X-raying Liberia’s Anti-Drug War: The Challenges, Progress & Prospects

By D. Kaihenneh Sengbeh

Hundreds of kilograms of drugs being burnt during last year’s International Day Against Illicit Drug Trafficking and Abuse outside Monrovia
Hundreds of kilograms of drugs being burnt during last year’s International Day Against Illicit Drug Trafficking and Abuse outside Monrovia

An unimpeachable milestone has been made. There’s no debate about it! Liberia has made another history, with the passing of the country’s first-ever anti-drug law. It’s a victory, but it’s just the beginning and would remain meaningless unless and until the law is applied to the letter—to minimize, if not eliminate, drug trafficking and abuse fast destroying the country’s boyish population.

Submitted by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf early 2014, the Legislature passed the “Controlled Drug and Substance Act” as well as an amendment to the Drugs Enforcement Agency (DEA), giving the entity more power in raiding the country of narcotic drugs and other harmful substances.

What now remains to make the anti-drug instrument effective is its signing into law by the President and subsequent printing into handbills by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs—and no agency of government can be celebrating more than the DEA.

It is an open secret that drug abuse remains the worst enemy of any given nation—particularly a post conflict country like Liberia where drug abuse was the order of the day during the war, where in young people were drugged to kill and destroy mercilessly. Today, many of these young people cannot live without snuffing in or injecting themselves with these substances, and they do anything, even if it means taking away lives, to get the stuff. Undeniably, drug smuggling and abuse serve as a source and breeding ground for so many crimes and violent acts in our society. They are detrimental to peaceful coexistence among peoples and to human survival.

“We now have the mandate; we have now the teeth to bite, and we will bite and bite without fear or favor,” the head of the country’s anti-drug agency Anthony Souh told this writer a day after both houses of the National Legislature had concurred with the bill on June 17, 2014.

Its now a new chapter, one with the right instrument to deal with the drug “wahala” (imbroglio). Liberia has had no specific anti-drug law, and the DEA, established to fight illicit drug use and trafficking, was only operating under a provision under the public health law which is too weak, especially in combating and penalizing the sophisticated modern-day drug trade.

“We at the Drug Enforcement Agency,” said Souh, “consider the [passage of the law] as a dream-come-true. We are glad because in the absence of a decisive legal weapon no society can fight and defeat drug culture….The fight against drugs obviously amounts to fight against assorted crimes. It takes strong and legal weapons.”

Illicit drug trading (trafficking) and abuse are very common in Liberia, especially after the brutal civil war ended over a decade ago. The statistics speak.  In the last few years, tens of thousands of kilograms of cocaine, marijuana, heroin and other harmful substances have been confiscated and destroyed in the country by the DEA, along with the joint security.

Confiscations of these huge quantities of smuggled drug have come from the car loaders in the streets to traveling baby mothers at the airport, from the business tycoons (Liberians and foreigners) to the ‘pem-pem’ riders, from the police recruits on the training base to the highest offices of the land, including the Presidency and the National Legislature, least to mention top security officials. It is serious, it is entrenched!

The straightforward reality here is that there are drug dealers/smugglers and abusers/users in every stratum of our society—ministers, many in the security sector including the heads, the legislators and the judiciary are all reportedly involved. Let me not also disremember the huge number of ghettos planted in communities across the country.

Celebrating International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking in 2013, the DEA Chief alarmed that there were at least 400 ghettos in the country, despite the continuous ghettos raids by the agency and other members of the joint security. “This is quite understated, from what we hear about ghettos in Bardnersville Township, in Caldwell, in Poor River, on Center Street, on Clay Street, in Buzzy Quarters, the list is endless. Strangely and disappointingly, it is reported that police officers and elements of some security agencies are in cohort with the ghetto operators. In some communities, police officers go to the ghettos in their uniforms, as some of them are said to have joined the force to protect their colleagues and their illicit criminal deals.  These make the war against drug trafficking and abuse a mind-boggling challenge.

Speaking a year back (June 25, 2013) in Monrovia at a one-day Stakeholders’ Review Meeting on the then ‘Draft Drug Enforcement Agency and the Control Substances Acts, Souh said Liberia was at risk due to vulnerability as result of lack of laws to deal with people involved in illicit drug dealings.

He told the gathering that the Drug Enforcement and Control Substances Act which was under scrutiny (at the time) needed quick legislation to save the image of the country and its people from illicit usage of narcotic drugs and trafficking. He described the existence of the over 400 ghettos in Liberia as “serious security threat to the country.”

Fast forward a year later, the law is passed, and observing programs marking international anti-drug day here this year (June 26), an excited Souh said it was time to celebrate the passing of the anti-drug law by creating awareness, among the people.

As usual, approximately 4,000 kilograms of drugs (cocaine, heroin and marijuana) confiscated across the country over the year, with an estimated street value of LS$77,845,485 (over US$915,000), were burnt.

The statistics released by the DEA on the drugs destroyed suggests that the smuggling and abuse of narcotic drug is widespread across the country, but with Montserrdo County accounting for the highest amount of ceased quantities.

Questionably, the second most populated and border County of Nimba did not report any seizure. Nimba County is reportedly one of the counties where drug is heavily trafficked between Liberian and Guinea over the years, but it could be welcoming news that none of the traffickers were booked, or no trafficking was done there at all. In Bong County, 439kg of marijuana and 3.11g of heroine were seized; in Lofa, 388kg of marijuana and 45.5g of cocaine; in Margibi, 99kg of marijuana and 15g of heroine; in Grand Gedeh, 340kg of marijuana and 173g of heroine; in Grand Bassa, 200kg and 120g; Grand Kru accounted for 200g of heroin and 100kg of marijuana, and Gbarpolu County reported 85kg of marijuana plus 50g of heroine.

Obviously, Montserrado registered the highest quantities of each kind, with cocaine standing at 208.6g, heroine at 720g and 755.21kg of marijuana, followed by River Gee which stood at 164g of heroin and 406kg of marijuana. While there were no seizures of drugs in Maryland, Grand Cape Mount and Nimba, drugs confiscation were the least in Sinoe (22kg of marijuana), Bomi (10g of heroin and 5kg of marijuana) and Rivercess County (10kg of Marijuana).

The above statistics only captures an inconsequential portion of the huge quantities of the amount of narcotic drugs that enter Liberia, a country considered one of the major transit points in West Africa. Nevertheless, the DEA Chief said in the midst of all hurdles, the new law will meaningfully help the agency and the country fight the menace of drug rustling and abuse.

“The business is very lucrative and big hands are involved,” stated one security insider who would not want to be named in this article.  According to statistics obtained from the DEA, 1Kg of Marajuina is sold at L$10,500 (about US$120), 1gram of heroine US$300, while cocaine is sold at US$500 a gram. That’s a lot of money for anyone in a job-hungry country like ours, and people engaged in such trade would never want to cease such a wealth-driven livelihood, dangerous as it is.

With such a quick money-spinning nature, many believe that it wouldn’t be easy to break the sub-regional cartels, and if this would succeed, it would require government and relevant international partners more resources and professionally trained anti-drug agents who would not compromise their calling—by themselves being involved in those criminal deals, or taking mouth-watering bribes from smugglers.

However, despite the national and global challenge, Souh  is somewhat pleased with the progress in Liberia so far — at least the passage of a “strong” law. “Today, we are extremely glad to inform you that the much-desired or expected laws on drug have been passed by the National Legislature,” he said on International anti-drug day. “We are glad that a legal instrument has been carved to deal with the situation like in other countries. We are glad that the laws that will narrow the existence of drug trafficking and make the society safer and healthier have been passed.”

With a new drug law in place, Liberia is now in the position to prosecute and punish those engaged in the illicit use and trafficking of drug and other harmful substances, those violating international conventions and destroying the youthful population of Liberia.

In the past, those who were arrested and prosecuted have faced only negligible punishments, but Souh said those days are over as soon as President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf signs the Act into law. “We will come after you,” he warns perceived drugs dealers, adding, “no matter who, where, when. We will go after you.”

He described the passage of the law by the National Legislature as “by all indication an achievement for the Liberian people; it’s a great achievement for this administration, this government, this President and this country.”

The country’s chief drug fighter asserted that it was contradictory to have a drug law enforcement agency that does not have a law to enforce. “When we came to this office [in 2012], it was almost paradoxical that we have come to an office to enforce a law that was non-existent,” he recalled. “So we had problem. The first thing that I thought of was that we are here to enforce law and we don’t have one…and that’s how the Minister of Justice understood our vision and we started to work…with all of the national stakeholders.”

Though drug trade is incontrovertibly well-paid, Souh said it is more harmful to the entire nation than the benefits that come to those who deal in it. He said it damages especially the young people, the future of the country.  “Drug is harmful to life; when people take drugs and become addicted, it’s very difficult to recover from it. Most of the tragic deaths, most of the accidents, most of the health hazards, some of the crazy people (mentally deranged) you see in our streets, most come as a result of drug and substance abuses.”

The drug law is comprehensive and covers every aspect of illegal handling of drugs and a punishment of up to life imprisonment.

For example, Chapter 14, Sections 14.101 and 14.102, provides First and Second Degree Felonies as well as Misdemeanor for ‘UNLICENSED IMPORTATION AND EXPORTATION OF CONTROLLED DRUGS OR SUBSTANCES’. This depends on the gravity/grade of the crime committed.

Therefore, Souh believes that “this law has addressed all of the violations, all the acts and omission that supposed to constitute a violation [in smuggling and illegal handling of narcotic drugs]. We have been taking people to court but they were not punished because the law was weak—the public health law.”

He explains that “the Controlled Drug and Substance Act makes drug trafficking a felony of the First Degree. That means it’s unbillable. If you commit Felony of the First Degree under our law, which is equivalent to treason, or murder, [it] is punished by death.”

The DEA Chief said it was time to kickoff a very serious war on illicit drug dealings in the country with the tool to fight now available.  “My honest advice [to those involved in the act],” he warned, “is desisting; be it Liberian or foreigner alike, desists from the dangerous act. If you try it we will go after you.”

Expressively, Liberia has made some marks, but is yet far from getting anywhere. This country is noted for making excellent laws and signing onto international conventions, but the implementations of these laws are almost always difficult. This is either due to dearth of resources, expertise or lack of political will, or the combination of all.

Policymakers who allot resources or budgetary support often apportion little or nothing to ensure the effectiveness of these laws or policies, and the new Drug law may just be another victim. So far, the progress has been great with the United Nations Office on Drug Crimes and the United States Government providing huge chunk of support to augment the government’s little budgetary support to the agency.

The DEA could make significant progress, using the new law, in dealing with the global war and crime when these international partners plus the government continue their cherished technical, logistical and financial supports to empower the agency to keeps fighting, robustly raiding ghettos in street corners and grave yards which are prevalent across the country.

Fairly enough, the war on drug trafficking in Liberia has been and remains challenging. In fact, it might just be starting. The progress is welcoming and the prospects are bright, but not in the absence of a sustained government and international support and collaboration. Meanwhile, the danger, burden and the threats of drug abuse and trafficking remain mounted on our shoulders—I mean, on your shoulders, yes, you, too.


Author: D K Sengbeh

Danicius Kaihenneh Sengbeh (author of Sengbeh's Weblog) is a respected and renowned Liberian journalist, poet and writer with with journalism experience since 2001, of working both as a mainstream journalist and a communication/media consultant in Liberia. He is Secretary General of the Press Union of Liberia (elected Dec 2013). He was Assistant Secretary General of the Union Dec 2011 to Dec 2013. He is also Editor-In-Chief of The Informer Newspaper—one of Liberia’s credible dailies. Before joining the Informer, Danicius had served as reporter, chief reporter, sub-editor and News Editor at The Independent Newspaper between 2002 and 2006. Before then, he was reporter at the defunct Patriot Newspaper and Kiss FM 2001-2002. Danicius is a UN Media Fellow and Liberia’s first UN Medal Award-winning journalist for his contribution to journalism and for being the second Liberian journalist in 15 years to qualify for and successfully attended the United Nations’ Reham Al-Farra Memorial Journalist Fellowship Program in New York and Geneva, Switzerland in 2012. He earned a Bachelor’s of Arts Degree in Mass Communication and Sociology from the University of Liberia and a Diploma in Journalism from the International School of Journalism. He holds several awards and recognitions both in and outside of journalism, and carries dozens of certificates in journalism and communication from studies in Ghana, China, United States and Switzerland, among others. He volunteers as Chair of the Information and Communication Committee of his local Bardnersville community. He can be quickly reached via (+231) 886586531/777586531/777464018/ dakasen1978@yahoo.com

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