Almost half of identified human trafficking cases began with a family member’s or love one’s involvement, says the International Organization for Migration (IOM) – a United Nations migration agency. Nigerian investigative journalist TOBORE OVUORIE, motivated by years of research into irregular migration such as trafficking of women, children and youths in her country; Nigeria, as well as the initial loss of a friend and subsequently many others, decides to dig deeper in the multi-billion-dollar criminal enterprise often involving family members or close associates of affected persons. Traveling around Nigeria, in this three-part series, she documents rape experiences, beatings, bruises, abductions, embassy officials, police and other security agencies’ aiding and abetting the criminal enterprise, murder and deaths.
Here are her findings.
“Every youth wants to seek greener pasture; so, that is what prompted me to go to Libya to help myself and my family,” Hope Yakub, told me, believing she was not trafficked.
It was 2015. Hope’s desire for greener pasture overseas was an open secret. Ozzy; a friend, came to the rescue by introducing Hope to her sister who lived in Libya. The lines seemed to be falling in pleasant places for Hope. Ozzy’s sister offered her an all-expenses paid trip to Libya!
She left Nigeria almost immediately.
“I think we spent like four days in Agadez and from there, a Hilux came to convey us to Qatroun in Libya and that was when the journey started. The driver of the Hilux made the ladies to sit beside him, while males were to sit at the back.”
Hope couldn’t get to the front seat. She sat at the back which was quite risky for her because they were crammed into the vehicle like sardines in a can. She and others at the back held onto sticks to support themselves.
On departing Agadez, before arriving the first checkpoint, the Libya-bound youngsters heard some noise which made them apprehensive. At the checkpoint, they saw a corpse on the ground. The dead man fell from the Hilux he was traveling in. The driver never waited.
“That is how the guy lost his life. And that is how our journey changed. Everybody became moody. We became sad. We were trying to cheer ourselves but it was not working,” my eyes locked with Hopes’, I painted images in my mind; of the horror she was narrating. I waited for her to say she immediately ended the journey. I was wrong: they kept going and spent four days in the desert amidst vast land filled with sand.
“We saw some corpses. We saw dried bones. We were attacked by rebels and our driver had to hide us somewhere until we got to Qatroun.”
I was almost asking her “what yeye greener pasture were you looking for by taking part in this kain horror film?” The journalistic part of me successfully took control.
Minutes birthed hours, then days, with Hope and the other youngsters waking and sleeping on the deserted dusty road from Qatroun to Sabha. She made new friends. Her new buddies were heading to Italy to become nurses. At Sabha, she was told for the first time ever that the jobs awaiting her was prostitution or domestic servitude. She was certain of not becoming a sex slave. She trusted Ozzy’s sister.
After three days idling in Sabha because vehicles and movements are regimented, she continued the journey to Tripoli.
“When we got to Tripoli, I met the lady. She is a very nice person. She welcomed me and gave me food and shelter. Then I called my parents. That was the first time my mom knew I travelled by road. We spent like 17 days (on the journey to Libya).”
Same day Hope arrived; Ozzy’s sister told her she would start work the next day. Hope was already battling with ulcer pains due to starving for days on the trip, so pleaded that she be allowed to heal.
“She said no, that I have to start paying her money and because I am like her sister, she is going to collect 4,002 Libyan dinars (N500,000).”
Hope started work exactly the following day as a servant to a Libyan family and had to learn Arab within a month in order to communicate easily. After two months, she stopped working for that family due to the stress of working from 7am to 12 midnight without being allowed to rest. She moved on to work for a friendlier family with a smaller apartment. She stayed with them until she completed paying the madam who brought her to Libya.
Once upon a time after graduating from the University of Benin (UNIBEN) and relentlessly hunting for a job, Osita Osemene became frustrated. He lost hope. This was sometime in 2003/2004. Then, decided to leave Nigeria by all means.
“Someone very close to me, that actually meant well for me, but didn’t know that it was going to turn out like that, volunteered to help,” Osita sat opposite me in a room at the Ikeja Airport Hotel, one of the elitists’ part of Lagos state, recounting how his migration dreams headed south.
His helper brought him a travel package – international passport with a visa, and flight tickets–but at the airport departure terminal, he was instructed to step aside and wait for the British High Commissioner.
“I don’t have anything with the British High Commissioner,” the then young Osita had retorted.
Then, very big trouble arrived.
Security agents around helped by alerting him that there was a problem with his travel documents, so he should quickly leave the airport. Osita’s lucky hunch at escaping arrest. Fake travel documents are a disturbing racket with even airport officials’ involvement.
Notwithstanding the narrow escape, Osita’s thirst to leave Nigeria by all means, increased.
“Due to the desperation and I had made up my mind that I was going to leave this country, I was still not comfortable where I was. The issue is that I didn’t go back home because I had lost a lot of hope; I was looking for alternatives. I had complained to my relatives, my sisters and friends, so, they were consoling me not to worry, I can still make it (to migrate at all cost).
“But it was so fast that within 24 hours, I got an option; that there are a lot of people who want to leave this country that are waiting. They want to go to Spain; when they get to Morocco, they will be picked with flight and being that I was desperate given my state that time, I was ready for anything and my goal was to leave this country.”
Osita immediately left Lagos to Asaba. On getting there, he met some persons waiting to travel. They said they were waiting for him. So, he quickly mopped up some funds and paid to join them on the trip.
“They said we were leaving soon that we were going to enjoy it, only to find myself in Kano and we started hearing that somebody was going to carry us, that we should cooperate and be our brother’s keeper. Initially, I suspected something was wrong, when I saw that they were trying to unite us before leaving. They were giving us water to drink that we should not betray ourselves and everything.
“I was wondering what kind of journey will require not betraying ourselves? But what I found out is that, once you are desperate, you are vulnerable; you will fall into a lot of traps. They can sell anything to you and you will buy. So, I found myself in that place because they had already seen that this guy is no more here, he wants to leave at all cost. And, I went. That is how I found myself in the land of no return, which is Sahara Desert, on my way to Europe”.
Osita was told that in five days’ time they would be in Spain because it would be a tourist journey with stopovers; lodging in beautiful hotels, and beholding lovely sceneries.
“But when we got to Agadez, it was then I discovered that the narration was different from what I was experiencing. Somebody was using us to perfect his trade.”
“First, at the park, we were told to buy garri, spaghetti, biscuit, that was when I asked them ‘but you told me it was a tourist journey and in tourist movement, you are supposed to get to a hotel, and sleep’. At the end of the day, I cooperated and bought it.”
The journey from Kano to Zinder took almost a whole day because they travelled in a truck that was almost falling apart. They were received by an Alhaji when they arrived at their destination. He took them to a connection house where they would spend the next five days.
The connection houses look like pens for goats. They are old mud buildings in which several persons are allocated little corners in the large open space to put their blankets or wrappers or mats on the floor to sleep until the day they are called to embark on their journey. A major feature in the connection house is the communal feeding schedule; the owner of the connection house cooks once or twice daily for the occupants of the house who are entitled to eat because they already paid for the service. Also, the owner of the connection house provides protection for persons who are being trafficked or smuggled because police looks out for the latter persons. The owners of the connection houses give part of the money paid to them (by traffickers, smugglers, persons being trafficked and smuggled) to the police as bribes, hence, the latter look the other way while human traffickers and smugglers’ businesses and activities thrive.
On one of the occasions, Osita and the persons he travelled with separated themselves from those going to connection houses. Very late in the midnight, some Moroccan burgers- persons who traffick people through Morocco, came with guns into the rooms to rob every occupant.
Of Stranded Nigerians, Abandonment, And Mental Instability
Their stay at Dirkou military camp, after leaving Agadez was hellish. Osita saw many stranded Nigerians. Abandoned by their burgers, they had been on the road for a year due to lack of funds to continue their journey. Many of these young Nigerians had become mentally unstable.
“All in the name that they are going to Europe, they became mad on the way. You will see some of our girls being raped by these rebels and soldiers in the camp. It is a whole lot of terrible experiences that happen in transit to Europe, especially in the Sahara Desert,” Osita was pensive at this stage of our discussion.
Dr. Babatunde Fadipe, a psychiatrist at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, (LUTH) tells me while filming him for a documentary, that people who have been victims of human trafficking can experience a wide range of mental problems or psychological problems. These could include Post Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD). This is commonly seen in persons who have experienced life-threatening events that may have threatened their own existence or witnessed other people being victims of such.
According to Dr. Fadipe, young Nigerians who have become mentally unstable in the Sahara Desert have the meltdown because their expectations were cut short as it is not what they were told that they experienced on the road.
For instance, Osita was told that he was going to Morocco, and be in Spain within the next five days, only to end up in the Sahara Desert and spent over 23 days to arrive Libya. He never knew he was actually going to travel by road, how much more, through the desert.
“For someone who cannot control his or her emotions, a lot of things will go wrong, especially as their families would have had high hopes in them believing they are already in Europe,” Dr. Fadipe explained.
Ms. Ikana Apata, a life coach/mental health expert, says common symptoms of persons who have been trafficked include fear- the most common, anger, anxiety, depression and some forms of disorders. “It is very important to start from counselling, which is the most common way of helping them, though at times, they are advised to take medication,” she says.
Mrs. Ikana says during counselling, the various mental health challenges are discovered, but the most predominantly noted is fear. She says their having so much fear issues could be as a result of how they were trafficked.
Sometime in 2010, August to be precise, 16-year-old Mary Joseph who was about to write her final senior secondary school examination decided to look for her mother during the long vacation because they were separated since she was a toddler due to uncontrollable circumstances. She eventually located her mom but met her in a bad state: abandoned with a set of twins by her husband. He was nowhere to be found.
As the first child, Mary wanted to join her mom wherever she was working so she could earn some more money for her in order to care for herself and the kids. The mom refused because she had no specific work at the time. But she discussed it with her pastor who was surprised that she had a grown daughter. Impressed by Mary’s zeal to assist, the pastor said there was vacancy at a supermarket somewhere in Lagos. But two days later, she phoned Mary’s mom that the place was no more available, however, there was vacancy elsewhere in Kano. Mary was very excited about working in Kano. It would be her first-time changing environment, so, considered it an excursion.
RELIGION, TRAFFICKING AND SURPRISES
Two days later, Mary embarked on the journey to Kano after her mom’s pastor introduced her to a certain Alhaja Hassan who then handed her over to a man who was to take her from Lagos to Kano state. On their way, at Ibadan, during the night journey, the man picked three ladies. They arrived Kano about 6pm, but it turned out the journey was not yet over as the man made some phone calls, and a golf car turned up to pick them to the next destination. Mary thought it was the last taxi to be boarded. The man also confirmed Mary’s thought that it was the last taxi before the final destination. When it was almost seven, Mary brought out her mobile phone to call her mother only for her to notice the texts on her phone had changed from “MTN to L’orange.” She started asking questions while the driver turned on the car’s radio for Mary to hear French over the airwaves. Her questions about their whereabouts increased. In a speed of light, the men in the car seized her phone and locked the car doors. She was the only one talking and feared that she was being abducted.
PHENOMENOLOGY OF HUMAN TRAFFICKING
Researches indicate 10 years ago, there were two categories of traffickers: family members – aunties, friends of families, and some husbands who felt that they have had the number of children they wanted to have, and because they were very poor, there was no reason their wives could not go abroad to make some money and make their lot better.
But today, my investigations from November 2019 reveal that syndicates have become so sophisticated. In addition to having family members and their friends, there are now people who are traffickers on their own; who buy people to be trafficked. These ones are more or less like businessmen. They get in touch with students who are agents for them in universities, secondary schools, cybercafes, bars, clubs, so, they try to ingratiate themselves into the people they meet at these places. When successfully achieved, they tell these unsuspecting persons there is so much money to be made if they become an agent to (them) traffickers. These are the people who now lure their friends or other persons into trafficking rings. They sell human beings to traffickers.
Investigations so far, reveal that, as an agent, a student could sell a friend for N100,000. For a university or secondary school student, this is a lot of money. They are paid cash on delivery while the person to be trafficked is lured into believing that they are going abroad for further studies, to become a hairdresser, cosmetologist, while the latest, being they are going abroad to tie headgear popularly known as gele in Nigeria. They claim there is plenty of money in gele tying especially in destinations where there are large populations of Nigerians.
Explaining how the human trafficking journey works, Dr. Franca Attoh, an associate professor at the Sociology department, University of Lagos, says a person being trafficked can start the journey with a group in Nigeria, but by the time the person arrives the final destination, he or she would have been trafficked by four different groups. “Each one is a group, and each one makes a profit. So, it is real. It is a trade in human commodity; human beings have become commodities to be traded and re-traded,” she states.
Trafficking syndicates consists of madams who could be on their own, and businessmen whose products being sold are human beings. And, it is never easy to recognize them because they are well dressed, drive fast cars and check out places where young people go to. According to Dr. Attoh, young people are easily carried away because of this razzmatazz.
Mary quietly watched as she was transferred from one vehicle to another until they arrived a military checkpoint where the car was flagged by army officers. She tried to cry out for help that she was being kidnapped. Before she could complete the sentence, she was hit so hard – a thunderous slap – and she fainted.
She later regained consciousness while in a very big building with several girls and started asking what they were doing there but no one answered her. They all looked scared and worried. Two young men who understood and spoke English whom she met in the building refused to tell her why she was brought there. Two days later, she was moved to Zinder where she later met Alhaja Hassan’s daughter for the second time but the latter snubbed her when she tried to exchange pleasantries. She acted like she had never met Mary before. The young man taking her on the journey warned her to mind her business. Some 18-seater buses and cars were on ground to convey Mary and the other girls to the next destination.
“It was a terrible journey because rebels attacked us on the way shooting guns. For the first time in my life, I saw guns,” Mary still recollects vividly.
It finally dawned on Mary she was being trafficked only when they arrived at their next destination – Agadez. She finally got answers to her questions: she was being taken to Libya to become a sex slave.
But Mary was a virgin.
She asked the man who took her from Nigeria why he never told her nor her mother the truth. “He said he could not tell me because if he talks, his life will be at stake and his wife’s, too,” Mary narrated further.
The man was shocked when Mary told him she had never had sex.
The traffickers and smugglers were financially stranded at some point during the two weeks they spent at Agadez, so, the girls and ladies being trafficked and smuggled were pimped to make money. But Mary was shielded due to her being a virgin. At a market square in Agadez, while being prepared for their next destination; Dirkou, she saw so many Nigerian ladies and could not help wondering if there were still ladies back home in Nigeria. Then, they were loaded like cows into massive vehicles with open tops and no seats; for the journey. The driver – of the vehicle she was in – drove like legions of demons were in hot pursuit. Persons who fell out of the vehicle due to poor stamina were abandoned in the desert. Their possessions were thrown out of the trailer while the journey continued.
NO MONEY: NO MERCY, NO JOURNEY!
At every point in the journey, anyone who ran out of cash was abandoned, while others continued.
“When we left, we left in a group, but when we got to a point in the desert, like Dirkou, I had left so many persons that we embarked on the journey from Kano together,” Osita quietly narrated, his gaze no more on me.
“They were all dropping and getting stranded. At a point, we got stuck and we saw a lot of clothes and bags at a well. Many persons were jubilating (on sighting a well) because we had issues with the truck that was carrying us, only for the Chad driver carrying us to say that they buried a lot of Nigerians there (in the well). They got stuck, missed their way and out of starvation and dehydration, most of them died. They had to put a well there because of the water issue. When you get to the well, you will see skeletons around it. These are people who were being smuggled, trafficked or traveling but they were mostly Nigerians and West Africans.”
The fate which befell the persons who died around the well could have befallen Osita because he had no water while they had to travel by foot; in the desert, through borders of various communities until they arrived at the first state in Libya called Qatroun. At some point in the desert, Osita was left behind when he became too weak to continue with the journey but for a kind-hearted fellow traveller who returned with some drinking water so that he could continue.
LIFE OF INDISCRIMINATE ARRESTS, UNCERTAINTY.
One day, while at work, Hope Yakub received a call from an unknown person. Her friends had been arrested. She couldn’t go to the Police station to bail them. She would be arrested, too. The husband of the Libyan woman whom she was serving accompanied her to the Police station for the bail which cost 2000 Libyan dinars. Hope had to work extra months for the family as payment for the bail fee. She then stopped being a live-in servant due to sexual harassment and other ill-treatments. Hope moved in with her boyfriend because unmarried ladies who live alone are constantly harassment by Libyan Police officers. They break into their homes. Not long after she started to live with her boyfriend, Hope became pregnant. The boyfriend wanted her to stop work but she refused. Hope wanted money of her own, and was planning to return to Nigeria.
Towards the end of February; the following year, Hope’s friends went to the market to buy food items for their forthcoming birthday party, while Hope who was past the first trimester of pregnancy stayed back at home to cook for them. She prepared beans, ate, watched some movies, then slept. When she woke up around 5pm in the evening and couldn’t find the girls anywhere around, she knew something was wrong. She raised alarm calling everyone she knew in Libya that something had happened to the two ladies as their phones kept ringing but not being answered.
At about eight in the night, a man answered the call that her friends had been abducted by his group. The ransom fee was 1000 Libyan dinars. Every Nigerian associated with the abducted girls refused being the one to deliver the ransom. Hope then decided she would.
The next day, Hope’s taxi driver came for her but in possession of a gun and cutlass because she had explained she perceived from the phone call that the abductors were blacks, not Arabs. So, they both felt it was something they could handle.
After wasting so much time at the agreed drop-off location for the ransom fee, with the abductors repeatedly changing the pick-up time, the taxi driver suspected the abductors were up to no good. Immediately he started the car and wanted to move, they were ambushed both at the front and back. The duo was surrounded by young men pointing sophisticated guns at them.
Hope was dragged out of the car, while the driver was thoroughly beaten and his car’s wield screen broken. Passers-by were simply looking. No one uttered a word. Hope was forced into a tinted vehicle by three men wearing Police uniforms and taken to Serir in Tajura. There were many sex workers and Arabs going about their various activities at the place Hope was taken to. She was speechless and overwhelmed by shock at the reality of her being abducted while trying to rescue her friends. She was stripped off her phone and money. A sex worker, a lady from Benin city, Edo state, told Hope her friends had been sold the previous day by her abductors who are Nigerians and Nigeriens.
Hope was beaten with electric cables when she refused to eat and call her family to pay a ransom fee of N500,000. The gang’s leader later told his members the buyer who was to buy Hope had been contacted. She was moved to another place with six guns-wielding Arabs to watch over her. Hope couldn’t escape because she noticed there were CCTV all over the place.
LIFE OF ASSAULT.
At about 12am, two female sex workers from a connection house and who were loudly chewing gums came into the room Hope was in. She explained her predicament to them since they were familiar with the area if they could help her. She was ignored, then told to relax and accept whatever will happen to her. Two mattresses were laid beside Hope, while the men had sex with the two ladies at the same time. Hope couldn’t cry. She was too shocked. Then, a man by the name Abdallah came in, raped Hope while beating her at the same time. Two of his friends also joined him in taking turns to rape her. The three men took turns on her all through the night until the dawn of the next day. In the morning, she swore (to herself) she would rather die than allow them touch her again. But there was no escape route because where they were was like a forest.
Hope was later moved back to Serir where she met a sex worker and pleaded with her to assist her in escaping because if she was sold, her pregnancy would be forcefully aborted and she could lose her life in the process. The sex worker; a Nigerian, advised her to simply accept her fate.
At night, about 20 Nigerian and Nigeriene men arrived in the room where Hope was kept. While eating, they were talking about the person who was to buy Hope because he was delaying in coming with the money. Then, she was moved to another room where she started praying to God for an escape route.
It started raining.
And, the 20 men were so excited at the sight of the rain, and rushed outside because it hardly rains in Libya. While outside, they continuously fired gunshots into the air, and danced with reckless abandon, forgetting Hope was alone in the room. Towards 9.30pm, it stopped raining. Hope resumed prayers telling God she considers the rain a sign for her to escape, so, if this is really Him and she wouldn’t be harmed while escaping, the rain should resume falling.
A very heavy downpour started immediately.
The abductors started shooting, everywhere was noisy because people were very happy over the heavy downpour. Hope picked one of the phones being charged nearby, opened the window, and jumped. She removed her shoes and started running until she got to a very high fence. She jumped over the fence. She still doesn’t know how she did it.
Hope kept running in the heavy downpour while following a light ahead of her until she got to the road at about past 10 that night. There were no cars on the road anymore, so, she kept running because she knew they would come after her immediately her absence is discovered. She waved at an oncoming vehicle but it didn’t stop. All cars she waved down didn’t stop. Then, one of the vehicles that had passed her, returned, while the occupants asked if all was well with her. She explained that she was kidnapped that they should please assist her. The door was open for her to enter the car. But she never knew that they were also kidnappers.
She was driven to a nearby Police station for identification by the officers – if she escaped from them – they said no. The Police officers requested she be left with them for further investigations but Hope refused that the Police will sell her. The men then refused leaving her with the Police claiming they will carryout their own investigations. Immediately they stepped out of the Police station, the phone Hope stole started ringing. The men collected the phone and answered the call. The other kidnappers told them to return Hope because she is one of their wives but who stole money from them and ran away. Immediately the call ended, Hope stripped herself naked in front of them saying she should be searched. They did but found no money on her except some pain relievers. She was miraculously released and even given some money to find her way home, though one of them sexually harassed her for oral sex. She slept in the cold that night and found her way home at dawn the next day. Her friends were very excited on seeing her because no one escapes from kidnappers’ den in Libya.
At some point in the journey, Osita had to give a rebel-soldier the designer trouser he was wearing, his bag, neck and hand chains, and a pair of sancho shoes in exchange for protection. The latter took him as a friend and ensured he was never beaten or messed up like other persons being trafficked or smuggled on the trip. Many Nigerian ladies were raped in his presence, while others who didn’t have money to give to the rebels and thieves were shot in their legs.
Osita and the agent who was trafficking him and others on the journey had a major disagreement which almost resorted in physical exchanges between them. Osita was very angry at the great deceit and lies they were told by the agent. He was further angered that all these were perpetrated by a young man like him and who had also just graduated from the university. The relationship broke down irretrievably. They had to go their separate ways when almost at Tripoli.
THE NIGERIAN TREND
National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking In Persons (NAPTIP) says in Nigeria, the two most reported human trafficking cases are foreign travels which promote prostitution and employment of children as domestic workers while inflicting grievous harm.
Most of these victims are women but children and men these days, now consist larger shares than they did 10 years ago. The anti-trafficking agency’s 2017 report states in the country, 0.1 percent of trafficked victims are men, while 25 percent are females. Globally, 51percent of trafficked persons are females and 21 percent are males. The report indicates traffickers are often males but women comprise a large number of convicted offenders.
Majority of Nigerian migrants undertake the risky journey in search of jobs in North Africa and Europe. IOM’s Missing Migrants Project states 2,834 migrants died at sea on the route between Libya and Italy in 2017. The Central Mediterranean Sea is one of the deadliest migration routes in the world. Travelers are sexually abused, robbed, and abducted on the Niger’s desert to Libya route and while crossing the sea to Italy.
Notwithstanding these hazards, European statistics indicates at least one person dies for every 35 persons arriving Europe. It states the number of illegal migrants from West Africa to Europe is still rising.
EXPENSIVE TICKETS TO CHEAP DEATHS!
The boats used in crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Libya into Italy come in various sizes and makes but all of them are rickety. They are either made of wood but with Yamaha engines attached to them, or balloons. Trafficked and smuggled persons and other illegal migrants pay almost fair fortunes before being allowed to board these boats but with unexpressed guaranty that they will arrive their destinations safely and alive.
The boat owners, traffickers and smugglers tell the persons in the boat to simply get the boat to move on a straight path and help themselves through the water. A passenger who thinks he can operate the boat’s engine volunteers to move it while others suggest the direction, they think the boat should go. The smugglers and traffickers give the passengers a mobile communication device, that if they run into danger, they should call a certain phone number and rescuers will turn up. They do these because they are fully aware the passengers will definitely run into danger.
Most travellers who get into these boats do not make it to their final destination because the boats capsize or are turned back with the occupants half alive. Many boats get missing on the high sea and are never found.
These led to Osita telling himself salient truths that he left Nigeria well dressed but at the time he was at the departure point – the Mediterranean Sea – he was only wearing a boxer- undergarment and a singlet. He says Libya was hell, while the Libyans are racist with deep-rooted hatred for Nigerians.
“When they chase blacks, and they meet Ghanaians, Nigerians, Senegalese and Congolese, they will leave those people and grab the Nigerians. When they abduct the Nigerians, they break their legs. So, I found out this is not a country and kept asking myself what brought me here?”
He decided to return to Nigeria.
“Having known where I was coming from, I couldn’t stand it anymore. There was no point going to commit suicide when I was already free because getting to Libya was like freedom for me.”
Osita started thinking about launching a campaign against trafficking while travelling back through the desert back to Nigeria.
MURDER, MURDER, EVERYWHERE. DEAFENING SILENCE.
Dirkou is a desert and ghetto with different kinds of persons, especially shady characters. The first day Mary arrived there, a soldier stabbed a lady to death in her presence because the lady demanded for the money he had agreed to pay after rendering sexual services to him. Everyone watched the murder as if in a movie theatre, without uttering a word. Mary spent two weeks in Dirkou watching people being hacked to death and taking advantage of.
Again, they were packed like chickens in a vehicle travelling through the Sahara Desert to Qatroun. Then, their water got finished. The driver had to mix water and petrol in a keg for everyone to sip little drops so it could go around the crowd in the vehicle.
Then, a ghastly accident happened. Mary almost died in the process. Four persons later died due to dehydration, heatwave and exhaustion on that journey. She arrived Qatroun but with severe pains due to injuries sustained as a result of the accident.
Mary woke up one night in Qatroun, to a hefty man on top of her. He beat her mercilessly when she struggled to push him away. He gagged her mouth. No one came to rescue her. She was raped.
After some days, Mary was moved to Tripoli, then to Zuwara, where she was handed over to Gani- a fellow Nigerian, who had bought her. He wanted her to immediately resume as a sex worker though she had pleaded that she was in pains and had uncontrolled blood gushing from her vagina due to the rape.
“He said that was none of his business that I am going to pay him $3,000,” Mary took me down memory lane.
Mary’s pubic and armpit hair, as well as nails, were collected, and was threatened with voodoo that she will die except she does their biddings. One night, she was assigned to a Sudanese but when he touched her body, it was so hot. She noticed the man was concerned, so, she pleaded he allowed her to use his phone to call her mom. He initially refused because the ‘connection girls’ (sex workers) are not allowed to phone anyone. After much pleading and promises to keep the phone-call a secret, he allowed her call home to inform her mother about the pastor’s evil deeds and what had befallen her in Libya.
Some members of the Oduduwa society had noticed Mary and were on her trail while Gani handed her to another Nigerian to prevent the former from reaching her.
Mary was later moved to Misrata but was taken to the man’s home immediately they arrived at their destination. She met the man’s wife and son – both Nigerians, too, and pleaded if she could stay with them for a few days so she could recover fully, but the woman refused that she is to resume immediately as a sex worker at their connection house. Mary took ill and almost died. When Gani was contacted over Mary’s predicament, he simply asked for the amount she had made so far. When told nothing, he ordered she should be left alone to die.
Two weeks later, Gani came down to Misrata when members of the Oduduwa society were pressurizing him over the whereabouts of Mary. He then phoned the pastor who sold Mary to him to inform her that Mary had not made a dime since, so, the pastor must pay him. Attempts to have the pastor pay him N500,000 within three days failed, so he settled for N80,000.
On the third day, Gani got the N80,000 he requested from the pastor, he handed Mary to members of the Oduduwa people who had been searching for her after they heard her rape story amongst members of the Nigerian community in Libya. The Oduduwa group after listening to Mary, disclosed that the same pastor had trafficked no fewer than 72 Nigerian girls, including her own cousin. The group made Mary to promise she will stop at nothing until the pastor was sent to jail.
Mary’s mother got in touch with NAPTIP, while the organization arrested the pastor and Alhaja. November 5th that year, Mary returned to Nigeria through the assistance of the Oduduwa group which had never rendered such to anyone before.
Several weeks after Hope escaped from the kidnappers’ den, the whereabouts of her friends who were abducted was uncovered. They were sold to a lady from Benin city, Edo state who trades in human beings in Libya. After much pleading by Hope and her friends, the woman who had requested for a million naira before she would release the ladies, finally accepted N800,000. The ladies spent a month and 14 days working as sex workers for their fellow Nigerian woman.
Hope almost lost her life in the civil unrest around her house in Bazar Benghazi while she was seven months pregnant. Then, she started planning her return to Nigeria. Six months later, after her son was four months old, she finally returned to Nigeria; December 2017 after 30 months in Libya.
Osita’s return to Nigeria through the Sahara Desert was not tedious like his departure. The rebels were very happy he was going back to his country, particularly as the decision was his. They even waved ‘goodbye’ at him.
At a point while returning, Osita saw over 25 trucks loaded with Nigerian men and ladies from Edo and Delta states respectively, who were very anxious to get on the Mediterranean Sea through Libya.
“They were running as if Italy was going to run; they were showing me time that they need to enter (Libya) that they gave them time that the boat would soon leave.”
They never believed Osita that nothing awesome was happening in Libya, that it was all deception.
The pastor and Alhaja who sold Mary were sentenced to 21 years in prison respectively, after she testified against them in court. The pastor died immediately she was released from prison after serving her term in jail. Alhaja’s whereabout at the time of this publication remains unknown.
Reverend Father Benson Irabor, Resident Priest, St. Dominics Catholic Church Yaba, Lagos, says traffickers must be jailed notwithstanding forgiveness in Christianity because there is a penalty for every crime that is committed.
“There is a punishment that is attached to every crime; every sin that we commit,” he states.
TRAFFICKING SURVIVORS COME BACK WITH PLENTY OF MONEY OR ELSE…!
Fifty six of the 72 trafficking survivors I interviewed in Nigeria between January 2020 and July 2021 said they are discriminated against and stigmatised by the society, including their friends and families. Forty-eight of these affected persons are young ladies, while eight of them are men.
But Dr. Attoh says survivors can only be discriminated against if they return to the country with no money. “If a survivor comes back with nothing, often times, the parents and families will see that survivor as a failure. In short, they will tell the person that he/she is good for nothing. ‘Others have been going and succeeding and you came back with nothing. What story are you telling us?’”
But, if a survivor comes back and builds a hotel, or establishes three boutiques, and builds a house in a choice part of town, Dr. Attoh says such a person will not be discriminated against. The person will be accorded so much respect.
“You will be a big madam; you will be a babe. In fact, I have seen a situation where boys are running after the person and trying to marry her and the person was the one giving them the cold shoulder. It is because the person has money!
“So, two things: if you want to be trafficked, please, come back with plenty of money. Don’t be poor because poverty is a curse. But, if you come back with no money, then it means whatever you see, you get. Families can deny you. In short, they can even stop giving you food. They will tell you that you have become a leper; ‘we don’t know who you are.’”
Dr. Attoh says they are not being discriminated against because they went to Italy but because they came back with nothing. Thus, are considered failures.
The Associate Professor says if they succeed, even as thieves, their families will rebrand them. She says she knows five ladies who were trafficked for sex work, successfully paid their bandage fee, worked as sex workers thereafter and are now back to Nigeria.They own transportation lines in the country and call the shots in Nigeria’s transportation industry.
She notes that if a girl who is trafficked returns wearing only the clothes NAPTIP gave her, no family member will want to have anything to do with her.
However, in an online survey which I carried out via WhatsApp with respondents living in Abuja, Lagos, Ogun, Oyo, Rivers states respectively and Cotonou in the Republic of Benin, it turns out that the society is still divided over accepting human trafficking survivors and Libya returnees.
Eleven of the 22 survey participants live in Lagos, six in Abuja, two in Ogun state and one each in Oyo, Rivers and the Republic of Benin respectively. While 14 males and eight females who consist: civil servant, book publisher, journalists, politician, life/relationship coach, IT/Brand consultants, trader, artisan, rights activists, teacher, caterer, realtor, lawyers, fashion designer and medical doctors participated in the survey.
Titled: ‘Societal Acceptance Of Libya Returnees/Human Trafficking Survivors,’ I asked all respondents: “Would you (allow your child) marry a Libya/human trafficking survivor?” Ten of the 22 participants said they can marry the trafficked survivors and will allow their children do same. Nine on the other hand vehemently refused, three were uncertain if they can or will allow their kids embark on such path.
Some of their responses include:
Dr. Anthony Okeregbe, Senior Lecturer, Philosophy department, University of Lagos says the Nigerian government needs to do better in curbing human trafficking in the country. “The state; the judiciary, has to be in place and there should be diligent prosecution of those who have been culprits of human trafficking. …What does it take? Have we prosecuted the big wigs of this thing?” He asked.
Dr. Attoh opines that “If I were the government and I want to do away with illegal migration, it is not by all these lip service or rhetoric that we are doing. First of all, let us fix our economy.
“If our economy is good, I for instance sitting here (as a university lecturer) for all the money in the world, I don’t think I can live in any part of the world. I can go visit and return. That is because I have a paying job; I have a job that puts food on my table. For somebody who has graduated say three/four years ago, or, who has left secondary school for six years, and they have not found any job, if somebody comes to them and say there is something in Europe, and you are going to be getting money in dollars, don’t you think the person will jump at it?
“NAPTIP has facilities and shelters, but those shelters, who are the personnel working there? Do they have psychologists? Do they have social workers? Because by the time these people come back, if you have interacted with them the way I have interacted with them, you will find out that something has happened to their psyche. People could put on powder and lipstick, and look normal but something has happened to their soul. And, it requires thorough understanding of what it was that happened to them before you can bring them – not bringing them to status quo ante; something maybe near to it. Just near to normalcy; they can never be normal. It’s impossible because they can remember.
“I remember occasions that I was trying to speak with somebody, intermittently, the person would just burst into tears. In fact, on a particular day, we had to stop completely. We left. She said she was not doing anymore. Two days later, she called me. She said the interview was like a catharsis for her. She wanted to remember everything that happened to her when she was away; to see whether she will forget. Because the truth is that, if they open their mouth- even the madam themselves, most of them are retired traffickees, but they were just lucky that many of them got married to white men and were able to establish themselves, and they started bringing people from their place to come and join them to make money for them. But, it’s not easy.
“You know what it means to service 13/14 men a day? Of those 13/14 men, some of them will be loonies; many of them are not lawyers or doctors, mind you. Many of them are farm workers, construction workers, laborers, road workers; people who are even smelly. But then, because you need their money, you shut your senses to some of these things. If you are a decent person, you will recall. You have the power of recall and it will do something to your psyche.
“Society should not condemn, that will be my last word for this. There is no room for condemnation. Society should have empathy. And, the only way society can have empathy is to strengthen the organization that law has set up to help those who are survivors, but in doing that, we must have zero tolerance for corruption because often times, it is corruption that has brought us to where we are; from a tier one country to a tier two country- back again, it’s like we are starting from ground zero.
“You are talking about Italy!? Do you know how many of our girls are in Mali? How many of our girls are in Ouagadougou? That is, girls that have no Hope; they are in limbo. They left this country because they thought they were going to Europe. But they are somewhere in limbo; they cannot come back and they cannot go forward. So, it is a problem for us as a country and this problem is a problem that the state itself must find a way of sorting out,” she concludes.
Rev. Fr. Irabor says “since human trafficking is basically on women, we don’t actually give priority to women education in Africa; in Nigeria, and so, these women are forced into this labour, into something they do not bargain for, because there is no education. So, lack of proper education, because education remains the key to success, remains the key to unlock many opportunities.”
Dr. Attoh’s advice to the Nigerian government: “Simple: fix your economy. The moment your economy is fixed, trafficking will become something of the past. Once the economy is fixed today and you find out the naira is at per with the dollar, the naira is at per with the euro, I tell you, within 72 hours, most Nigerians will return. Not even the issue of trafficking, even professionals; brain drain, you will find out that a lot of Nigerians who have left this shore, will return overnight; it will no longer be lucrative for them to continue to stay.
“Staying abroad is not fantastic because you will be vulnerable to things like racism and discrimination. It is not Uhuru for them who leave here to go there to live. Truth is, it pays them because the little money they make, when they bring the money home and they change into the national currency, they have plenty of money. So, the risk they are taking is what we are all seeing. But once you fix your economy, you will find out that a number of things will take their normal shape overnight; you don’t need to be doing all these things (advocacy). There will be no preaching, no road shows, no enlightenment campaign, no Oba making a pronouncement. Everything will just return to normal.
“I have encountered a lady who finds it absolutely impossible to sleep the way you and I can sleep. You do your work; you get tired and put your head on the pillow and sleep. This lady cannot sleep except she is given a certain injection. Her situation is one of those happenstances; she wanted to work fast to pay off her debt, so, in addition to serving the normal client of 13/14 people a day, she decided to get involved in a porn movie, and on this particular occasion, they told her they were going to pay her $150 an hour and she agreed, but she will be latched onto the bed during the filming. And, of course she agreed because that was good money.
“So, she was latched onto the bed, and she said when the door got open, rather than a human being, it was a gorilla that entered. And, by the time the gorilla was done with her, she passed out. In fact, everything inside her were damaged.”
HOPE FOR TRAFFICKING SURVIVORS?
Dr. Fadipe says there is hope for survivors of human trafficking and irregular migration but all hands need to be on deck to do this. There is the need to educate the community and support the survivors.
Dr. Attoh also says there is hope for trafficking survivors because no situation is hopeless. Once there is life, there is hope. She however warns that: “our destiny is in our hands. The gods can only help us when we decide to help ourselves. Anyone who is a survivor; having survived, you have returned to source, it is now up to you to key into rehabilitation to see how you can rebuild yourself.”
Rev. Fr. Irabor says one of the ways trafficking survivors can rebuild themselves is by making lemonades with the lemons life hauled at them.
“There are people who after being trafficked, they come out of it and you see them promoting something that is worthwhile. There is hope for them. Everybody has hope and that is what we preach; that is the gospel of Christ -preach hope to the people – instead of them to feel dejected or feel rejected because of something has happened to them.”
Watch the full documentary on How Kinship Kills Nigerian Women, Youths (1) here:
This report was supported by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (DFAIT) through the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation (AICS) and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) under the empowering young people in Africa through media and communication project.