A growing drug epidemic appears to be silently taking over cities and towns in South Africa. The country seems to have become a key player in global drug distribution with many alleging that Nigerian dealers dominate the trade in recent times. ISIOMA MADIKE, in this report, looks at the booming drug cartel which, over time, has fueled the dangerous xenophobic attacks against other nationals
South Africa is gradually but steadily assuming the status of a xenophobic state, which is evil in the eyes of civilised world. The killings and destructions that are associated with it are unimaginable. Little wonder Nigerians are wailing with nationals of other countries agonising too.
However, the recent “madness”, which started on Tuesday, seemed to have united Nigerians, whom, on a normal day, enjoys touting ethnicity and religion to further crate a gorge among the populace.
Yet, some Nigerians do not see the need for the deluge of verbal retaliatory attacks on South Africa in this instance. Chinedum Agwaramgbo, one of such persons, alleged in his Facebook post, that Nigerians in that country actually engineered the hatred visited on them. He claimed that those living in South Africa deliberately and consistently contrive the drug war raging in that country and have “systematically destroyed the very fabric of the people, morally, culturally, economically and socially”.
He further alleged that Nigerians who immigrated to South Africa turned it to one of the major capital city of drugs in the world. The drug cartels, according to Agwaramgbo, began with the Yorubas and increasingly overtaken by the Igbos.
He said: “The Igbos in the drug business have effectively run the Yorubas out of S.A. to other southern African countries like Mozambique. The Nigerians have presently turned the country into a drug-war zone, killings galore with Igbos killing Igbos.
“Do you know that every day in S.A., a Nigerian, precisely an Igbo man, is killed in a drug-related case? I said every day not once a week or once in three days, every day. In fact the Igbo boys running the shows in S. A. have dominated areas they control and all these to the chagrin of the law enforcement agencies.
“Let me tell you a secret that is not so a secret. Do you know that every week at the Akanu Ibiam International Airport here in Enugu, corpses of Igbos slain in “drug battles” in different streets of S.A. are flown into the country? I have personally witnessed the receiving of seven corpses in three weeks in one instance.
“At one of those occasions (normally the corpses arrive on cargo flights of Ethiopian Airlines) I was present when three different families were in the manager’s office to receive their slain sons, two of those families were represented by the aged biological fathers to the dead boys. The third family represented by a younger man in age, an uncle to the third corpse. One of them asked the other elder, which city his son was in. He answered Jo’burg.
“Did the South Africans begin to hate us all of a sudden or they had always hated us all these while? Would you close your eyes to the evil we Nigerians have unleashed in South Africa simply because we saved them from apartheid era? So, because we assisted them that now gives us the gumption to destroy their society like we’ve persistently done ours?”
The post, as should be expected elicited stern reactions, with many pouring out their venoms on Agwaramgbo. To most people, drug issues are as old as the South African nationhood. It has always been a mushrooming trade in that part of the world.
The country, according to investigations, has been facing a growing epidemic with drugs said to have been quietly taking over major cities and small towns in the former apartheid enclave. This much was revealed at the policy briefing by Enact Project, a group, which comprises INTERPOL, in April, based on its research and on-the-ground interviews with drug users and dealers across South Africa.
“The drug route that crosses South Africa has created a regional heroin economy, with severe social and political repercussions. To a significant degree, heroin is a key commodity underpinning the criminal economy in South Africa and has facilitated the expansion of the criminal economy by pulling in new players as traffickers, dealers and users,” the group was quoted to have said.
Enact is a three-year project (2017-2019), which works to mitigate the impact of transnational organised crime on development, governance, security and the rule of law in Africa.
During the latter months of 2018, Enact conducted interviews with drug dealers, users, health professionals, outreach workers, law enforcement and gang members, to better understand the growing heroin epidemic in the country. It found that the trade in South Africa was far larger and more lucrative than previously thought – with the situation receiving “surprisingly little attention as a national issue”.
Names like nyaope, unga and sugars, are what those involved in the illicit trade call heroin. The dealers are said to maintain a low profile, and are largely non-violent so as not to draw attention. Cape Town, Nelson Mandela Bay, Johannesburg and Tshwane largely control heroin trade, which is sold widely even in villages from taxi parks, train stations, and other fixed spots. It outsells many other drugs, and rivals tik (crystal meth).
A mid-level dealer (in a large gang controlling a fixed dealing point), according to findings, can make up to 200 sales a day from about 50 customers. With “good quality” heroin, they can make between R3,000 and R4,000 a day. Enact though said research into heroin use in South Africa had been lacking, it nonetheless pointed out the difficulty in pining down the exact number of use in the country.
“In Cape Town, dealers in gang-controlled neighbourhoods say that patrol vans treat their selling points as ATMs – a place to visit for small injections of cash. They claim there is no set price for bribes paid to police, but R50 to R100 was an average bribe payment for a low-level police officer in a patrol van. Police officers are said to visit a few times a week,” the group had said.
In January, a R700 million consignment of uncut cocaine from Brazil en route to Singapore and India, which was seized by authorities at Coega harbour outside Port Elizabeth, prompted a call from one of South Africa’s top cops for communities to disempower drug lords.
“By confiscating this cargo, we have severed the supply chain,” Lieutenant-General Godfrey Lebeya, the national head of the Hawks, said of the massive bust.
The Hawks are South Africa’s Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (DPCI), which targets organised and economic crime, corruption, and other serious criminality. The consignment of 706 cocaine bricks, each weighing 1kg, was found concealed at the bottom of the ship – below more than 3,669 containers.
When the ship docked to offload some of its cargo, a team from multiple law enforcement units pounced. A drug bust at the Port of Ngqura on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth that afternoon netted over R700 million in cocaine. The discovery was made after almost two weeks of tracking the cargo as a result of a tip-off by Interpol.
“Since December 27, 2018, the vessel was observed with the assistance of Interpol from both local and abroad. It had already been established that the vessel was going to dock at Coega harbour and continue to Singapore before going to its final destination in India with the illegal cargo. The crime was not only committed in the country where the cargo was harvested and produced; it was also committed in Brazil, where the cargo was clandestinely loaded into the ship. The crime continued in high seas and in South African waters,” said the Hawks in a statement.
The bust, according to a local newspaper, Herald in Port Elizabeth, was the latest in a number of busts involving drugs loaded onto ships from Brazil and then sent through South African ports. Lebeya had urged communities to stop empowering drug syndicates.
While applauding the bust, he acknowledged: “The war on drugs has neither been lost nor won. We are still going to put more efforts in targeting the supply of these dangerous, dependence-producing substances. We will not be allowing these substances to go and ruin the lives of innocent people, who are being turned into drug addicts.
“We are making a call to all communities not to do drugs. Do not demand drugs. Do not apply for a criminal record by doing drugs. If you stop demanding drugs, cartels will not be producing or delivering them. The empires of the cartels will fall. Sever the demand chain. The power to stop this is in your hands.”
Before the January bust, two suspects had been arrested in June 2018, in Namibia after a container with 412kg of cocaine was seized. It is alleged that the container was dispatched from Brazil via Cape Town and then to its final destination in Walvis Bay. A month later, the Hawks found a state-of-the-art underground mandrax-manufacturing laboratory in Harding, KwaZulu-Natal. Police minister, Bheki Cele, who confirmed that, said the mandrax and lab equipment valued at nearly R250 million were also seized.
The January bust was similar to one that took place in 2010, when R400 million worth of cocaine was found sealed inside the frame of a shipping container. That operation also followed a tip-off from Interpol and saw the container seized at Coega, also known as the Port of Ngqura. In the 2010 bust, a Cuban was arrested at home in his Hyde Park, Johannesburg. But, charges against him were later withdrawn following numerous delays in the case.
There had equally been accusations of collusion with criminals by the police to transport drugs while on duty. Bribes taking and falsifying information also led to the arrest of five Vredenburg police officers. The five officials were apprehended after a protracted undercover operation by the Western Cape Anti-Corruption Investigating Unit with Crime Intelligence, South African Police Service (SAPS), said.
“The suspects‚ between the ages of 31 and 38‚ faced an array of charges ranging from unauthorised disclosure of information and fraud to dealing in drugs as well as corruption. The suspects are alleged to have committed illicit activities while deployed to perform court and crime prevention duties. By virtue of the arrests, the suspects‚ two sergeants and two constables are automatically suspended.”
However, there have been other nationals, especially from neighbouring South African countries as well as from Eastern Africa who converge on South Africa that have made her a key player in the global distribution of drugs, according to a multinational research report. The Mpumalanga coal-mining towns of eMalahleni and Middelburg are said to have been “decimated” by the trade, as they are a popular stop for truckers ferrying the deadly drug along the Mozambique ports to Johannesburg.
Children as young as eight in these towns are alleged to be peddling heroin in schools, with one rehab reporting that they have treated 48 children for heroin addiction over a few past years. The report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (GIATOC) and Interpol said corrupt police and customs officials have allowed international drug traffickers to swarm into South Africa.
It names Gauteng’s City Deep container depot as a heroin smugglers’ haven, and claimed that 75,000 South Africans inject heroin daily, the highest number in Africa.
In spite of this, fingers have always been pointed to Nigeria as the arrow head of the drug cartels. According to a report by the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, Nigerian dealers dominate the cocaine trade, which, it stated, had exploded in South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994.
“Cocaine and crack cocaine were not commonly available in South Africa (prior to 1994). This market vacuum was filled when Nigerian nationals arrived in Johannesburg just as democracy was dawning,” it said.
The report was released at the time the African Union known then as Organisation of African Unity (OAU) held a conference in Ivory Coast on drug trafficking networks throughout Africa. “This conference is very significant for our country … desperate and unemployed South Africans are being lured by international syndicates with promises of easy money into becoming couriers,” said the then South Africa’s representative, Social Development Minister, Zola Skweyiya, before her departure.
According to the report, Nigerians settled next door to prostitutes, who were central to the demand for crack cocaine and its distribution. “Nigerian nationals had long been involved in the transnational trade in cocaine, heroin and addicted sex workers would rather smoke drugs with their clients than have sex with them, and so have a strong incentive to spread the drug,” it further said.
There are also unconfirmed reports that Nigerians camouflage with genuine businesses to conceal their illicit drug trade.
South Africa’s first arrest for crack cocaine in 1995 was a decade after the drug’s peak in the United States. But by 2001, some eight to 10 per cent of addicts admitted to treatment centres in South Africa were using cocaine, said researcher Andreas Pluddemann.
One reason for the Nigerian dealers’ success, the report said, is the fact that they do not consume their own drugs. In general, the Nigerians, it added, are not as violent as local dealers. The report’s editor, Ted Leggett, said that the Nigerian dealers organised themselves in residential hotels in Hillbrow, a seedy and dangerous inner-city neighbourhood of run-down apartment buildings in Johannesburg.
While this organisation could imply a syndicate structure, it is an organic network where the removal of a “top man” is futile, he said.
The report also advocated the decriminalisation of prostitution as “another way of removing power from the drug lords”. Findings revealed that emaciated prostitutes, trawling for their next fix, haunt the bars and corridors of these dingy hotels.
However, the incident of 2017 appears to have given credence to the allegation of drug cartels in South Africa. The fight for control of the lucrative South African market, more than 6,000 kilometres (3,700 miles) away came to St Philip’s Parish in Ozubulu, a village in the South-East Nigerian State of Anambra. Thirteen people were shot dead in an apparent reprisal attack between Nigerian drug barons operating in Johannesburg.
Piles of trash line the dirt road leading to Ozubulu, where an endless stream of people hawks everything from adulterated fuel to plastic flip-flops. But among the grinding poverty are huge villas with grand columns and intricate wrought iron gates – glaring anomalies in a region with epileptic power and disintegrating roads.
In August of that year, unknown gunmen interrupted the 6 a.m Sunday mass in the town, hoping to kill Aloysius Nnamdi Ikegwuonu, an alleged Johannesburg drugs kingpin known as “The Bishop”. He wasn’t there but his father and a one-year-old child were in the church and were among those gunned down. “What we had were gunshots, sporadic and reckless shootings,” said Jude Onwuaso, the parish priest.
Police had stated that about 11 people were killed in the church massacre with over 18 other worshippers wounded. But, there were conflicting reports over whether the attack was carried out by a lone gunman or a group of attackers. Although police said the shooting was the result of a feud between Nigerians from Ozubulu who were living abroad.
Anambra State Police Commissioner at the time, Garba Umar, had hinted that the violence could be linked to drug war. He said that the gunman had been hired to kill a local man who was believed to be in St Philip’s Catholic Church built by one of the Nigerian expatriates involved in the feud.
Pastor Linus Akpunonu, father of Chinedu Akpunonu (aka Obrocho), one of the alleged dramatis personae in the Ozubulu Church attack, had said God would have revealed to him if his son was involved in the criminal activity.
He had said: “I am ready for war… I see vision myself and I know that my son has no hand in the killing of innocent citizens at St. Philips Ozubulu. I want to challenge the Anambra State Government, the Ozubulu community and all those involved to invite, if they like, all the seers, to tell Nigerians what happened to the worshippers at St Phillips.”
Akpunonum, in an interview with one of our correspondents then had said that his son had nothing to do with the killing, rather with one Ginika from Mbaise in Imo State, who served him in South Africa. “They had problem in South Africa and all the members of Ozubulu Development Union in South Africa came home in 2014 with their minutes of meetings’ book and the matter was decided at Obi’s palace and Alloysius was told to leave my son alone.
“My son owns a supermarket in South Africa,” the pastor further said, adding, “They told us that one Ginika from Mbaise, who served Alloysius, had a problem with him and left him to join my son and that was also part of the problem they brought home because the boy sued him at the Ozubulu Development Union in South Africa. The boy later died mysteriously with other of his colleagues from the same Umuezekwe Village.”
Meanwhile, families of the dead, who were suspected to belong to drug gangs, licked their pains in solitude as many of them were said not to have approved the vocation their slain sons went into in foreign lands. Most people interviewed on the identity of the South Africa-based business tycoons by our correspondents declined comment while those who spoke did not want their names in print. One of them however, said they were not happy at the turn of events in Ozubulu.
The anonymous source had said: “These young men are evil. See the road leading to where one of them built his mansion. Does it look like the road to the house of somebody who is as rich?
“Many of them in South Africa have formed a drug cartel and that is the reason why they don’t last to enjoy their wealth. Theirs is drug money; evil money. It is sad that all we now do in this town is to burry young men who knew nothing more than drug. This is shameful and we are not happy about what is happening here. May God save us from evil people.”
There was an unconfirmed allegation that pointed to the burial of about three young Ozubulu sons, which sparked suspicion that “Bishop” may have been around to witness the burial. “The people that carried out the shooting and killing of innocent souls on that fateful day were rival drug groups. We heard they wanted to take revenge but missed their target. Instead of retreating, they decided to snuff life out of blameless individuals,” another source, who declined to give his name, had said.
Ozubulu had made headlines for drugs before then. In 2015, for instance, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) had busted a meth lab allegedly belonging to Ikejiaku Sylvester Chukwunwendu, also known as “Blessed Benita”. He was charged with meth production and trafficking in the village.
“He’s one of the biggest kingpins we’ve got,” said state prosecutor, Lambert Nor, who claimed that some of Chukwunwendu’s couriers had been executed in China for drug trafficking. Security experts had their fear that as production increases, meth will find a domestic market like in South Africa, where “tik” — as it’s known on the street — has been described as an “epidemic” and is the most abused drug in the South African Western Cape Province.
But, while speaking on the current xenophobic crisis in South Africa, an unidentified Somali, who claimed to be the Chairman of a board in Somalia, said: “MTN is everywhere, ShopRite is everywhere, and MultiChoice. We are not attacking them, why are they now attacking us? Not all Nigerians are drug dealers, not all Mozambique are bad, not all Zimbabweans are cars hijackers but every day there is constant intimidation, interference and harassment of their business.”
Nigerians have also been reacting. For instance, former Deputy Senate President, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, advised the Federal Government to suspend diplomatic ties with South Africa. He condemned the incessant attacks on Nigerians and other African nationals in South Africa, describing it as “unAfrican, barbaric, and unparalleled acts of in gratitude”.
The former speaker of the parliament of Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) regretted that the government of South Africa had failed to wield the big stick to end the assaults.
And in what appears to be the government’s alignment with the populace, the presidency announced the pulling out of Nigeria from the ongoing World Economic Forum in Cape Town, South Africa. Before the government’s action, notable Nigerian entertainers, spearheaded by Tiwa Savage, have cancelled their engagements in that country to protest the attacks on fellow citizens.