I am not ashamed to admit that I am a big fan of Baba Suwe (real name, Babatunde Omidina). While I have never met him in person, he is without doubt one of the country’s most gifted comedians--- someone with the capacity to make even the likes of Mario Balotelli laugh! He is simply a genius in his craft. Because of this personal interest I have over the years developed in Baba Suwe, I had to restrain myself from writing about his travails while he was still being held hostage by the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA).
Baba Suwe, we all remember, was stopped at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos shortly before he could board an Air France flight to Paris on 12th October, 2011. The NDLEA spokesman, Ofoyeju Mitchell, said their scanner picked up a suspicious object inside his body. For 24 days, and in full glare of the public, the agency resorted to the barbaric mechanism of “bowel movement and stool watch” in order to ascertain whether or not Baba Suwe actually ingested drug. And in the desperate bid to justify its allegation, NDLEA even subjected Baba Suwe to all forms of inhumane medical experimentation. Yet at the end (after 24 days), he never excreted any drug.
Now that he has been freed from the NDLEA captivity, there are critical issues we must examine since the agency still insists that Baba Suwe has drug hidden in his body cavity, may be in a false stomach! If we believe them, a drug courier is getting away after deploying ‘African magic’ to conceal his crime. On the other hand, Mr Bamidele Aturu, who is seeking for a hefty compensation for Baba Suwe, argues that his client is an innocent man whose rights were grossly violated in his own country by a government agency that clearly abused its powers.
In his famous thesis on the criminal justice system, Law Professor Herbert Packer of Stanford University constructed two models to represent the competing systems of values. The first called ‘the crime control model’ is founded on the notion that if an arrest was made and criminal charges were filed by competent prosecutors, the accused should be presumed guilty. To this school, the main objective of the criminal justice process should be to discover or establish the factual guilt of the accused. This obviously was the model applied by the NDLEA which criminalised Baba Suwe and turned him into an object of national and internationally ridicule on the basis of allegation that till today remains spurious. Baba Suwe was pronounced guilty and had to prove his innocence by excreting as many times as the agency demanded of him while in their captivity.
The second Packer construct of criminal justice system which obviously has no place in NDLEA, is ‘the due process model’. It is founded on the principle that government institutions should be held accountable to rules, procedures, and guidelines to ensure fairness and consistency in the justice process. This, according to Packer, “should look like an obstacle course, consisting of a series of impediments that take the form of procedural safeguards that serve as much to protect the factually innocent as to convict the factually guilty.”
Whichever model we use, the Baba Suwe drama has badly damaged the image of NDLEA in the eyes of civilised people. Pa Oladele Odulate, a respected medical practitioner of 56 years' standing and a regular reader of this column, had written me about two weeks into the saga that if it was true Baba Suwe ingested the drugs attributed to him and had not excreted them, he would have been a dead man. “That is because his digestive juices would have dissolved the wrappings and released the hard drug into his system, and the amount he was alleged to have swallowed is enough to kill him several times over! The NDLEA people are supposed to have medical consultants, I wonder if they bothered to consult them.”
The NDLEA people obviously were not interested in provable evidence having made up their minds that Baba Suwe had enough diabolical powers (‘juju’) to neutralise their efforts. And this is the agency we rely on to curb the growing menace of illicit drug in our country! If indeed Baba Suwe had drug concealed in his body cavity yet NDLEA could neither conclusively prove it nor were they able to get him to excrete such substances, then we must worry about the competence of those manning the agency. The message sent out from the episode was that Nigerian drug traffickers have developed the ‘technology’ to hide cocaine or heroin in their body cavity for as long as they wished without detection.
Unfortunately, if there is any issue we must pay serious attention to today, it is that of illicit trade and use of drugs which, according to former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, is “tearing apart our societies, spawning crime, spreading diseases such as AIDS, and killing our youth and our future.” And evidence is piling up that Nigeria is increasingly enmeshed in this self-destructive business. All over the land, the urge to light up, to sniff or snort some form of illicit drug is making self – indulgence the new mood of society.
Today, our country is not only a transit for the booming illegal drug trade, reports from Lagos, Kano, Enugu, Port Harcourt and other cities suggest an alarming number of young men and women dependent on one drug or the other. “We tend to pretend that we are only a transit country, not a drug using country. But that is not true,” said Femi Ajayi, Director General of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency. “You have so much cannabis everywhere. Same goes for heroine and others, so the problem is here.”
Indeed, it is now considered a fad to smoke marijuana. Hitherto, people smoked the weeds in the dark corners of the street, away from the prying eyes of onlookers. Now, no place is sacred. In broad day light, at car wash, at motor parks, everywhere, many young men now inhale cannabis, by far the most abused of drugs. A wrap of marijuana, grown in some concealed forests in the Southwest and some part of Niger Delta, is said to cost as low as N20. With time, the takers graduate to much harder drugs like heroin and cocaine, drugs they associate with “pleasure, freedom, adventure” and used to “combat tensions and critical times.”
The verdict is out: Nigeria has a major social problem on her hands. There are no figures but there is no doubt that the use of hard drugs must be contributing to many of the brazen and audacious criminal activities across the country. Many victims of armed robbery and other violent crimes have recounted tales of how young men sometimes shoot to kill without any compulsion. The only conclusion to draw is that most of those felons were already too high on hard drug to feel anything.
Scarred by grinding poverty, unemployment and oppressive social environment, many had initially taken to the drug business as mules – couriers who assist the barons in taking the drugs to the required destinations – the United States, Europe or Asia for a handsome fee. Yet the reward for the courier is minimal while the risk is high. In June 2008, two Nigerians were executed in Indonesia for trafficking in illegal drugs. One Chibuzor Vituz was executed for doing same in 2009 in China. Frustrated that doors are closing against them at border points, drug barons now find ready customers at home.
However, the example of Baba Suwe has demonstrated clearly that our country is not well equipped to fight the drug war that is creating grim social upheavals at home and image problems abroad. If, as the NDLEA has now told the world, a Nigerian drug courier has acquired the capacity and know-how to conceal drugs in his body without detection, no travellers from our country should complain if they demand performing ‘autopsy’ on them to ascertain whether or not they have hard drugs concealed in their body. But I also sympathise with the NDLEA given the hostile environment under which they operate. Their last annual capital budget was N84 million; they don’t have operational vehicles and are subjected to a lot of difficulties. So they are basically doing a very dangerous job without the requisite tools. The government must pay attention to their needs.
A major challenge we face today is that many of our young men and women are now hooked on drugs. And since necessity is the mother of invention, poverty has driven many of them into far more dangerous quick-fixes whenever they need to inhale. Just last weekend, NAFDAC Director General, Dr. Paul Orhii decried the rising wave of abuse of cough syrups as stimulants to get ‘high’. There are also stories of Nigerians who put their heads inside toilet basins for the same reason. The relevant authorities must therefore strengthen the human and institutional capacity of the NDLEA. Wasting 24 days to perform ‘research’ on the bowel movement of Baba Suwe does not demonstrate seriousness for an agency charged with such enormous responsibility. They clearly need help.
• This piece was first published in THISDAY on 10th November 2011