April 10, 2007

Lethal doses- Nigeria

As dusk draws in on the humid Lagos evening, the policemen check their machineguns one last time and scramble across the dusty courtyard into unmarked cars. A guard briskly opens the metal gates and the convoy lurches out on to the main road: two Peugeots, two pick-up trucks and a minivan, each as dented and battered as the surrounding Nigerian traffic. Mindful of quotas they have to fill, the teams swerve impatiently to avoid ever-present motorcycles and pedlars, using horns, indicators and an occasional flash of weaponry to carve out an implausible third lane between two slow-moving rows of vehicles.

As the bustling Apapa district draws near, the drivers adopt a lower profile. The lead car slows to a halt by an elevated junction, its prey in sight. Two plain-clothes enforcement officers slip out and half-run to their unsuspecting target as the other vehicles pull to the edge of the road. While one agent grabs the suspect, and the other seizes his pink plastic basket piled high with packets of brightly coloured medicines, three of the uniformed police dismount and take up positions nearby, cocking their weapons in a pre-emptive show of force.

It is their first haul in an operation carried out twice a week in Lagos, an essential part of the "Other War on Drugs": the fight against a trade in illegal medicines that is proving almost as lucrative and sometimes as lethal as that in narcotics. The woman behind the strategy is Dora Akunyili, a charismatic pharmacist whose high-profile actions since becoming director-general of Nigeria's food and drug agency in 2001 have sparked threats, arson and assassination attempts, and have been slowed by political opposition, corruption, vested interest and every other obstacle that those behind the international fake medicines business can throw up.

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