“Welcome to the Narco-Plane. We are Freetown-bound. Freetown is the capital of the west African state of Sierra Leone which is still recovering from a civil war. It lacks infrastructure and the poorly-paid and lowly-motivated security forces are either inept or are in league with us. All things being equal we will land safely and our guys are on the ground, keeping in touch. If there is any change in the plan for some reason, they will let us know and there will always be a way out because we have highly-placed people. We are flying at a very high altitude particularly to avoid easy identification, and for which we will make a sudden and dramatic descent on the airport. No worries, my colleague and I are familiar with the terrain and we can land the craft however dark”.
This is no script from a Frederick Forsyth novel or a James Bond or a Harrison Ford movie. It’s indicative of what could have obtained on the light 24-seater Cessna aircraft which exposed the vulnerability of our airport, the clay-legged nature of our aviation industry and the ineptitude or and sell-out tendencies of our national security. These are the serious and deserving indictments that have had no repercussions on the depositories of inertia that we call state apparatchik or agencies. No stepping-asides, no pushing-outsides! In a civilised society, the heads of the airport, police, office of national security and the aviation ministry would all resign hours after this embarrassing episode. Failing that, they would be asked to step aside so as not to compromise investigations; especially when a relative of one of them is a suspect.
At a time when we as a nation are scratching our heads and the president is sapping all his energy to re-brand our country from the synonyms of amputation and war it has been for years, comes the embarrassment that narcotics represent. The mysterious landing in the most audacious of manners of the Narco-Plane loaded with 700 kg or more of cocaine “without” the acquiescence of the airport authorities was as dramatic as it was shameful. Even more dramatic was the manner in which a waiting vehicle drove through the perimeter fence and extracted the crew.
Put the following planks in place. A recording at the airport control room has a conversation in a European language. Not English, not French. The airport officials say it was a conversation between the crew of the Narco-plane and some accomplices in or around the airport.
The officials say the airport was dark because no plane was scheduled to come in at the time. 02:45 or thereabout. But there was still someone on duty. The light aircraft, with two registration numbers and a red cross (all of which looked newly pasted on it and faked), according to the Assistant Inspector general of Police, Francis Munu, came from Venezuela. I don’t know a thing about aviation but I bet that aircraft could not have come directly from the south American country. It probably landed somewhere much closer first. And the fact that a Bissau Guinean has reportedly been arrested, and the former Portuguese country being a Narco-state, gives it an interesting even if bizarre twist.
The aircraft landed in pitch darkness and on an unorthodox runway, the side of the airport very rarely use, even if well positioned for nefariousness. That could not have been a first-time landing by a pilot, however experienced. A helicopter provides light for its landing site, a plane does not. So the pilots, I bet anyone, had done it before.
This suspicion of mine is something that has been buttressed to me by several people I spoke to at the airport and in the neighbourhood around the airport’s perimeter fence. One old lady, judging by her voice, called me to say that she lived at the back of the fence and that they had long suspected some nefarious activity going on around the same time sometime ago. “When a normal plane is landing, we know the sound,” she told me. “But there have been times when we only heard the plane driving on the runway and then the swift sound of cars over the [airport perimeter] fence”.
So what went wrong this time round? Theories abound. One possible one that I seem to lend some credence to, even if it also opens a can of worms all by itself, is this: President Ernest Bai Koroma, who had gone to Banjul on a meeting of former insurance brokers, was scheduled to return on the fateful Sunday morning. I hear much earlier than the late morning time he did. More security was sent to the airport. And the narco-collaborators had sensed trouble as they got news of the new security arrival rather late.
Apparently because the Narco-plane had already taken off and it could not make a U-turn by late night because it would need to refuel, then the communication in that foreign language I spoke about earlier, apparently alerting the crew that they would have to abandon the aircraft which is estimated at $ 500,000. Familiar with the terrain was the crew. But also familiar with the terrain was the driver of the vehicle that carried out the operation.
The waiting vehicle, which must have been a 4-wheel drive, I suspect a Hummer jeep judging by its width and the size of the tracks of its tyres, covered over one kilometre on the airport tarmac to extract the crew. The gate it damaged to break into the airport is backed by a long straight line of paired-up poles in close quarters. Not a single one was hit either to or from the aircraft. Nor was there any police intervention, or shots fired or any serious alarm raised! Collusion or ineptitude? So far, the police officers I have spoken to, say none of the vehicles arrested had a dent on its face. This probably means that the operation vehicle is still on the loose.
My thinking is that spies and collaborators on the ground had overestimated the presidential security. And the fact that they themselves could not intervene, means they were not doing what they’d been sent there to do. So what if some mercenaries had come to attack the president on his return? They would have taken up positions within the airport without his advance security personnel knowing a thing, and carried out their task. This, surely, is no good returns on our investment on our security forces, especially the police.
In any case, the Narco-vehicle escaped with the crew who are now reported to have been nabbed. Left behind was the record kilogram of cocaine. From all the cocaine-themed novels I have read, and movies seen, cocaine traffickers always have huge cash and cache. The former to bribe their way through, and the latter to fight it through. I am told the cache was five AK riffles none of which was used. There was no need for that! But where is the cash that could have been onboard the aircraft or on the crew that escaped and, believing the police, have now been nabbed?
Another connection to a drug ring is prostitutes, especially the beautiful ones. Let the police penetrate the prostitutes and they are sure to get more information. By the police I mean the hard-to-discern-to-be-genuine ones. I know of meetings that happened months ago, in which the United States embassy warned of the complicity of some of our police officers in organised crime.
Imagine the police officers beating up journalists who attempted to get closer to them in Port Loko to ask questions. Imagine one threatening to shoot Kelvin Lewis and me if we went beyond 30 metres to the Narco-plane! In any case after offloading the cocaine they toed the aircraft and came past us. What were they hiding before then?
In a country where the former parliament did not prioritise the passing of an anti-drugs bill, it will be interesting to see how this case proceeds from here. Never underestimate the power of the drugs ring. It is a clear and present danger and we must fight it unambiguously. By Umaru Fofana