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More traffickers traced to South Africa in Nigeria’s biggest airport heroin bust

More traffickers traced to South Africa in Nigeria’s biggest airport heroin bust
Graphic: Jocelyn Adamson. Image sources: Midjourney AI and Vecteezy.

Nigerian police are cracking down on a drug trafficking syndicate smuggling narcotics between there, South Africa, Mozambique, the US and Europe, after heroin was discovered in metal cutting machines and investigators linked it to a logistics company tied to this country.

Over 12 days last month Nigerian police arrested a group of suspects, raided a hotel and ensured that more than 100 bank accounts were frozen in a takedown targeting an international heroin trafficking syndicate that has a key base in South Africa.

The operation is the latest cop crackdown showing narco links between Nigeria and this country – as well as several other states.

In November 2023, Rohypnol, otherwise known as the date rape drug, was found hidden in dried fish at OR Tambo International Airport after it landed there from Nigeria

Read more in Daily Maverick: Nigerian cops trace kingpins to South Africa after cocaine, pistols and ‘military items’ smuggled from Durban

And last month Daily Maverick reported on how three port workers, who were allegedly involved in smuggling drugs, pistols, ammunition and military items via Durban, were arrested in Nigeria.

Cops there believed three kingpins linked to that syndicate were also in South Africa.

Now, in the latest crackdown, police in Nigeria have started unravelling a heroin trafficking syndicate that they say also has ties to this country.

Concealed in cutting machines

Nigeria’s National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) issued a statement on 27 February 2024 about the heroin syndicate, saying that while four suspects were arrested, 11 others were wanted.

The statement quoted the NDLEA’s chair, Brigadier General Mohamed Buba Marwa.

He said police sting operations started on 10 February “when NDLEA operatives of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport Command intercepted a suspicious package”.

Nigeria traffickers

Mansions in Nigeria were earmarked for forfeiture by the government during a crackdown on an international heroin trafficking organisation that police say has ties to South Africa. (Photo: Nigeria’s National Drug Law Enforcement Agency)

The package was discovered at an import shed at the airport’s cargo terminal.

“[It] was concealed in 15 cartons of 2,300-watt metal cutting machines. Each carton was stocked with three blocks of high-grade heroin,” Marwa said.

“In total, we recovered 45 blocks of the illicit substance with a total weight of 49.70kg.”

South African links and an ambush

As part of follow-up investigations, a freight agent, Olowolagba Wasiu Babatunde, was arrested.

He had been hired for clearing services by a logistics company which Nigerian police said a South African resident was operating.

A company with the same name as the one Nigerian police flagged has an address listed in Kempton Park, Gauteng.

Daily Maverick tried to contact the company via its Facebook page last week, since no other contact details for it were advertised, but did not receive a response.

Marwa continued: “Next, we conducted a follow up operation at the company’s warehouse in the Shogunle area of Oshodi, Lagos, and arrested the warehouse manager, [named]… Ajayi Imole Moses.”

An ambush operation was then devised, and it focused on an individual who would have received the heroin consignment had police not intercepted it.

Nigerian drug

Adinnu Felix Chinedu allegedly admitted that he usually transported drug consignments to a warehouse in Ayobo, Lagos, for onward distribution. (Photo: Nigeria’s National Drug Law Enforcement Agency)

Interrogation and confession

Marwa said that the individual, Adinnu Felix Chinedu, was arrested and “confessed during interrogation that he is the main distributor for a drug syndicate whose membership is spread across Nigeria.”

Chinedu allegedly admitted that he usually transported narco consignments to a specific warehouse in Ayobo, Lagos.

Marwa said the warehouse “served as a workshop where he would dismantle the consignment and remove the drugs from the machines”.

“Thereafter, [Chinedu] would wait for a list of various recipients to be forwarded to him from South Africa by the head of the criminal group.”

Nigerian police officers searched the warehouse that Chinedu allegedly identified.

They discovered another 56 similar cartons that were previously used to conceal consignments of heroin that had been trafficked into Nigeria.

Adinnu Felix Chinedu allegedly admitted that he usually transported drug consignments to a warehouse in Ayobo, Lagos, for onward distribution. (Photo: Nigeria’s National Drug Law Enforcement Agency)

Hotel kingpin

“At this point, it was clear that we are dealing with a syndicate that operates in other countries,” Marwa said.

“By the time we were done exploring various leads we had, we unravelled an organised criminal network that operates in South Africa, Mozambique, Nigeria and parts of Europe and America.”

During further investigations the alleged main kingpin of the syndicate was identified.

Marwa named him as Reginald Peter Chidiebere of Nigeria. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Date rape drug hidden in dried fish latest confiscation in SA-Nigeria crackdowns

“Our investigations showed that he owns the Golden Platinum Hotel and Suite, located at 16 Reginald Peter Chidiebere Street, Hope Estate, Ago Palace.”

As part of the next phase of investigations, surveillance was conducted on the hotel for several days.

On 19 February the hotel was raided and a suspected drug mule, Igboanugo Chukwuebuka Thankgod, was allegedly found in it with 2.2kg of heroin.

The parcels that the heroin was concealed in were similar to the ones found earlier in the month.

“He readily confessed that he was invited by [Chidiebere] to the hotel [the day before] on Sunday, February 18, 2024,” Marwa said.

“He was lodged in one of the rooms and was later summoned by the receptionist to meet a guest, from whom [Chidiebere] had informed him over the phone to receive a package. 

“This sequence of action was confirmed by a review of the CCTV at the hotel.”

Mozambique and mansions

A few days later, on 22 February, another suspected syndicate member, Confidence Ndidiamaka, also allegedly planned to collect a heroin consignment that police had already intercepted.

She was the wife of Festus Ibewuike, who Marwa described as “a top kingpin and currently residing in Mozambique”.

Ibuwuike would allegedly get heroin consignments to Ndidiamaka via other syndicate members.

Marwa said the couple’s home in the Ago Palace area in Nigeria was searched.

A vehicle, along with bank and property documents, were seized.

Marwa said that as part of the crackdown on the syndicate, 107 bank accounts associated with 14 of its members had also been frozen.

Igboanugo Ebuka Thankgod was among the suspects arrested when police cracked down on a heroin trafficking syndicate with links to South Africa, Mozambique, the US and Europe. (Photo: Nigeria’s National Drug Law Enforcement Agency)

Two of the people who were arrested in Nigeria last month in connection with a bust of nearly 50kg of heroin, concealed in boxes containing metal cutting machines. (Photo: Nigeria’s National Drug Law Enforcement Agency)

A hotel and a “mansion” linked to Chidiebere, as well as a “mansion” linked to Ibewuike, had also been marked for forfeiture to the government.

Marwa added that NDLEA officers had “shared comprehensive intelligence with our South African counterparts for necessary action regarding the other members of the group living in that country”.

Daily Maverick asked the South African Police Service this week if it was aware of the heroin crackdown in Nigeria which investigators there had linked to this country.

No response had been received by the time of publication.

Marwa, meanwhile, said the heroin crackdown had parallels to another police operation in Nigeria that took place in September 2022.

In that case, police had intercepted a 2,139kg cocaine consignment in a warehouse in the Nigerian city of Ikorodu.

“That was the biggest singular cocaine seizure in the history of NDLEA,” Marwa explained. 

“This present bust is the largest single heroin seizure at the [Murtala Muhammed International Airport] so far.”

In the cocaine crackdown of 2022, four alleged drug barons, including one from Jamaica, were arrested.

It was suspected they were members of an international syndicate that Nigerian police had been tracking since 2018.

‘Protection and power’

In January 2024, Europol, the European Union’s (EU) law enforcement agency, flagged Nigeria.

It said syndicates from there were known for human trafficking “but in recent years they have also gained a strong foothold in drug trafficking”.

The Europol statement added: “Nigerian drug traffickers are particularly active in transporting and distributing both cocaine and heroin. 

“One of the most commonly observed modus operandi for transporting drugs in and out of the EU is by air…

“Typically, Nigerian criminal networks are well organised, with an almost militia-style hierarchy. With the promise of protection and power, secret societies recruit new members.” DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.


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