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Suspecting me of drug trafficking at Lungi airport

By Sulaiman Momodu – (beyondborders.column@gmail.com)

If there is one country that is naturally endowed and where the natural resources could make every citizen live a very high quality of life, it is my home country Sierra Leone. But while we have abundant resources, we equally have no shortage of news – the bad, the ugly, the bizarre, and the ridiculous.

A few days ago, I was suspected of drug trafficking at our main Lungi International Airport as I was leaving the country. Under normal circumstances, searching for drugs would not deserve any special mention. I will come back to this later.

As a regular traveller, I must say I am now accustomed to routines at airports. Remove shoes, belt, mobile phone, laptop computer, metal objects et al, and walk through the metal detector. These days even before I get to the final screening stage I already have my shoes and belt in my hand like someone who had just won a trophy much to the amusement of the screening staff. In addition to these travelling routines, I am also very conversant with what to put in the luggage that you check-in, what you can carry in your hand luggage and what you are not allowed to travel with at all.  Drugs are prohibited!

My regular visits to Sierra Leone are usually never complete without going up-country. On my way to Kenema for instance, I prayed not to see queues for petrol again. My prayers were not answered. The perennial shortage of petroleum products in Kenema leading to queues has almost become a way of life. Some APC friends unreasonably argue that people in Kenema hoard the products to give “world best”, referring to President Koroma, a bad name. “But what about fuel shortages which happen in the hometown of the president, Makeni? Are they also sabotaging President Koroma’s government?” I asked a senior government official the other day.

From fuel shortage in Kenema, come over to Masiaka.  Along the highway to Freetown, there is a checkpoint where passengers alight mainly to present their identification cards to security personnel. Most compatriots don’t have ID cards. Curiously, I wanted to know why passengers alight and walk through the security booth before boarding the vehicle again. One security officer told me it is for the Al-Shabaab threat. I found that quite absurd. “So if A-Shabaab operatives, who are usually suicide bombers, come to Sierra Leone, do you seriously expect them to present their identity cards to you?” I asked one security officer. “We are here on orders from above,” he replied. Irrationally, one easily observes double standards at the checkpoint.  While some passengers alight from their vehicles, some motorists just drive off with passengers remaining on-board.  In my view, the issue of that checkpoint is just another attempt to add to the inconveniences of poor travellers. And as long as our security personnel have pockets to put illegal “kola”, so-called checkpoints are not only useless but a mockery of the so-called threat.

Going back to the drug story, following a few other disturbing experiences, I thought a sleepless night at a bedbug-infested guesthouse, which I brought to the attention of the management before leaving, was my last dose of unpleasant experiences. I was wrong.  Just when I thought the check-in formalities were over at the Lungi airport, two security men stopped me. “We would like to check your luggage,” they requested. Momentarily, I did not figure out what they were talking about as my hand luggage had just been checked, and all check-in, immigration, and security formalities were over. At this point, they left me alone and started discussing with another passenger. Since they did not seem focused, I went over and took a seat while waiting for boarding time. A few minutes after, one of the security men again walked over to me. “Are you S.Momodu?” he asked. “Yes I am,” I replied. “We would like to check your luggage,” he demanded.  At this point I figured out what they were looking for. “Oh, I thought you people have sniffer dogs here,” I remarked. The truth is, I had placed an item in a strategic location so the sniffer dogs at the airport will easily sniff it as such dogs are trained to smell weed, cocaine, opium and heroin.

For those who may not know, we now have sniffer dogs at the airport. As a country that has now become a major transit for drugs, such a development did not come as a surprise. But how significant are these dogs?

During my visit, I spent a night in Bo while attending the memorial service of my sister Stella, who died in December 2013 at the tender age of 31. Bo is a town well known for quality gari so I had bought the food stuff which we called “student companion” during school days. I wanted to remember school days, you know, when we will soak the cassava product and wait for a few minutes before adding the ingredients which could be only sugar, or sugar and milk, or palm oil and salt with some pepper etc – boy, you are ok.

Before going to open my bag, I told the security officers that I had the dogs in mind and thought they will know Sulaiman was carrying gari not drugs. Clearly, that was not the case. In the inspection room, I saw one of the dogs idling. The security officers informed me that computer screening could not detect what I was carrying that was why they demanded further screening. Good explanation. “But what is this dog doing here?” I asked. No response. I opened the bag, took out the gari and handed it over. I also gave my identification document but that was of no interest. I got the message. Anybody can be a drug trafficker these days.  Like someone who has just caught a drug trafficker, the security officer held the gari upside down, breaking it into parts. One might say that was rather impressive. No, it was not. Who is fooling who?

Over the years, our country has made dramatic progress for drugs trafficking with Latin American drug cartels using our main airport as a major transit point to smuggle narcotics to Europe. In 2008, a plane, carrying hundreds of kilograms of Cocaine worth millions of dollars was abandoned on the runway; the aircraft was reportedly carrying a fake Red Cross emblem. The question is: if our airport has become a major transit point for drugs trafficking, who is responsible?

The point is this. With the support of USA and UK, some efforts have been made to improve on security at the airport. There are notices placed warning passengers to beware of CCTV – cameras that capture what people do. The airport personnel are very conscious of this. When cameras are on most people behave in a certain manner. The question is: what happens when the cameras are off? The last time I arrived at the airport to be welcomed back home by power failure, embarrassing to say the least.

By the way, the APC government knows very well that power, or the lack of it largely contributed to the SLPP going out of power. So the strategy today is to provide a few street lights and then sack energy ministers from time to time over incompetence?

After displaying with the gari like a lazy cat proudly coming home with a dead rat, I heard the security officers wondering about inviting an ambassador who was also traveling and whose luggage needed further screening. I would not know if the ambassador was screened, but for the record, I am always very careful when travelling to the extent that if anybody gives me even an envelope to deliver, I must know the content. Imagine such headlines: “Former editor caught in drug trafficking”. God forbid! I have a suggestion though for the sniffer dogs at the airport. To truly test whether they are useful or useless, some real drugs should be placed in some luggage and let the dogs sniff them out. If they fail the test, game over – they are incompetent.

Finally, I say this with all humility. I don’t smoke, don’t drink alcohol or take drugs let alone have the nightmare of trafficking them.  Like establishing checkpoints and using double standards to be on the lookout for Al-Shabaab elements, the fight against drugs does not have to be cosmetic. What we need in our country is the sincere commitment to see positive change. Sadly, when people working at our main airport apparently become accomplices in drug trafficking evident by our recent past, and when such people who betray their own country do things for the camera and to obviously deceive the international community, it is extremely revolting.  Things have truly changed in my country. May God help us!

Note: Sulaiman Momodu is former editor of the Concord Times newspaper. The views expressed here are personal.