The operation was to destroy over 100 acres of land under cultivation of marijuana (cannabis sativa), locally called Jamba.
‘Operation Green Hay 2’ was carried out by the Transnational Organised Crime Unit (TOCU), a special force comprising the police, military and other security outfits.
TOCU normally handles hardcore crimes involving fraud and Class A drugs like cocaine. But a growing trend of marijuana cultivation in the country, which the government says threatens its food security drive, means that the unit was more preoccupied with a ‘new war’ that required months of planning and execution.
Sierra Leone has some of the most fertile lands in the West African region, yet it records some of the lowest agricultural yields. This is attributable to several factors, but the government has singled out the cultivation of cannabis as an emergent threat, given its additional national security implications.
There were no clear numbers of existing cannabis farms. But a 2011 Wikileaks revelation cited a 2009 US embassy cable showing government’s concern over the spread of the cultivation. It stated that security officials had identified hundreds of marijuana farms across the country, adding that Sierra Leone was “gradually emerging as one of the states in West Africa where the cultivation of marijuana is overtaking vital domestic crop farming”.
Within the last five months 17 people have been detained after several TOCU raids. The latest raid targeted two farms, with a total area of about 5km/sq.
Working with $50,000 funded from Irish Aid, an international organisation working on agricultural improvement yields in the West African country, the police hope to locate all existing farms and destroy them to make room for the production of essential crops.
“By the end of April, we will have carried out five more operations,” predicts Superintendent Strieby Logan of TOCU.
The unit is set to mount its second raid in the year within the next few weeks on an undisclosed location that has been under police surveillance for some months now.
Other areas where there is cannabis cultivation are being put under active surveillance, Mr Ibrahim Samura, the Director of Police Media Relations, told Africa Review.
The government has embarked on extensive sensitisation schemes through the National Security Council Coordinating Group (NSCCG), which comprised all of the country’s security establishments.
Part of the sensitisation is to support farmers with seedlings and implements, to encourage them to concentrate on essential food crops rather than marijuana.
But all these efforts could prove fruitless because of the lucrative nature of the prohibited crop. For the communities identified as involved in the cultivation and trade of cannabis, this had become the mainstay of their livelihoods.
A kilogramme of cannabis goes for $50, compared to a bag of rice (50kg) which goes for less. And in terms of production (labour) cost, it took less time to have a crop of cannabis ready for harvest and sale.
These, noted Mr Samura, were major factors that drove communities to go into this business.
In almost all of the houses searched by police after the early morning raid on Macdonald Village, the police found some amount of Jamba, proof of the extensive nature of the network.
Eleven people were randomly arrested during the raid, but police on later said they were yet to ascertain their complicity.
But according to Chief Superintendent Amara Sesay, who is Head of Transnational Organised Crimes, the location of the village and farms suggested that hardly any member of the village could be innocent.
“The lucrative nature of the crop over all other food crops makes it a source of much needed cash for the people, and that is why it is like a community investment,” he said in an interview.
Most of the cannabis cultivated in Sierra Leone was smuggled into neighbouring countries – mainly Guinea and Liberia. The frequent police interception of consignments confirmed much of the drug was exported.
At home, besides the effect on the national food security drive, the government was concerned about marijuana’s negative effect on the youth. Cannabis was consumed as soup, and drunk as a beverage, besides being smoked.
The 2011 Wikileaks revelations showed that national security authorities were particularly worried about the effect on unemployed youth who were said to be drawn into the trade to provide security for the farms.
Out of the over 500,000 Sierra Leoneans said to be suffering from mental problems, 90 per cent were youth. And the major factor attributed to their situation was abuse of drugs like cannabis.
The police, said spokesman Samura, faced various constraints in their fight against the menace.
Farmers appeared to have perfected their elusive tactics over the years by locating their farms at distant and highly forested areas where accessibility by vehicles was a big problem, because of extremely bad road conditions.
There was also the danger of armed resistance, which made police operations even riskier. The money-making potential of the business required hiring the services of extra hands for ‘protection’.
Observers feared that the expanding and evolving marijuana trade could open doors for other deadlier criminal activities in areas where the security situation was already fragile. And the reported complicity of members of the army, the police, traditional chiefs and even Members of Parliament made the fight even more frustrating.
A senior police officer was currently on trial after being caught allegedly aiding the transportation of a commercial vehicle loaded with a cargo of cannabis that was being smuggled out of the country.
“The profit involved in this thing is so tempting that it is a challenge to anyone’s integrity,” Superintendent Sesay said, admitting widespread perception of police connivance in the trade.
He added: “They [farmers] had invested so much in it that it was difficult to deal with them.”