March the 29, 2003
The 237 Nigerian drug convicts in Thailand will wake up this morning
in Abuja, dressed like princes and princesses.
For the princesses - 55 of them, clad in Nigerian print buba and iro - there was an added touch of class. They flew business class. And as soon as they strapped their seat belts on the Kabo plane with registration number 5N-NNN
They were served drinks and a handshake from the embassy: a $50 pocket
The Kabo Airline Boeing 747 climbed into the hot and humid Bangkok air from the
Royal Thailand Air Force wing at 4.48 yesterday. It also carried some 35 Nigerian immigration officers.
Many of the convicts had entered Thailand with false or fake passports. The embassy had to organise emergency travel certificates for them.
The operation which involved Thailand's major security agencies looked like a rehearsal for modern warfare pulling in nearly the country's entire formidable security apparatus - the Air Force, Police, special squads, Immigration and
After a brisk ceremony at Lkong Cren medium security prison
from which 237 Nigerians were departing, the 10-bus contingent of convicted Nigerian drug peddlers wriggled through the sluggish Bangkok traffic to the Air Force runway.
The convoy of buses, two Hino trucks carrying prisoners' luggage
alone, was escorted by four police squad cars with sirens and revolving dome lights. With the Nigerian ambassador's car fluttering the Nigerian flag, and a series of security vehicles, the convoy resembled a head of state's mororcade.
The press gathered like vultures outside the prison gate as relatives, Thai wives and children of the prisoners sobbed and waved as the deportees climbed into a white version of the Black Maria that was so guarded, it might
have contained crates of crown jewels.
The prisoners filed out in Nigerian style clothes and sandals given to them by the
embassy."Wonderful," said one, raising his hands in the air as he made his first step to temporary freedom. Others hailed the ambassador and asked God's blessing on him.
They filed out carrying novels, Korans, Bibles, an old copy of TIME magazine,letters from misssionaries, and other persosnal items. One carried a toilet tripod with a hole in the middle, like a child's training seat.
The women sang: "This is the day the Lord has made", waving at the crowd.
At the airport, 15 automatic weapons were trained on the convicts boarding the
plane. A bus at a time moved from the secluded area which was guarded by 60 armed security men to the tarmac.
Each movement was escorted by special unit marksmen in a hi-tech combat truck. And seven officers guarded each truck.
Nearly 90 Nigerians are left behind, among them two who refused to make the trip.
At least one of the two is a woman who gave birth to a baby in prison 12 years ago. The mother told embassy officials she was not psychologically prepared to face the family in Nigeria. Others did not qualify either because they had less than two years to serve or had not spent up to eight years in prison.
Nigeria's ambassador, Ademola Aderele who had been working on this haul, was speechless as the plane started taxiing.
This is a great day for Nigeria",he told The Guardian correspondent who flew into Thailand on a tip off. Aderele said the return of Nigerians to serve the remainder of their sentences at home was something President Obasanjo was passionate about.
The president wants to restore the dignity of Nigerians," he said, "This is his initiative.". He discussed the matter with Obasanjo recently in Malaysia
during the Non-Aligned summit.
"It is the biggest such operation in Thai history," enthused a senior Thai
official. But he pointed to some problems that caused a two-hour delay. The convicts were left dripping in sweat in the rude Thai sun from 10a.m till about 2p.m when they started boarding. They were in the hands of the Thais.
The official said that the Kabo plane's operators failed to recognize that they needed fuel to fly the plane. They asked for fuellate and tried to pay US dollars no longer accepted by the Thais. They had to go out to change into the country's currency, Bahts. It took one million Thai Bahts or about
$25,000 to fuel the aircraft.. The baggage was loaded manually.
The hushed operation - unknown to the police in Nigeria - was the result of two years of diplomatic manoeuvring by the Nigerian embassy in Thailand. It is
feared at the presidency and in diplomatic circles that the police could hamper rather than help the full implementation of the operation which ends with the
distribution of the prisoners to federal jails nearest to their home countries.
An elated Aderele called his wife and children to announce the good news as the plane pulled out of the VIP air wing.
Ambassador Tunde Shodipe who heads legal and consular affairs Department at the foreign
ministry in Nigeria, and Steve Agbana a senior diplomat and consular officer at
the embassy in Bangkok, accompanied the prisoners.
Security on the plane was provided by Nigerian agents, a number of them armed with rifles.
Archived from Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003