In December 2023, Europol coordinated a massive international operation targeting Nigerian criminal networks active in the EU and abroad. 16 partners from four continents joined forces to fight poly-criminal Nigerian criminal networks responsible for a multitude of serious crimes. This unprecedented international operation, supported by EMPACT, was conducted by law enforcement from across Europe, Africa, South America and North America. 468 law enforcement officers took part in the action day. The crackdown targeted Nigerian criminals responsible for crimes that covered a vast spectrum of offences comprising the smuggling and distribution of drugs, trafficking in human beings for sexual exploitation, fraud, illegal waste smuggling, and money laundering. A record 398 flights and 13 harbours were monitored, apart from other entry/exit points in various continents. The participating countries in this international operation comprised Belgium, Bulgaria, Colombia, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Malta, Nigeria, Republic of Benin, Spain, Sweden, United States, United Kingdom. India was not a part of this operation despite bearing the brunt of Nigerian drug trafficking machinations.
A standard modus operandi for transporting drugs in and out of the EU is by air. Drug mules from both Nigeria and the EU take regular trips and conceal drugs on their person, typically swallowed, concealed in body cavities or hidden in luggage. In addition, the intelligence picture put together by international law enforcement agencies indicate involvement of Nigerian criminal networks that coordinate bulk of amphetamine trafficking. These drugs are usually sent from African countries via the EU towards Asian or Australian destinations.
According to the 2023 Global Report On Cocaine, Nigerian cocaine traffickers operate mainly on the mid-level and dealer levels rather than large-scale drug smuggling. These Nigerian middlemen comprise armed cult groups and street gangs who have been identified as the Black Axes, Maphites, Vikings, Eiye and Buccaneers.
In its 2023 March global report, the UNODC documents that there was a 35% increase in coca cultivation in 2020-2021, and these statistics suggest that the economic woes of Nigeria are luring its vulnerable citizens into drug trafficking, and also a growing market, according to The Africa Report.
In September 2022 Nigeria’s National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, made a record seizure of 1.8 tons of cocaine from a warehouse in Lagos with a street value of $278.5 million. The drugs, were destined for buyers in Europe and Asia, and in Asia, India is a major customer.
The table below gives bare details of the seizures effected at a few major airports in India, from air passengers from different airports in Africa, and elsewhere, as gleaned from public documents and cases reported in public domain.
The tremendous pressure on the Customs officers and other enforcement agencies can be imagined. There is a constant barrage of drugs from the African continent, being brought in by passengers, many claiming that they are tourists, some claiming that they are coming for medical treatment, yet others claiming they are students! In April 2023 a Tanzanian Police officer, was arrested by Customs officials at IGI Airport, who arrived from Addis Ababa and was carrying one kilogram of cocaine, worth around Rupees 18 crores. The cocaine was in liquid form in three liquor bottles of one litre each, and a narcotics alert was sounded by the Customs K-9 canine named Nile.
According to the Global Organized Crime Index 2023 “Nigerian trafficking groups collaborate with drug cartels in South America, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and state corruption facilitates these operations. The country also experiences a relatively high rate of heroin use, driven by factors such as easy drug access, poverty, job insecurity, and unemployment. Nigeria also serves as a significant transit point for trafficked cocaine, destined for various global markets. Nigerian actors are prominent on the intra-African trade routes, particularly on air trafficking routes. Nigerian networks are also prominent in air trafficking of cocaine shipments primarily from Brazil to markets in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, utilizing a network of co-conspirators within the diaspora. Authorities have reported multiple large cocaine seizures and subsequent arrests”.
Further, the report says “Nigeria plays a significant role in the trade of synthetic drugs, including psychotropic substances such as tramadol and amphetamines. The smuggling of tramadol, in particular, is prevalent, with Lagos serving as a major market for the drug, which originates from other continents such as Asia and enters the country through Benin. Tramadol is distributed both legally and illegally from Lagos to various parts of Nigeria, notably Edo and Kano states. Nigeria’s porous borders and the complicity of government officials contribute to the ease with which tramadol and other substances are illicitly traded. Indian manufacturers are known to rebrand synthetic opioids extremely similar, or equivalent, to tramadol as ‘Tafrodol’ to avoid detection by customs officials at entry points in Nigeria”.
Significantly, National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) of Nigeria has disclosed on World Drug Day that 14.3 million Nigerians abuse drugs! The rate of unemployment in Nigeria is at a high of 40.6% in 2023 as compared to 37.7% in 2022) the stagflation in Nigeria is adding to the woes. The high unemployment rates is triggering the populace to seek employment as traffickers. The UNODC in its World Drug Report 2023, concludes “As 2023 marks the midpoint of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, drug-related issues worldwide are compromising the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as efforts to promote peace, security, and human rights.
Estimates of the prevalence of cannabis and opioid use in West Africa and Central Africa remain higher than global averages. In the region, 10% of the population aged 15 to 64 used cannabis in 2021 and 1.2% of opioids, while global estimates are respectively 4.4% and 1.1%. The vast majority (70%) of people treated for drug-related disorders in Africa are under 35 years old.
Africa also remains a key transit region for cocaine in the west, heroin in the east, and cannabis resin in the north. In the Sahel, the amount of cocaine seized is sharply increasing (from 13 kg per year between 2015-2020 to over 35 kg in 2021 and 863 kg in 2022). Africa accounts for half of the quantities of pharmaceutical opioids, especially tramadol, seized globally between 2017-2021; these opioids are primarily consumed in the region”.
The Africa Defense Forum in a report dated January 30th 2024, states “ Drug confiscations at Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa Bole International Airport have more than doubled over the past year, an indication of Ethiopia’s growing role as a hub of drugs moving from South America to Europe and southern Asia.
The Ethiopia Customs Commission says that drug trafficking into Ethiopia grew by 254% while trafficking out of Ethiopia grew by 163% over the past 11 months. The value of the trafficked materials, which included cocaine, heroin and other drugs, more than doubled from about $80 million to nearly $190 million between July 2022 and July 2023.
“Smugglers are working hard to use Addis Ababa as their destination and transit point,” Customs Commissioner Debele Kabeta told national legislators recently. “These practices at the airport were never a trend in Ethiopia previously.”
Not surprisingly the Africa Defense Forum states in its report dated January 30th 2024 that “Sub-Saharan Africa in 2023 emerged as the region with the highest number of terrorist attacks worldwide.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies’ (IISS) Armed Conflict Survey 2023 tracked the political, military and humanitarian dimensions of armed conflicts globally from May 2022 to June 2023. During that period, continental fatalities due to terrorist violence increased by 48%, and the number of violent incidents increased by 22% over the previous time frame”.
India needs to be on a high alert, as there are multiple airports handling international passenger traffic. The unabated inflow of cocaine means that many Indians are abusing cocaine, which can lead to a major health crisis very soon.