Zainab

By Dele Agekameh

For ardent practitioners of the different faith in Nigeria’s religious landscape, there are sacred rites that sometimes take the faithful outside the country, on journeys to holy sites around the world, in adherence to religious duty or personal fulfilment. While the Christians go to Jerusalem in Isreal, Muslim faithful converge in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, periodically. The mindset of worshippers at these times is often one of sober reflection, in preparation for communion with God.

However, one Muslim student on a religious trip to Saudi Arabia in December 2018 got a rather rude awakening by law enforcement officials in Saudi Arabia. Zainab Aliyu, a student of Maitama Sule University in Kano State was arrested at a hotel in Medinah on December 26, 2018, for a drug-related offence. The shock and dismay of the girl and her family was more painful because, as we now know, the young girl was completely innocent of the matter.

During Zainab’s four-month stay in detention in Saudi Arabia, her father, who is a journalist, the rest of her family and even the people of Kano and elsewhere in Nigeria frantically made efforts to ensure her release. The penalty for drug offences in Saudi Arabia is death, and Saudi Arabia traditionally executes people by beheading them. Many Nigerians have already suffered that fate, including one woman, very recently.

In the middle of the social media campaigns, street protests and calls to the authorities in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia by Zainab’s family, an even more shocking and sickening discovery was made by the authorities in Nigeria. A syndicate of drug pushers was discovered at the Aminu Kano International Airport in Kano, from where Zainab flew into Saudi Arabia. Part of the modus operandi of the syndicate is the planting of drugs in the luggage of unsuspecting travellers or the addition of strange bags into the luggage of the travellers. This was how Tramadol, a banned drug in Saudi Arabia, came into the luggage checked in under Zainab’s name. The issue then remained for Nigeria to convince the Saudis with all the evidence and developments in the case, that Zainab was indeed innocent.

For once, the machinery of state was effective, with Abike Dabiri-Erewa, the senior special assistant to the president on foreign affairs and diaspora, confirming orders from the president himself for a quick resolution of the matter. In the end, Zainab was released on April 30, 2019, while another individual arrested in similar circumstances, 74-year old Ibrahim Abubakar, was also released the next day.

Officials posted to airports and seaports are mindful only of the opportunity to profit from their posting, which involves accepting bribes to look the other way while the lives of many Zainabs out there are put in danger for no fault of their own. If this happens at the airports, one can only imagine to what degree it is taking place at the seaports and the ‘amorphous’ illegal routes.

For Zainab, she was not abandoned by God or her country and family. As such, hers is a bitter-sweet tale that we can all feel proud of. But there is no telling the number of individuals who may have lost their lives to the activities of the syndicate in Aminu Kano airport and other airports in Nigeria, whose cries of innocence would have been ignored by foreign officials or even scoffed at by family and friends.

Even with the happy ending in Zainab’s case, there is clearly a dangerous game going on at our airports, as we are now beginning to see. Confessions of similar tactics being used at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport and other places are now beginning to come up. As in the Aminu Kano case, the syndicates usually involve officers from customs, immigration, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) and staff of the Nigerian Aviation Handling Company (NAHCO). It is a pure evil operation, no matter which way one looks at it. Slipping extraneous materials into a person’s assumed possession is bad enough, but when those materials are hard drug substances, on a flight to a country where drug offences carry the capital punishment, then one may have reached the pinnacle of wickedness.

Aviation industry professionals profess that this type of wickedness has been going on for years. Even when not related to drugs, it has been revealed that merchants who do not care for the hassles of travel, or of arranging freight or cargo shipments, simply bribe airport officials who have in the past attached up to 40 bags of materials, though not drug-related, to the luggage of unsuspecting travellers. Without knowing it, people have been mules for all kinds of things, legal and illegal, based on the corruption of airport officials in Nigeria and possibly other countries too. It is said that the baggage handlers at airports are the most dangerous in this criminal line, as they can literally open passenger’s bags and slip in foreign substances, with a pre-arranged way to retrieve them at the destination.

The government has to take these emerging facts really seriously. The fact that this has been going on for years is shameful because these wicked cartels must have been caught in the act previously for their tactics to be so known within the industry. Yet, no safeguards are seen to have been made in this respect. The officials in the Kano airport, who have already been arrested, should be made scapegoats and should suffer exemplary punishment for their wickedness, as a deterrent to others. One remembers the time of President Buhari’s first coming in military uniform when drug offences were made punishable by death. In 1984, Bartholomew Owoh, Bernard Ogedengbe and Lawal Ojulope were publicly executed by firing squad in what was a retroactive application of the penalty. Following public outcry, the penalty was changed to life imprisonment in 1986.

Finding a solution to these problems would take a radical overhaul of the system. Such a measure must include swift and severe prosecution and punishment for collaborators. It should also involve better pay for officials, improved funding for security…and limiting the number of personnel involved in the checking process at sea and airports, in favour of more automated means.

While one cannot in good conscience advocate the return of capital punishment for drug-related offences in 2019, there is a real desire for members of these cartels to suffer the highest punishment possible. While remembering the three men who were victims of the retroactive capital punishment in 1984, it is safe to say that the public outcry would have been much less if those involved in incriminating Zainab were the ones facing the barrels of the soldiers’ guns. The Saudi officials too must have had their doubts because Zainab was not charged for the offence all through the time she was in detention. With the resolution of the matter now, it is unlikely that Saudi Arabia would be seeking extradition of the people involved, especially as some are officials of the Nigerian state. Otherwise, it would have been very satisfying to have them face the gauntlet themselves.

The administration of our airports and seaports has been built around mind-boggling corruption, perpetrated by petty profiteers and major criminal syndicates alike. The bubble of corruption is so thick and resistant to change that any attempt to improve transparency and safety is put through cost-benefit analysis of the corrupt system and undermined or totally quenched. As this can only be done at the highest levels, it suggests complicity of high ranking government officials in some of the illegal activities.

This may explain why we don’t have better security scanners at our airports or a more robust search procedure that protects passengers and the image of the country. Officials posted to airports and seaports are mindful only of the opportunity to profit from their posting, which involves accepting bribes to look the other way while the lives of many Zainabs out there are put in danger for no fault of their own. If this happens at the airports, one can only imagine to what degree it is taking place at the seaports and the ‘amorphous’ illegal routes.

Finding a solution to these problems would take a radical overhaul of the system. Such a measure must include swift and severe prosecution and punishment for collaborators. It should also involve better pay for officials, improved funding for security and training of officials and limiting the number of personnel involved in the checking process at sea and airports, in favour of more automated means. None of it will be easy though. But a commitment to positive change and proper planning in the circumstances cannot be defeated by the corrupt interests who depend on anonymity. Needless to say, passengers, especially at airports, must also be extra vigilant. May God help us all.

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