14 May 2021

Addis Ababa: low-risk choice for trafficking drugs into Africa

A proactive African Union needs to help Ethiopia control drug smuggling into Africa via Bole International Airport.

Ethiopian Airlines is Africa’s largest carrier, connecting the continent to over 127 international destinations. It also maintains a vast intra-African network, flying to 62 destinations across Africa from Addis Ababa. Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport (ADD) is now the main transit point in Africa for over 22 million international and domestic passengers annually. It has also become a transit hub for illicit drugs.

Currently, there is limited incentive for Ethiopia to devote the necessary time and resources to resolving this growing trend due to the perception that Ethiopia is not the intended destination for the illicit drugs.

Ethiopian police arrested almost 100 drug traffickers at ADD in 2019 and 2020. According to an unpublished report from the Federal Police Commission, Ethiopia has confiscated about 402 kg of Latin American cocaine and 1377 kg of cannabis in the past three years.

However these figures are only the tip of the iceberg. Commander Belete Abera, head of investigation for the Federal Police Commission’s Division for Drug and Small Arms Trafficking, says information gathered from arrested drug traffickers indicates that only around 10% of traffickers are arrested in Ethiopia. In other words, 90% of drug traffickers may succeed in using ADD to move illicit drugs into the rest of Africa – Nigeria, South Africa and Cape Verde being the top three destinations.

90% of drug traffickers may succeed in using ADD to move illicit drugs into the rest of Africa

Several reasons explain why ADD is being exploited by drug traffickers. Despite the need to inspect over 120 000 pieces of luggage for illicit drugs daily, Ethiopian police use the most rudimentary technology and techniques. The Counter Narcotics Operations Unit run by the Federal Police Commission at the airport is mandated to inspect passengers (and their baggage) exiting the airport.

Despite the volumes, this unit has no specially trained officers, on-site scanners, sniffer dogs or testing laboratories. The unit does target specific flights for inspection, such as those from Brazil or the east. Passenger inspection usually involves stopping passengers randomly and asking them to ‘use the bathroom’.

Refusal to comply with the request is considered an indication that the passenger has capsules of cocaine in his/her stomach and refusing may be a sign of not wishing to ‘flush out’ the drugs. As there is no testing facility at the airport, a suspected drug trafficker may be taken to a police station in the city to be scanned using an X-ray machine. This is both time-consuming and, as Commander Yelekal Belay, the Unit’s head, argues, ‘amounts to a violation of passengers’ rights as refusal to urinate does not always justify the assumption that the passenger carries illicit drugs in her/his body.’

Two other agencies are also responsible for checking people or baggage. Baggage inspection for outgoing and incoming baggage is carried out by customs. The National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) is mandated to inspect connecting passengers and goods. Both have broader mandates – and combating drug trafficking does not seem to be their primary focus.

With ADD becoming a drug gateway to the rest of Africa, the threat is continental

The Counter Narcotics Operations Unit does not usually coordinate operations or activities with either customs or the NISS. According to Yelekal Belay, a more coordinated approach at the airport could help combat drug trafficking more effectively.

The limitations of capacity and coordination are in part a consequence of the belief by Ethiopian authorities that the country is not yet a destination for illicit drugs. While cocaine and heroin are considered too expensive for Ethiopian consumers, cannabis is supplied from local farms. Even when illicit drugs are brought into the country, this is usually for repackaging and temporary storage. In that respect, Deputy Commissioner Mulisa Abdissa of the Federal Police Commission says, ‘Ethiopia is making efforts to control illicit drugs trafficked through ADD just to demonstrate its willingness to uphold its international obligations [enshrined under the international drug control treaties].’

While focused on inspecting only incoming and outgoing passengers and baggage, Ethiopian authorities tend to overlook those who continue to other African and international destinations. In addition to limited incentive, two further factors may be driving this situation. Firstly, the cost of checking, investigating and prosecuting illicit drugs is high. Secondly, Ethiopia receives little international and regional support from states who stand to benefit directly from disrupting illicit drug trafficking at ADD.

With ADD becoming a drug gateway to the rest of Africa, the threat is continental. Existing legal frameworks can be utilised to coordinate assistance for Ethiopia’s efforts in curbing the problem and to support the development of Ethiopia’s technical capacity.

African states are required to cooperate to support Ethiopia’s efforts to control and prevent trafficking

Through its continental frameworks on drug control that include the Plan of Action on Drug Control and Crime Prevention, the AU is well place to make stronger calls to member states for technical assistance to support Ethiopia. In line with the Plan of Action that emphasizes strengthening international and regional cooperation, technical assistance could include intelligence and information sharing through regional coordination platforms such as INTERPOL, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and the World Customs Organization.

Under Article 10 of the 1988 United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, this cooperation is wide-reaching and obliges member states to provide technical and financial assistance to transit states to guarantee ‘effective control and prevention of illicit traffic’.

For its part, Ethiopia should reconsider its current approach that treats drug trafficking via ADD as an end-user problem. Recent research implies that the use of heroin, cocaine and pethidine is growing in cities like Addis Ababa. As such, Ethiopia’s response to drug trafficking via ADD requires local coordination between the Counter Narcotics Operations Unit, the NISS and customs. Continentally, there is a need for AU member states to support the interruption of illicit drugs flowing through ADD rather than having those drugs arrive in their territories.

Tadesse Simei Metekia, Senior Researcher, ENACT, ISS Addis Ababa

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