South African Airways: Flying High?

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South African Airways is once again scrambling to contain the damage after yet another crew member was arrested on suspicion of drug smuggling. Nonnie Nyoba, 44, who had worked for the airline for 12 years,  was arrested in Sao Paulo on Feb. 15 as she prepared to board an SAA flight to South Africa after Brazilian customs officers seized five kilograms of cocaine. Details are scant, but the arrest would appear to conform to a sorry pattern for Africa’s biggest airline: that among its staff are regular couriers for South America’s cocaine cartels.

Nyoba’s arrest is the fifth for the national carrier in a little more than two years. Last November, SAA’s manager in Lagos, Nigeria, Olumuyiwa Michael Adebulehin, was arrested on suspicion of being part of a drug smuggling ring after a passenger arriving from Brazil was stopped and found to be carrying half a kilogram of cocaine. Last June, another air stewardess, Elphia Dlamini, 42, was arrested at London’s Heathrow  airport after arriving from Johannesburg with three kilograms of cocaine worth an estimated £120,000 strapped to her body. She was jailed for seven years in September. On Jan. 21, 2009, the entire 15-person crew working the same overnight SAA flight from London to Johannesburg were arrested, though later released, after British customs found 50 kilograms of marijuana and four kilograms of cocaine on board. A cabin crew member and a South African airports security officer were later arrested in Johannesburg in connection with the case. Barely a month later, Feb. 16, another SAA crew were detained after five more kilograms of cocaine were discovered on another flight. All were later released, but at the time, the then acting CEO of SAA Chris Smyth described the ongoing damage to SAA’s image as “horrendous” and “a disaster.”

SAA’s drug-smuggling hostesses are a symptom of a far larger problem. Africa has become a way-station on the drug smuggling route to Europe. According to Western drug and crime monitors in Africa, South America’s cocaine cartels have close to saturated the North American market, while the wars between Mexico’s drug gangs and the police have made that route less attractive. Like any business looking to expand, the cartels have targeted Europe, particularly Spain and Britain. But a smuggling boat can’t make it Europe from South America in one non-stop trip. And stopping in Africa allows smugglers to disguise the origins of the packages they are carrying. Hence Africa is now on the smugglers’ through-route. Particular hubs are South Africa, and previously Kenya, with their good air connections to Europe; and West Africa, where drug shipments are landed by boat, then shipped on by sea, air or even overland across the Sahara.

It’s not just airlines that are implicated. Sheryl Cwele, wife South Africa’s state security minister Siwabonga Cwele, is currently awaiting trial in South Africa on charges of drug smuggling and procuring mules to import drugs into the country from Brazil and Turkey. She was charged after South African Tessa Beetge was arrested in Sao Paulo carrying nine kilograms of cocaine, and sentenced to eight years in jail. Meanwhile in West Africa, some smaller countries, notably Guinea-Bissau, have become narco-states almost overnight. Of particular concern to security agencies are reports that the West African branch of al Qaeda, al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), are also being paid to move drugs across the Sahara. AQIM have carried out a series of kidnappings and killings of Westerners across West Africa in the past few years. The fear is that AQIM will use their new income to recruit more fighters, carry out more kidnappings and perhaps even expand their attacks to Europe.