Nigerians in Thailand: Two Sides to Every Story
by Jennifer L. Patin*
5 July 2012
2012 has already seen multiple raids on the areas of Bangkok where the majority of the city’s African population congregates. These locales include Sukhimvit Road’s Nana area (specifically Soi 3 and Soi 3 ½) and Ramkhanhaeng Road of the Bang Kapi District. Photos of African men with heads bowed, handcuffed and kneeling on the ground have littered some of Thailand’s top English language online media outlets. Thai police, narcotics officers, and immigration officials are known to rip through areas of Bangkok heavily populated with West Africans demanding passports and often sniffing out illegal drugs.
A couple of logical inferences can be drawn from the news coverage surrounding these incidents: 1. Thai law enforcement entities are purposely raiding West African areas of Bangkok, therefore West Africans in Bangkok are suspected of illegal activities. 2. Thai authorities are actually finding illegal drugs in possession of West Africans; therefore some of these suspects are indeed committing illegal activities. It is the Who, How, and Why of this problem in Thailand that is not often investigated. Who are the Africans in Thailand, particularly the Nigerians? How do they end up in Thailand? Why are large numbers involved in the trafficking, producing, and selling of drugs? And how do the actions of some Africans affect the daily lives of all Africans living in Thailand and abroad?
Nigerians were first seen in relatively large numbers in Thailand in the early 1980s. At that time, they came for trading opportunities, especially for the import and export of clothes and gemstones. Thailand rice exporters later formed a relationship with Nigeria that continues to be profitable for the Kingdom, with Nigeria becoming the world’s largest importer of Thai rice in 2010.
Nigerian organized drug trafficking syndicates started spreading throughout Asia in the late 1980s to early 1990s. Thailand became their base for obtaining heroin and then smuggling it to other Asian countries, like Hong Kong or Taiwan, and then onward to the United States and Europe. As the Nigerian organized crime groups grew in reputation and sophistication, professional Nigerian traffickers began being noticed and recruited by drug lords in South America, Columbia in particular, and a few parts of Europe.
Nigerian drug syndicates often employ the multiple courier method to transmit drugs transnationally. Using this method, the couriers hired by top Nigerian drug dealers usually obtain the illegal package in Bangkok. From Bangkok, the courier will smuggle the drugs on a flight to what is deemed a “transit” country. In the transit country, the illegal package will be handed to a different courier. The second courier will then fly to another “transit” country immediately preceding entry into the final destination and handover the drugs to a third courier, who will smuggle the drugs into the United States or Europe. Additionally, it is not uncommon for Nigerians at the top of the drug chain to be individuals of “privilege and influence;” a Nigerian ex-Senator and a former official of the Nigerian Drug Law Enforcement Agency being examples.
Nigerians now make up one of the largest communities of Africans living both legally and illegally in Thailand. In 2009, they ranked number seven on a list of the top ten foreign nationalities incarcerated in Thailand. In 2011 there were reportedly an estimated 700 Nigerians in Thai prisons, not counting more that had died while detained in Thailand or had been imprisoned in Thailand before being extradited back to Nigeria. While there is no record or factual information about a Nigerian Mafia in Thailand, news reports, non-fiction literature, and prison statistics over the past decade imply that there is a sophisticated Nigerian organized crime syndicate working within the area known as the Golden Triangle, as well as in South America, Europe and China, as previously mentioned. Nigerians in these particular areas might be involved in sex trafficking, drug smuggling, and a variety of scams. Nigerians were also notorious for money-making scams in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia during the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Statistics aside, many Nigerians have undergone a collective experience that has led them to the drug business in Thailand; others have walked in the opposite direction into lives of legitimate and socially-acceptable achievements. Two sides of the Nigerian experience in Thailand will be examined in this article.
A Nigerian businessman, who wishes to go only by his first name of Alex, has been living in Bangkok for the past three years. He currently resides here on a Non-B visa and works as a clothing exporter, primarily in the Pratunam area of Bangkok. His insight into the Nigerians who are involved in the drug trade in Thailand at the lower level is an untold story, and one that he knows of from his cousin’s personal experience. As Alex relates it, his cousin grew up in a relatively small village in Nigeria. At age eighteen he was approached at his local market by a man calling himself a “travel agent.” The man sat down with his cousin and told him about golden opportunities to work legally in Europe, making enough money to support himself and his family in Nigeria. The cousin was promised an airplane ticket, passport, visa, and job for a fee of roughly $7000USD. Alex’s cousin used all of his immediate and extended family’s savings for the fee, plus borrowed and loaned funds, and then paid the agent half of the required money.
Shortly before the departure date, the agent told Alex’s cousin that a visa directly to a European country would be too difficult to obtain, and to make it easier, he would first get him a visa to an “easy” country, like India. The documents were prepared, more money was exchanged, and his cousin arrived in New Delhi waiting for his visa to a European country. However, shortly after arriving in India, he was told that there was a problem with his visa and that he would have to wait for it in Thailand. Alex’s cousin later told him, “I never even heard about a country called Thailand.” Yet he paid the rest of the fee to the agent.
His cousin flew to Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport with the Nigerian agent. The agent then promised to meet him the next day and paid for a taxi to take him to the Nana area of Bangkok. Alex’s cousin never encountered or heard from the agent again.
With no money, no home, and no hope of returning to Nigeria, the cousin found other Nigerians in Bangkok who survived by selling drugs supplied by organized Nigerian drug syndicates who worked with Thai drug groups. Alex claims to now know many small-scale Nigerian drug dealers who ended up in Thailand through the “travel agent scam.” “Most of our people in jail in Thailand are the street boys, the ones that the agents brought here,” claims Alex.
Mr. Emmanuel Nweke Okafor of Nigeria also weighed in on the travel agent scam, which he describes as real and a consequence of corruption in Nigeria and among Nigerians abroad.
If the Nigerian government is serious about [putting an end to] it, then it will stop. When most of [the Nigerians duped by agents] came here, they were struggling for a better life; most of them never knew they were coming for drug business. Please believe me that it is [Nigerians] who are responsible and who took a lot of money from these guys. [The scam victims] stay a long time in hotels and then their money [is] finished…after that, no home, nowhere to go.
Okafor is currently a lecturer and the Supervisor of the Language Laboratory Center at Bangkok’s prestigious Siam University. He is also preparing to defend his dissertation in hopes of becoming an official PhD candidate at Assumption University.
When Okafor arrived in Thailand in 2005, he was one of the jobless masses. Like most men who are identified as African in Bangkok, he was told that he would find others on Sukhimvit Road, Soi 3. When he looked to his fellow countrymen for guidance, they responded by telling him that becoming involved in the drug business was the only chance at survival. Okafor recalls that, “They told me there are no jobs here…that I had to start doing drug business…if I really wanted to make it.”
With his seminary background, Okafor could not fathom himself entangled in illegal business. He insists, “I didn’t want to do this drug business; I didn’t want to do counterfeit money; and…I didn’t want to be caught with my fellow Nigerian [drug-dealers]…to suffer what I didn’t do.”
Instead, he sought other avenues. He began attending a Catholic Church near Bangkok and met a Thai who gave him the name and address of the school his son attended after realizing that Okafor was unemployed and struggling. Okafor went to the school the next day and secured a teaching position immediately. Although he admits that his story was atypical at the time, he also acknowledges that there was a mentality among some Nigerians that there were no other options for survival in Thailand without the money obtained from selling and smuggling illegal drugs.
Okafor explains, “I will use the word ‘brainwash.’ It was just like putting somebody in a cage and indoctrinating the impression that Thailand is bad…no jobs, the only jobs here is [sic] drugs. This is different from the time now where Nigerians can go out and say, “I am a lecturer [at a university].”
Realizing that teaching was not out of reach for him, Okafor quickly earned his graduate diploma and teaching license at Bangkok’s Ramkhanhaeng University and continued the journey that has brought him to his current status as lecturer, student, and supervisor at a collegiate level. He has mentored many young Nigerians who, through finances, education and determination, have sought a different path in Thailand. Over the past few years, he has noticed and relished that, “Wherever I’m employed, immediately that employer will always like to start employing Africans, because before they didn’t know this side of Africans.”
Given the statistics about incarcerated Nigerians abroad and the negative reports in Thai and English language new sources, it is easy to understand, however unfair, why Nigerians are often looked upon with fear or contempt in Thailand. The statistics that are far less mentioned, however, concern the amount of Nigerians living in the Kingdom who are students, athletes, professors/teachers, and legitimate businesspeople. Many Nigerians who have come to Thailand to live here by legitimate means – as well as contribute to the intellectual and monetary economy –suffer from the discrimination that has developed against Nigerians abroad. Okafor protests,
I’ve been in this country [for many years] and I’ve never even seen drugs apart from what they show on the television. How come some people think all Nigerians are here for drugs? That is why I wrote my first article, Why Are Nigerians in Thailand? – The Positive Outlook. I tried to let people see the other side of it. Nigerians have now discovered that coming to Thailand to study isn’t only cheaper but it gives their children the opportunities they are looking for.
The notorious reputations of Nigerians abroad are often justified and accurate; however, Okafor implores people not to make the “hasty generalization…that [all] Nigerians seen in Soi 3 are drug dealers.” He wrote a blog post in 2011 explaining the communal nature of Nigerian people abroad. In his blog post, he states that,
We have many Nigerians who break the law, [sic] we also have many Nigerians who obey the law. [because Nigerians identify themselves as part of a community] it does not make sense to categorize Nigerians or other Africans as drug dealers because they were seen together…When for instance, I go to the Sukunmvit [sic] Soi 3, I do not go there because I am a drug dealer or a scammer…[I go] because it is a selected tourist zone in Bangkok….[and] because I need to cut my hair in an African style…[and] eat the best of African foods…
For every Nigerian abroad who is a drug dealer and a scammer, there is another who is striving to survive, excel, and rise above discrimination derived from fellow Nigerians. The current pattern in the media is to ignore the positive aspects of Nigerians in Thailand. Consequently Okafor, his Nigerian peers abroad, and those who aspire to his achievements will be the foremost representations that there are two sides to the Nigerian story.
“Alex” agreed to be interviewed for this article and retell the experience of his cousin under a pseudonym because of the sensitivity of the subject matter. The interview took place on June 4, 2012. The story he retells is factual to the best of his knowledge.
Okafor was interviewed June 10, 2012.