young people who work for the drug barons, but pretend to be village security guards, provide protection for the cannabis farms in Kwale, Abii and other areas of Delta State. Ameh Inalegwu says that the barons and their teenage traffickers frequently lay ambush to Agency officers, while using logs of wood to block the roads leading to the cannabis forests in the areas.
“[The] gateway to any crime is drugs,” Inalegwu warns. According to the anti-drug officer, the younger suspects in their custody frequently tell the officers that their parents were drug traffickers, who use the proceeds to train them and then wonder why the NDLEA make arrests for trafficking in drugs. “To them, cannabis is a natural resource from God”, Inalegwu stated.
Cross River State
The situation is similar in Cross River State. Ibrahim Mohammed Bashir, Assistant State Commander in Operational Intelligence of the NDLEA Cross River State Command, states that there are underage drug traffickers in his state. “Just like any other states in the country, Cross River State isn’t an exception….[but] Cross River State is a dead end, so almost all the drugs that you see in Cross River are principally for consumption”. He says that the level of drug use in Cross River State is high, and that alcohol acts as a gateway to harder drugs. “Alcohol consumption here is high and it’s seen as a normal thing here, so you see children as little as five and six years being exposed to alcohol.
“Teenagers are greatly involved [in the selling of drugs], and another thing they do here is that they use the youths to sell, because they know that anybody below the age of 18 cannot be prosecuted. Instead such a person would be counselled and allowed to go, so they use them as hawkers at the ‘joints’ and big hotels,”he said. Bashir said that teenagers constituted about 60% of those arrested on drugs charges in the state this year.
Who is responsible?
Bashir is very critical of schools in their attitude towards the drug problem. According to him, they are not readily available to help because they don’t really know the dangers of drug abuse and trafficking. The anti-drugs official claimed that the NDLEA has virtually begged schools to allow the agency to visit and deliver lectures on illicit drugs abuse and trafficking, but none has complied.
He further stated that the NDLEA has been able to establish ‘drug-free clubs’ among the members of the National Youth Service Corps. These organisations are intended to sensitise young people and others to the issues around drugs. Members of the drug-free clubs visit schools to create awareness about the dangers of drug abuse and drug trafficking.
Bashir was also critical of many parents, saying that most of them do not know the impact of drug abuse and trafficking, and that even when they know, they prefer to ignore it.
Wilson Ighodalo is not a new face in campaigns against drug trafficking. For 11 years, he has been President/Founder of the Drug Salvation Foundation, an Abuja-based organisation that fights drug abuse and trafficking in Nigeria.
He also blamed some parents for the involvement of their children in drug abuse and trafficking.“Even parents at home contribute to drug abuse and trafficking by their wards. They encourage their children into drug abuse,” he stated. “Again, do you know some parents smoke before their kids and some even go as far as sending their wards to go and buy cigarettes or India hemp for them? And what do you think such a child will grow to become in future?”
According to Ighodalo, many Nigerian parents do not sufficiently monitor who their children go out with. He believes that many children feel intense peer pressure to join groups of young people in taking and trafficking drugs.
And the government…?
In some cases the government is actively opposing the rise in drug trafficking and abuse among young people in Nigeria. One of these cases is Akwa-Ibom, where the state government’s efforts were acknowledged by the NDLEA State Commander, Ruth Obi. She praised the assistance the state had given to the NDLEA in providing funds for investigation and public awareness. Yet her praise is only partial:
The state government donated operational vehicles but they are not enough. “We have to go round to all the area commands during patrol. We don’t have the capability to sustain our presence on the roads from where the drugs are coming into the state. We have to be on the road every day for patrols,” she said.
But some state governments seem to pay only lip service to preventing drug trafficking by teenagers. “The governments of these states are not concerned about the prevailing recruitment of children by armed gang-drug traffickers in the South-South zone of Nigeria, and not taking immediate steps to nip in the bud the menace which is worrisome to the drug agencies in the zone,” stated Bashir of the Cross River State Command.
“At our own level, it’s just that we are constrained by so many challenges. Logistics, funds, operational materials, and other things. A drug war needs logistics and finance. If we have the resources, we are ready to take the drugs out of the youths. We have the intelligence, we have the personnel but we are only constrained with funding and logistics and the state is not helping matters”.
Bashir further explained that several efforts made by his agency to demand that the state help in the fight against illegal drugs have not yielded many results. “Several proposals have been sent to the state government and nobody is doing anything about it.”
It is indeed disheartening that despite the huge security vote enjoyed by all state governors, including those in the Niger-Delta axis of the country, the involvement of young people in drug trafficking in the region shows no signs of decreasing. Each governor enjoys a huge annual fund of around N6 billion, to fight crimes and maintain order within their domain.
This security vote, which is not included in the annual budget and is not scrutinised by the federal government, is supposed to be used to reduce crime within each state, through supporting security agencies in the state, empowering young people and creating employment. Despite the existence of these funds, the phenomenon of widespread drug trafficking by young people continues.
By Emeka Ibemere