FRANKLIN IHEJIRIKA of our Lagos Bureau examines the recent drug incident involving an Arik Air crew member and other similar incidents in the past and why the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, NDLEA, needs to sit up and re-plan its strategy to avoid more national embarrassment to the country.
Over the years, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, NDLEA, has been praised for its resilience in fighting drug trafficking in the country.
This is because there is no week drug traffickers are not arrested at the nation’s airports either trying to smuggle drugs outside the country or into the country.
Based on these achievements, the NDLEA was applauded for their effort aimed at ridding the country of drug traffickers and barons.
But the recent incident which happened on Monday August 24, 2015 where a cabin crew with Nigerian Flag carrier, Arik Air was caught in London with 20kg of cocaine at Heathrow Airport was a national embarrassment which exposes the lapses in the fight against drug trafficking by the Anti Narcotic Agency.
Of great concern here is the successful rate at which some of the airline officials traffic drugs from Nigeria to abroad, especially to London, only to be caught over there, thereby bringing shame to the country.
Now it has become expedient for the NDLEA to sit up in the fight against drug trafficking especially as it involves the airlines and their officials.
The Agency needs to come up with a better strategy to check the infiltration of the airline crew by drug barons to save the country from more international embarrassments.
The recent arrest of Chika Egwu Udensi, a cabin crewmember with Arik Air at Heathrow Airport London by the United Kingdom, UK Border Force in connection with alleged possession of 20kg of cocaine at Heathrow Airport has cast a dark shadow in the whole fight against drug trafficking by the NDLEA.
This was just as the airline has reaffirmed its commitment to the fight against drugs and illicit substances trafficking, stressing that it will not tolerate the use of any of its aircraft or crew for the courier of banned items and substances.
The Public Relations and Communications Manager of Arik Air, Banji Ola said the airline carries out very stringent checks on all members of staff and its travelling guests ahead of all flights.
According to him, “the airline will continue to focus its attention on measures to prevent the possibility of any future similar incidents. Arik Air is a responsible Nigerian company always seeking to maintain and uphold the integrity and proud reputation of the nation.”
From the Closed-Circuit Television, CCTV footage obtained by NDLEA, it showed how Arik Air staff, Ikechukwu Chibuzor Oliver who works as a catering loader smuggled three bags of cocaine among food supplies for flight W3101.
The 35 year old who works as a catering loader was found to have subverted airport security by concealing cocaine in catering supplies.
The Agency’s spokesman, Mitchel Ofoyeju disclosed that the NDLEA also invited the younger brother of main suspect, Chika Egwu Udensi for questioning.
According to Ofoyeju, Mr. Uwachi Amos Udensi, 32 years old was invited in connection with alleged complicity in the ongoing investigation of 20kg of cocaine seized by the United Kingdom Border Force at Heathrow Airport.
He listed the vehicles seized from Chika Egwu Udensi to include a Land Rover, an Equinox Chevrolet and a Dodge Hemi Magnum.
Narcotic investigators are still working on evidences so far gathered on the case.
Meanwhile the chairman/chief executive of the NDLEA, Ahmadu Giade who expressed satisfaction with the success of investigation, directed investigators to further widen their search for more collaborators.
“I am impressed with the success recorded in the ongoing investigation. The swift arrest of the main accomplice reflects our determination to speedily bring to justice all parties to the crime. Let me reassure Nigerians and the international community that those behind this crime has no hiding place” Giade stated.
The NDLEA spokesperson stated that further investigation by the Agency has shown that Mr. Chika the main suspect lives ostentatious lifestyle far beyond his salary, as he is also believed to be involved in laundering illicit proceeds of drugs under the cover of automobile importation.
The operational tasking order issued by NDLEA Chairman to its operatives to look inwards into the activities of the Agency and other airport workers is an immediate measure to avert acts of compromise calculated to undermine airport security, Ofoyeju added.
Preliminary investigation revealed that both Oliver and Chika had been infiltrated by a suspected drug cartel. Oliver told narcotic investigators that his colleague, Chika Egwu Udensi, a senior member of the Arik Air cabin crew that was arrested in London on flight W3101, invited him into the illicit drug deal.
“It was Chika that introduced me into the drug deal. Whenever Chika gives me the drug, I will hide it in catering supplies. Chika knows where to collect the drug inside the flight. They pay me four hundred thousand naira (N400, 000) per bag. I was expecting N1.2 million for the three bags that I smuggled onto the aircraft,” Oliver stated. He hails from Isialagwa North Local Government Area in Abia State.
Arik Air employed the graduate of Business Administration in 2009.
Against this development, NDLEA chairman/chief executive has directed that henceforth all airport workers must be extensively screened.
“The agency has taken drastic measures to avert infiltration of airport workers by criminal syndicates. Airline officials and airport workers shall be subjected to comprehensive search. The NDLEA will resist any act capable of undermining security at all entry and exit points,” Giade stated.
The NDLEA boss stressed that all catering trucks, luggage trucks, aviation fuel tankers, machines and personnel whose duty directly or indirectly relates to the tarmac and flight operations shall be subjected to full screening.
As part of investigation, operatives of the NDLEA searched the rented apartment of Chika at Pastor Ojediran Street Ejigbo in Lagos. He lives there with the mother, siblings while his wife, and children are based in Canada. The latest Range Rover car belonging to the prime suspect parked on the airline’s premises had also been moved to the NDLEA office as exhibit.
The 20kg of cocaine found with Chika in London was concealed within the construction of laptop bags.
The quantity and estimated street value of the cocaine is over N100 million.
This is not the first time Arik Air cabin crewmembers will be involved in drug trafficking in London. In May 2013, two crew members of the airline, Temitayo Olubunmi Daramola was found in possession of 6kg of cocaine and Delita Abibimgbi was found with 60 packets of cigarettes.
The drugs were valued at £600,000. The airhostesses, aged 33 and 37 respectively, were arrested on a bus used to transport the flight crew after the drugs were discovered on the bus.
In December 2011, a 29-year-old Arik Air cabin crew, Ms. Chinwendu Uwakaonyenma Ogbonnaya was arrested in London for drug trafficking.
She was jailed for five years, after serving her jail term in London Ogbonnaya is expected to be deported back to Nigeria.
There was the celebrated case of the Virgin Atlantic flight in 2007 when the NDLEA stopped the London bound flight from taking off in Lagos when a member of the cabin crew was caught with drugs.
The celebrated Virgin Atlantic drug case in 2007 involved Mohammed Ibrahim Wudil, who was a Nigerian member of Virgin Atlantic Airways crew that was caught with 1.743 kilogrammes of a substance suspected to be cocaine by officers of the NDLEA at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos.
He was to be part of flight number VS 652 and registration number G-VFIT on its way to London Heathrow.
The flight was aborted and grounded by the NDLEA pending further investigation.
As part of measures to check this menace, Giade has ordered investigation into the operations of Arik Airlines. The agency said it was notified of the arrest of the Arik crewmember by the National Crime Agency, NCA of the United Kingdom.
According to the NDLEA boss, “the agency will carry out full scale investigation into this case to ascertain those behind the criminal act. We shall work closely with our international collaborators on the matter. Arik Airline will be sanctioned if found wanting”.
He disclosed, “the agency shall invoke section 25 of the NDLEA Act against the airline which states that it shall be the duty of every commercial carrier to take reasonable precaution to ensure that its means of transport are not used in the commission of offences under this Act.
“Every commercial carrier is to comply with appropriate security measures at points of entry and exit in the Federal Republic of Nigeria and other customs control areas, to prevent unauthorised cargo in its means of transportation.
“The law refers to the precautionary measures to include training of personnel, promotion of integrity of their personnel, submission of cargo manifests in advance, use of tamper-resistant, individually verifiable seals on containers and reporting to the Agency at the earliest opportunity all suspicious circumstances relating to drug trafficking.”
Nigeria has a cordial working relationship with the United Kingdom in drug control, this has resulted to a drastic reduction in the number of arrests made in the United Kingdom from flights originating from Nigeria over the years, Giade said.
Reacting to the arrest of the its cabin crew in possession of cocaine in London, the Chairman of Arik Air, Sir Joseph Arumemi Ikhide said the Airline has made efforts in the past to check the rising cases of drug trafficking by donating sniffer Dogs to the NDLEA and Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, FAAN but they were not receptive to their offers and as a result of that, the Dogs were returned to South Africa.
Arumemi Ikhide explained that had it means the sniffer Dogs brought from South Africa by the airline were allowed to stay, some of the ugly and embarrassing incidents will not be happening.
Against this backdrop, there is for the NDLEA to sit up in the fight against drug trafficking especially as it involves the recruitment of airlines and their officials in this illicit business.
More so, airline operators should be mandated to pay their staff salaries as and when due to avoid being used by drug barons in drug trafficking across international borders.