Sierra Leone's Cocaine Plane Saga: Transport Minister Speaks Out

The July 13 impounding of a plane loaded with cocaine, and the subsequent arrest of alleged drug traffickers, overshadowed all government business in Freetown, Sierra Leone, for several days last week.

As some members of the press put senior government officials on trial, acting as prosecution, judge, and jury, Transport and Aviation Minister Kemoh Sesay, Foreign Minister Zainab Bangura, and Information Minister Ibrahim Kargbo have all had to come out and comment on the incident.

Some have even condemned whole communities, such as the inhabitants of Port Loko town (located a few miles from Lungi International Airport) to which some of the people involved in the incident had fled.

For all the attention she had been getting, Foreign Minister Bangura told journalists at a press briefing organized by the Ministry of Information and Communication on Thursday that she felt like "the most important foreign minister in the world."

According to government and airport authorities, the plane, dubbed "cocaine plane" by many people here, forcefully landed at Lungi International Airport on Sunday, July 13, at 3:05 a.m. local time.

"The F.B.I., Scotland Yard, and you name it are here in Sierra Leone because our police have intercepted a planeload of cocaine that could lead to a major international drug cartel bust operation for the war on drugs," Bangura said.

She explained that the police were about to solve a major international drug trafficking problem that has confused the drug fighting agencies of the United States, Britain, and many other powerful nations.

"I am host to all of them because some of their nationals are the consumers of the cocaine that was most likely intended for transshipment," Bangura said.

She further explained that people should view the cocaine bust positively and said, "The Sierra Leone Police have done a good job."

Bangura said she can hold her head up high when she travels around the world as a foreign minister knowing her bags would not be subjected to humiliating searches by customs officers on suspicion of drug trafficking.

This, she added, is possible because President Ernest Bai Koroma and his entourage took swift action when, on returning to the country that Sunday, they were greeted with news of an unauthorized landing at Lungi Airport by a plane believed to be loaded with cocaine. Authorities in Sierra Leone believe the cargo was intended for "transshipment" to the West.

Amid the relentless public relations efforts by Kargbo, the minister for information and communication, to "rebrand" this small West African nation's image from the infamous war-torn and corruption-riddled one of the recent past to an open democratic society and a friendly environment for investors, the cocaine plane saga has caused a whole new round of unease here among the people that Kargbo has to deal with.

According to a Lungi Airport Authority press release (July 16), the "Controller … contacted the General Manager and comprehensively briefed him on the circumstances surrounding the … aircraft. On his part, the General Manager took immediate steps to brief the Minister of Transport and Aviation while the controller was still holding on the line on instructions. While this conversation was going on between the Minister and the General Manager, the flight was descending over the airport for the first time and continued to descend lower and lower."

Simply put, the plane forcefully landed even before clearance had been obtained from the minister for transport and aviation (Kemoh Sesay).

The clamor here about the cocaine plane incident has been further exacerbated by blistering headlines from the local press, all conjecturing that Kemoh Sesay has knowledge of the cocaine transshipment. Even more difficult for the minister is the fact that his brother, Ahmed Sesay, also the manager of the national soccer team, is one of those in police custody for an alleged connection with the cocaine plane.

At a press conference at the Ministry of Information and Communication on Thursday, when journalists questioned him about his brother's involvement with the cocaine plane, a confident Kemoh Sesay said categorically, "I'm not my brother's keeper."

Kemoh Sesay also stated that he personally instructed the police and the airport fire fighters to impound the plane—to "move all their fire trucks around the cocaine plane in a way that it will not fly away."

Amid all of this tension, Kargbo is hard at work defending against speculations of government involvement and calming the nerves of an already jittery population on radio, TV and in the print media. The government, he said, will not protect anyone who is found to be involved in the trafficking of narcotics in Sierra Leone.

On Thursday, both Kargbo and Alpha Kanu, the minister for presidential and public affairs, insisted, "There will be no sacred cows."

The unease among a population just coming out of an 11-year-long brutal rebel war was evident in a revelation Kanu made at the press briefing: "I told the president in Banjul that a plane load of ammunition has been impounded at Lungi and I don't think we should go just yet."

Based on the first information he had gotten from Sierra Leone, Kanu thought it might be a coup attempt on the country's leadership. Kanu said that the president, however, insisted that they come back home regardless of what was happening. Indeed, there was about a three-hour difference between when the cocaine plane landed and when the president's plane landed.

This somehow lends credence to the theory circulating in the streets of Freetown that the cocaine plane operation went wrong because of the presence of the presidential security personnel who were awaiting the president's arrival at the airport. The president had cut short his stay in Banjul by a day.

Many people here are saying that there was a panicky situation at the airport among the handlers of the cocaine because of the security presence and that some police officers who were a part of the cocaine handling abandoned their weapons and fled.

Some people maintain that the light weapons that were also seized may not have been all brought in by the cocaine plane but rather left behind by those who fled north to Port Loko.

The drama of the cocaine plane intrigue reached its height at the Youyi ministerial building that houses the Ministry of Information and Communication when members of the press expressed total unhappiness over police secrecy in withholding the names of the 11 alleged conspirators then in police custody. One reporter snapped, "Where is the much talked about open government?" alluding to the United Nations-sponsored Open Government Initiative that had been launched by the president.

But the assistant inspector general of police who is at the head of the cocaine investigation said that issues pertaining to national security were the reason for withholding the names. Whether or not the A.I.G.'s reasoning plausibly overweighs the need for access to information the explanation he espoused, according to Kanu, is somewhat convincing.

However, there are strong indications that the president is hell bent on bringing the culprits to book. While still in the Gambia, according to Kanu, the president, upon hearing the news of the cocaine plane, vowed: "Even if my mother is involved in this, she will not be protected."

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Karamoh Kabba.