From being a section of the Police Force situated at the notorious Alagbon Close, Lagos, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) has come a long way to its present status as a dare-devil arm of government working to clean the society of harmful drugs. Its evolution, however, is work in progress as far as laws it needs to function effectively are concerned. The proposed amendment of its law by the National Assembly, has drawn mixed reactions from Nigerians.
This newspaper, however, views as commendable the proposed amendment bill by the apex law making body to check the incidence of light sentencing for drug offenders, which has passed the second reading. The bill entitled, “a bill for an Act to amend the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency Act CAP N 30 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004.” was read for the first time on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019.
It is no longer news that many of the extant laws on punishment for offenders under the nation’s various law enforcement agencies are rightly perceived as weak, ineffective, defeatist and mostly obsolete. This is one of the reasons cited in the presentation of the lead debate on the general principles of the bill by the sponsor, Sen. Dimka Hezekiah (Plateau Central).
He said, “The National Drug Law Enforcement Agency Act Cap. N 30 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004 provides for stringent penalties for persons involved in the importation and exportation of hard drugs such as cocaine or heroin. These penalties range from life imprisonment to 15 years which is the minimum penalty’’.
Yet, and in spite of the fact that the Supreme Court had held that the minimum penalty for those dealing in hard drugs was a term 15 years, some judges of the Federal High Court had continued to pass ridiculously light sentences on convicts.
“Rather than a term of imprisonment of 15 years, the maximum sentence passed on any convict was a term of three years for heroin. Some of these have been as low as four months imprisonment for 1.44 kg of cocaine. Worse still is the fact that when some of the judges pass these light terms of imprisonment, the convicts are further given options of fines, which are not provided for under the NDLEA Act,” Hezekiah had pontificated, a couple of weeks ago at the second reading of the Bill.
We urge the lawmakers to expedite action on the third reading of the Bill and its passing even as we call on the President to, as a matter of urgency, sign it into law as soon as it gets to his desk.
Passing of this Bill in to law will, no doubt, further enhance the image of the country internationally just as it will send strong signals to drug barons, their couriers and mules and even users that the country is not paying lip service to the war against illicit drugs.
It is important that the Bill takes all the extant laws of the agency holistically. It must ensure that avenues through which drug barons, corrupt officials and compromised judicial officers could manipulate or exploit the system for their pecuniary interest are blocked. This is necessary because laws should be made stringent enough in response to current demands which include serving as a deterrent to anyone intent on committing the offence. Some of the existing laws and the penalties they recommend are like mere slap on the wrist of drug barons, dealers, couriers, mules and their cohorts. This must not be so if the nation is not to be seen as not sufficiently serious in the efforts to curb incidences of illicit drug trade.
We also urge those whose responsibility it is to make the laws to include, if it had hitherto been absent, provisions that will forbid the disclosure of the street value of seized drugs. It is pertinent to stress that disclosing this information has become, unintendedly, an incentive to aspiring drug dealers who are tempted to ignore the risks involved and focus on the reward and benefit derivable should they succeed.
Obviously, this is not the intention of the authors of the legal framework. In adding our voice to the call for the total elimination of the drug trade, we are persuaded by the argument that the society must be saved the evil effects of the trade in banned substances such as sudden unearned wealth as well as the harm it brings to bear on the health sector. This is not to forget the damage on the population that fancy its consumption.
Even more important is the fact that a reinvigorated statute is needed if the new leadership in the agency, determined as it is, must carry out its functions knowing that its efforts will not be made a nonsense of by the judicial system it has no control over.