I am aware that this article will not meet agreement from many of the regular readers and commenters on this blog. I am a strong believer in individual responsibility. That affected my life personally in a profound way because it means I believe that being a member of an organisation does not absolve you from responsibility for the actions of the organisation. The ‘I was only doing my job’ defence does not make it OK to bomb Iraqi families or fund the Uzbek security services. That is why I am no longer a British Ambassador.
But equally forces and pressures of social inequality do not make it OK to become a criminal. The right will tend to excuse individuals in the first case and condemn those in the second: the left vice versa. I hope my views are not categorisable as right or left.
A media storm has been created by the arrest in Ghana of two 16 year old British girls, Yasemin Vatansever and Yatunde Diya, taking 14lb of cocaine through Accra en route to Heathrow,
Let us get one thing straight. Ghana has a better Human Rights record than the United Kingdom. Nobody in Ghana is detained without charge for a month. Nobody is under house arrest. The average Ghanaian can stand in the street outside the Ghanaian parliament and voice his political opinions without requesting permission. Ghana is not given to invading other countries. It is a genuine democracy, gearing up for very real presidential elections next year, as the President steps down after his second four year term of elected office. I know the elections are free and fair; I was in the Electoral Commission personally leading the international observation missions at President Kuffour’s original election.
The President is a member of the English Bar, as are several other Ministers. The justice system works well. There are, as with any legal system, occasional mistakes. But the Ghanaian system is as good as any in the World at correcting them. In February 2007, two British citizens, David Logan and Frank Laverick, were acquitted by the Ghana Court of Appeal after being convicted three years previously of involvement in a massive drug smuggling plot, involving 588 kilos of cocaine. Logan and Laverick were associates of those in the drug ring, but knew nothing of it. The Ghanaian legal system eventually sorted that out. The British, American and German nationals who were behind the plot remain in jail in Ghana, while more than half a tonne of cocaine was kept off the streets of Britain. We should be grateful to Ghana on both counts.
I have no doubt that Yasemin Vatansever and Yatunde Diya will receive fair justice in Ghana. They may be innocent or guilty, though it doesn’t look good so far. If they are guilty, justice will mean a perhaps lengthy spell in a Ghanaian Borstal. I am sick of the easy presumption by large sections of the media, whenever a British person is arrested abroad on drugs charges, that they are being unfairly dealt with by a tinpot state, and have been set up by evil foreigners.
It is the appetite of our sick society for cocaine that has visited this evil upon Ghana. Ghana does not produce any cocaine at all, and consumes almost none. . Until less than ten years ago, cocaine smuggling through Ghana was almost unheard of. Nigeria, on the other hand, had become a major route since the mid 1980’s, with over a third of all cocaine entering the UK through Nigeria. It came to Nigeria by ship from South America. It then went on to the UK by air. The occasional spectacular might involve suitcases or bales of goods stuffed with cocaine being flown into the UK, but the bread and butter traffic used ‘Mules’.
Desperately poor Nigerians, usually female, would stuff cocaine filled condoms into their anus and vagina, or swallow them down into their stomach. A leak or split would kill the ‘mule,’ and at one stage, while I was working in the British High Commission in Nigeria, we were catching an average of two mules off every single passenger flight into the UK from Nigeria. Eventually, work by HM Customs and Excise Special Investigations Division, at both the London and Lagos ends, became so good that too high a proportion of the cocaine was being intercepted. So the Colombian gangs and their Nigerian middlemen began to look along the border to a new and open route ‘ Ghana, with its excellent air links from Accra to London.
In 2000 I was British Deputy High Commissioner in Accra. Ghana was perhaps Africa’s best kept secret ‘ an oasis of calm where you can live a lifestyle that has sadly been lost in the entire rest of Africa. You could leave your car unlocked in downtown Accra, and it would not be stolen. At night, you could walk freely in the streets between the capital’s exciting bars, restaurants and nightclubs, and be in no danger at all of robbery, let alone assault. Having lived in Lagos ‘ as taut and violent as Johannesburg – it was like a huge boost of oxygen.
All of that remains true, but less so, and it is under threat. The Nigerian drug gangs moved in about the turn of the millennium. It is interesting and possibly will prove relevant that one of these girls is of Nigerian origin. In 2000 the High Commission had to deal with the first case of armed robbery on recent record. The arrival of the drug trade started to have the inevitable consequence of bringing an increase in official and law enforcement corruption. The Ghanaian government has been fighting, manfully, against the consequences ever since.
We should be plain about this ‘ it is not just the Nigerian and Colombian gangs, but the sickness in our own society, with its own criminals and its insatiable appetite for cocaine, that has brought this cancer of crime upon Ghana. Ghana is the victim of this trade.
I was therefore less than chuffed to hear a spokesman for HM Customs and Excise say that they regarded Yasemin Vatansever and and Yatunde Diya as victims in this case. Customs and Excise have also said ‘It is very unlikely they knew that the drugs were in the bags. We think they were recruited in London, but they would serve their sentence in an African jail, which would be very hard.’
So we are, plainly, aiming for yet another campaign where Britons smuggling drugs abroad are declared innocent on no basis other than their Britishness, and in this case their youth. Being female also helps this mawkish approach to drug smugglers.
Sixteen is well past the age of criminal responsibility. Would we take the view that girls caught in London carrying 14lb of cocaine were too young to face charges? No, we wouldn’t. The authorities found 14lb of cocaine. Yesterday Yasemin told Channel 4 news by telephone from prison:
‘There were basically two boys over here who gave us two bags, and told us to bring it (that) it was an empty bag. We never thought anything bad was inside … and they told us to go to the UK and drop it off to some boy … at the airport. The two boys gave us bags in Ghana to bring to London, to give to the boy in London. It was basically like a set up. They didn’t tell us nothing, we didn’t think nothing, ‘cos basically we are innocent. We don’t know nothing about this drugs and stuff, we don’t know nothing.”
Bearing in mind Yasemin’s eloquence, go to your kitchen with two empty bags. Fill each one with 7lb or 3kg of goods from your kitchen cupboard. Then carry them out again and see if you can tell the difference. Bear in mind also that they were flying out from Accra on British Airways. I have done that often ‘ by chance I am doing it again next week. They will have been asked, at check in whether they packed their bags themselves and whether they were given anything to carry.
We have been through all this before. In 1990 Patricia Cahill, age 17, and Karen Smith, age 18, were convicted of smuggling drugs in Thailand. They had 40 kg ‘ nearly 90lbs ‘ of heroin in their luggage, which they too claimed that they didn’t know they had. I can’t ask you to do the kitchen test again because you probably don’t have that much stuff in your kitchen cupboard. Instead, find a 12 year old, pick them up and carry them down the street. Then say you didn’t know you were doing it. They were thankfully sentenced to prison rather than execution.
The full resources of the British government and media then swung into action. Eventually, after intervention led by Prime Minister John Major in person, and involving substantial resources from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Thailand let them go, even though they were guilty as hell.
By that stage I was working as head of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Maritime Section, and much preoccupied with winning international cooperation in the fight against drugs. Our pressure on Thailand to release Smith and Cahill was quoted back at me by other countries when I was trying to press them to do more to intercept narcotics. The message we were sending was ‘Crack down on drug smugglers, unless they’re young, female and British.’
That demoralised those of us working in the field, made us an international laughing stock in drug enforcement circles and sent a message that it is good idea to use young, female, British couriers, because if caught they’ll get let off. I hope that we don’t repeat that mistake, but the signs are that we will.
Yes, couriers like Vatansever and Diya, knowing or not, are the small fry. Yes, we have to go after the actual drugs lords with even more vigour. But we should be grateful to the Ghanaians for their vigilance and excellent cooperation, and not assume or imply that they are victimising the innocent. The Ghanaian justice system is quite capable of working that one out. Yes, the girls deserve treatment as minors, not as adults. They will get that. They do not deserve to be too harshly treated, and they will not be. Ghanaians are kind people. But spare me the sneering and sentimentalist British rhetoric.