Last Wednesday I had the extreme good fortune to attend a wildlife trafficking trial in Lagos, Nigeria. 3 Vietnamese nationals, 1 Guinean, 1 Cameroonian, and 2 Nigerians were facing multiple charges relating to a seizure in Lagos in July 2021 of 7,137 kg of pangolin scales, 4.6 kg of pangolin claws and 846.34 kg of elephant ivory. It was being prepared for transport to Vietnam.
The multi-national element of the accused speaks to the transnational nature of the illegal trade. A Guinean, part of the West African crime group that has become an essential supplier of ‘product’ for many years. The Vietnamese, prime buyers of ‘product’ primarily for sale to Chinese consumers. A Cameroonian, from a prime source country of pangolin scales and forest elephant ivory, and the Nigerians, providing the hands-on work.
Court 5 in Lagos Federal court is not big, slightly larger than 2 x 40′ containers side by side. For the public ‘gallery’, there is comfortable bench seating for 20. On the day I attended, there were, at one point, 25 wigged and black-gowned lawyers seated in the body of the court in addition to myself, Wilson Ogoke of Africa Nature Investors (Lagos), and one other.
After almost 3 hours of listening to judgments and rulings on civil matters relating to failed property acquisitions, business deals, and stock purchases, our case came up. The 3 Vietnamese accused indicated to the court that they wished to change their plea to guilty, perhaps tired of being on remand in a Nigerian jail since their arrest. This move appeared to catch the 3 other defense lawyers off guard, indicated by some animated murmuring between them. Within minutes, the prosecutor had agreed in principle to a deal and Lady Justice Bogoro adjourned the matter to July 19th for trial (and possible guilty plea). Two hours and 45 minutes of sitting in a hot, airless court like a tinned-sardine was over.
Justice and deterrence for wildlife-related crime in Nigeria is a challenge. Generally, the country does not see it as a priority for them. The bulk of elephant ivory, the pangolin scales, the rhino horn, the lion bones, and the grey parrots shipped from their country do not come from their country. It is shipped from Nigeria because the levels of corruption are high and the financial cost of that corruption is lower than other countries.
Also, the laws relating to these wildlife crimes in Nigeria are convoluted and weak. Two months ago, a Lagos clearing agent pleaded guilty for his part in attempting to ship 8.8t tonnes of pangolin scales and tonnes of ivory to Vietnam in January 2021. He was sentenced to a 15,000 Naira fine (USD $20) or in default 6 months in jail. Not surprisingly, he opted for the $20 fine. The only saving grace was he had been in remand for 3 months at time of sentencing. New endangered species legislation was drafted 18 months ago but the recent election caused a delay in its passing.
This case is under the spotlight to see if Nigeria can up its game.
July 19th, 2023:
Yesterday, back in the plea deal went through and the 3 Vietnamese and 1 Guinean national were sentenced. They pled guilty to 4 different counts in relation to the shipment. Total jail time that could be incurred was 6 years but that was only if they could not pay the total fine of 4.7 million Naira which equates to about USD $6000. One could not be faulted to assume that those who are part of a Vietnamese crime group and a West African crime group, could not come up with $6000.