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How big is Uganda’s drugs problem?

By Patrick Kagenda

World Drug report 2014 shows why Entebbe Airport is origin destination for traffickers

During the first week of this month, July, the Police Anti-Narcotics squad intercepted 32kgs of cocaine with an estimated street-value of Shs3 billion at Entebbe international Airport.

The traffickers had stuffed the illicit drug in a passenger’s travelling bag from Argentina in South America. The bag had been switched with the bag of a professor who was travelling to Uganda to attend a conference. Unfortunately he never attended the conference because he ended up in jail.


He was only released after the Argentine security confirmed that the professor was not a trafficker and provided colour photos of his actual bag and its contents extracted from CCTV at Argentina’s main Buenos Aires Airport.Switching passenger bags to traffic drugs is common.

The incident occurred at a time when Uganda is in the international spotlight over drug trafficking. Two Ugandans, Omar Ddamulira and Andrew Ham Ngobi had earlier in May and June been executed in Guandong Province,China after being convicted of drug trafficking offences.The two men and 21 other Ugandans had been convicted of drug trafficking related offences and sentenced to death in China.

The convictions and executions confirmed what the police and narcotics trade experts have been warning about for some time; that Uganda is becoming a major destination for drug traffickers.

Earlier in July, Assistant Inspector General of Police, Grace Akulo, who is the director of the Criminal investigations and Intelligence Department (CIID), revealed that the United Kingdom Metropolitan Police had seized 1.3tones of Cannabis at their airports originating from Entebbe Airport.

She said, as a result, the UK police in collaboration with the Uganda Police were investigating a number of officials and prominent business people in Uganda dealing in fruit and yam export. It is suspected some of them stuff drugs in packages destined for export.

International alert on Uganda

According to the Police Anti-Narcotics department, drugs transited through Uganda apart from passing through Entebbe airport, are entering the country from the DRC to Arua where traffickers board domestic airlines and on reaching Entebbe connect to their intended destinations.

Because many drugs are trafficked through Entebbe, Uganda is being looked at by international narcotics trading agencies as a country of `origin’ other than a `conduit’ country. This new designation has important implications for Ugandans who travel, as they are looked at with a lot of suspicion.

According to the World Drug report 2014, in 2012, East Africa which had previously never been identified by a European country as an area of origin, was among the more prominent such regions.

Among East-African countries, Tanzania, which throughout the period 2010-2012 registered annual levels of seizures significantly higher than in previous years, appears to be the most prominent as a country of origin, although Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda were also mentioned.

According to the report, drug use continues to exact a significant toll, with valuable human lives and productive years of many persons being lost. An estimated 183,000 drug-related deaths were reported in 2012.

Drugs that are trafficked through Uganda include heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and ephedrine which are synthetic. Our sources say the latter two expensive for the Ugandan to afford are only intercepted transiting through Entebbe.

On June 30 Uganda destroyed 159.68kgs of assorted drugs that included 91kgs of cocaine, 9kgs of heroin, 41kgs of methamphetamines and 16kgs of ephedrine with an estimated street value of Shs101 billion. The drugs had been confiscated from drug traffickers over a two-year period.

The destruction of the drugs was on addition to taking to court 53 drug traffickers the police had arrested in the course of its battle over drugs in the last two years.

The biggest number of traffickers are Nigerians and of recent Ugandans who have been recruited into the trade.

A highly placed security source told The Independent that drugs,human trafficking and terrorism fall under the same docket of organised crime but because terrorism poses a greater threat, all energies have been concentrated on fighting terrorism.

The battle on drugs is fought using lighter means which the drug traffickers can easily beat.

Despite Entebbe airport having one of the strongest security apparatus including scanners, drug traffickers still beat the security mainly because the airport has scanners that detect metal and not organic material like drugs.

Unlike the developed world which has scanners that separate organic material from metallic material through colour separation, Uganda still uses the old method of sniffer dogs which sometimes get tired and give drug traffickers an opportunity to sneak through.

A scanner that can scan organic material, according to a security procurement source, costs Shs1billion. This is way too much at the moment when the country is fighting terror threats, the source says.

Drug traffickers use many ways to conceal drugs; including sealing them in portraits, stuffing them in food stuffs like yams, pumpkin, pineapples and fish which are not scanned because the international food regulation doesn’t allow X-raying food stuffs. They put them in bag handles, swallow pellets, and women stuff them in their private parts.

Local drug cells known

Sources involved in the highly secretive investigations told The Independent that they have information about the traffickers.

“We know there are drug cells already in Uganda,” the sources said.

Most of the trafficked drugs are not indigenous to Uganda. The security source says the only Ugandan drug is Cannabis sativa (opium) which is widespread throughout the country.

Currently Cannabis in Uganda is largely grown in eastern Uganda in Tororo, Busia and Malaba for export to Kenya and is also grown in central region in Wakiso, Mpigi and Mityana.

A top security official says they have information that in the three eastern Uganda districts, cannabis is grown by Kenyans who export it to their country.

Locally Marijuana goes for about Shs5, 000 per kg but when processed and exported can fetch as much as Shs6million, according to the Anti-Narcotics department.

In 2013, the Police Anti-Narcotics department destroyed 1,835 hectares of marijuana worth billions of shillings.

The imported types are way too expensive and thus very little find their way on the Ugandan market.

But a just released UN report says cannabis is widely consumed in Uganda, mainly by street and school youth, as well as by policemen, soldiers and night guards.

Heroin tends to be used by urban and street youth while cocaine use is prevalent among high income groups. Somali refugees and town youth use khat and petrol is inhaled by street children, according to the report.

Recently, Uganda has also experienced an increase in alien drugs that include mirah (khart), Shisha and Kuba which all have effects similar to the narcotic drugs.

It is estimated that 55% cent of sedatives users, 30% of synthetic narcotic analgesic users, and 20% of opiate users are women.

The Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Dr Steven Kagoda, says most culprits involved with drugs are mainly youth although users can be between 10 and 60 years of age.

Users of chemical derivatives from opium, like morphine, which are generally called opiates, tend to be 25-55 years of age, cannabis (enjaga) users 10-45 years of age, and sedatives users 20-60 years of age.  The use of volatile solvents, such as glue and jet fuel, is most common among the youth around 10-20 years old.

Dr David Basangwa, the Executive Director at Butabika Referral Mental Hospital which interacts a lot with drugs users, confirmed the UN findings.

“Drug use in Uganda is becoming wide spread and is among different groups and this already has an impact on the economy because it is the productive age group who are being run down by drugs,” he told The Independent. Over 20% of the patients at the country’s main psychiatric health facility are drug users.

Weak laws blamed

Assistant Commissioner of police (ACP) Fred Enanga, the Police Spokesperson saysUganda has become a big conduit for drug traffickers because the current law is weak.

“Drugs are becoming a very big challenge to Uganda because apart from Uganda being a conduit, there is a growing number of youth using drugs and promoting them and this is becoming a very big threat to the country,” ACP Enanga says.

He adds: “ The current law sentences a drug trafficker to one year or a fine of Shs One million or both and these are very light punishments to drug traffickers,” he says, “drug traffickers see it as very easy to serve one year in jail or pay a fine of Shs one million and go scot free.”

Sometime early this year the police Anti-Narcotics department arrested a Liberian lady with drugs at Entebbe airport, took her to court where she was sentenced, paid the fine and was deported.

The lady who had stayed at Tourist Hotel in Kampala for three days had met two gentlemen who handed her a parcel she was supposed to deliver to someone in Monrovia, Liberia. On interrogation she revealed how she had been paid US$5000 to travel to Uganda to pick the parcel.  “We need a strong law like the Kenyans and Tanzanians have where a drug trafficker is sentenced to eight years and fined thrice the amount the drugs would have fetched,” says ACP Enanga, adding that Ugandan law charges people on possession only.

“The Anti-narcotics Bill before parliament needs to be strengthened to include death penalty, confiscation of the property of the traffickers and that of their accomplices, and such other stringent punishments,” he says.

Kenyans who grow marijuana in eastern Uganda exploited the same weak Ugandan drug laws, says sources.

Although most Ugandans know that mirah (khart), Shisha, and Kuba are dangerous drugs, the law is silent on them and the authorities cannot prosecute people for consuming them.

An Anti-narcotics Bill was drafted in 2005 but, nine years later, it is still gathering dust in a parliament committee. It was last tabled in 2007.

“It is the Committee on Defense and Internal Affairs and the ministry of Health to take the blame for delaying the passing of the Anti-narcotics Bill,” says MP Chris Baryomunsi who recently tabled an Anti-tobacco Bill in parliament as a private members bill.

But security sources told The Independent that they suspect that the known drug cells leaders could be behind the delay of the Anti-Narcotics Bill.

“We have ever investigated some MPs over drugs,” the sources said.

In 2012 former Bubulo West MP Tony Kipoi was remanded at Luzira Maximum Security Prison over, among other offences, trafficking in narcotics. In the same year, then Butaleja MP Cerinah Nebanda passed on mysteriously and investigations centred on recreational drugs.

Previously, drug traffickers were allegedly exploiting loopholes at the immigration and passport control office but, sources say, “Things have since changed in that department following the appointment of Gen. Aronda Nyakairima as Minister of Internal Affairs.”

Top security sources told The Independent they want the government to set up a Country Narcotic Drugs Coordinating Centre. This should comprise security experts, the National Drug Authority, the National Medical Stores, medical personnel, and pharmacists. They also want an EAC Narcotic Drugs Coordinating Centre set up.

This will rapidly respond to alerts unlike now where we are using Interpol which at times takes time to act,” a source said.

They want the police Anti-Narcotics Department to be strengthened and its manpower increased and improved through trainings.

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