Ms. Julie Okah-Donli

Ms. Julie Okah-Donli is the Director-General of the National Agency for Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons. In this interview with Iyobosa Uwugiaren, she spoke on the challenges tackling the fast growing global business of human trafficking and how criminally-minded people are making huge profits from selling human organs  

Tell us the challenges you are facing in tackling human trafficking in line with your mandate?

The basic challenges we are having relate to funding. As you know, this is a very complicated and technical business if you want me to put it that way. Funding is very important because most of our jobs entail advocacy. We need a lot of money to be able to create awareness, not just at the state level but also local government levels as well; so we need funding. Secondly, our major challenge has got to do with lack of information; information in the sense that most of these victims do not want to divulge any information. The citizens in general do not give information; so we work based on intelligence and information, and if we don’t get information, then who are we going to prosecute? That’s the question.

Share with us the destinations of these human traffickers, do they have foreign collaborators?

Well, the notorious countries are basically Italy, Spain, France, and now Saudi Arabia has become more notorious. Saudi Arabia has now joined the gang, Dubai and the Middle East have become a problem to us; even China. It’s getting to all the countries: the Middle East, European countries and Africa. Back in the days, you could pinpoint one or two countries; now it’s like almost everyone is trying to get into this trafficking thing.

Why is trafficking very attractive?

The truth is that if there is no demand and profit, there will be no supply. Obviously, we have lots of demands from Europe; we have a lot of profit from this illicit trade. Unfortunately, in some of the European countries, prostitution is legal, and it’s so difficult to curb it just like that. That’s why we are working with international partners and governments to make sure that this aspect of trafficking is really looked into and tackled seriously.

Apart from your agency’s efforts, are you collaborating with other groups in order to make huge impact in the fight against human trafficking?

Absolutely, we are collaborating with most of the countries, where we have trafficking; that is, the destination countries; we are partnering with their governments; we are partnering with their law enforcement agencies. We have something like a joint task force, we are partnering with the International Organisation on Migration; we are partnering with United Nations on Drugs and Crimes; we are partnering with International Labour Organisation (ILO); UNICEF, ECOWAS, so many international organisations and international non-governmental organisations as well.

What are the impacts of these collaborations in the last few years?

We share information and intelligence gathering; they help us to prosecute. They arrest offenders for us; they send back victims of the trafficking; they send back traffickers to Nigeria, IOM have been helping a lot in that regards. They repatriate back victims and illegal immigrants as well, because it’s not just a trafficking thing now, there’s so much migration going on.

Your mandate includes tackling human trafficking, prostitution and force labour. Which is the most challenging?

All of them are very challenging to us. When we talk about force labour, most of the time we are looking at children, who are going into labour, working for hours without being paid adequately, who are being abused sexually, physically, and they are not being paid; someone else is collecting their money for them. Now, we talk about sexual exploitation, which relates to more mature girls and even the men who are sexually abused, most of them are older. All of them have their problems; I will not choose one over the other. They are all horrible crimes against humanity; we treat all of them with equal seriousness.

Don’t you think it would have been better to tackle the problem here before they move abroad. Why are you finding it difficult to tackle the problem here in Nigeria?

We are not finding it difficult to tackle the problem here in Nigeria. The problem here in Nigeria, is that a lot of people see something and they don’t say something. Like I said earlier, if you don’t talk about it, if you don’t give us information, it’s going to be difficult for us. Of course, we have our surveillance staff members that go out gathering information; we have our private investigators; we have informants who also give us information; of course, it’s not enough because this is a very huge crime. So if people begin to talk to us and give us information, it will be easier for us. Besides, we do a lot of awareness campaigns now; we go everywhere and we talk about it and people are aware now. That way we are tackling the issue.

There are some states that are notorious in trafficking. What is NAPTIP doing to reduce the activities of trafficking in those states?

Apart from NAPTIP, there are so many international organisations and NGOs who are very interested. For example, Edo State has remained endemic of all the states even though trafficking has been moving from state to state. Now, we cannot pinpoint Edo State, all the states are endemic now; it’s just that Edo State was one of the earliest endemic states. A lot of concentration is given to the state; we are working with Governor Godwin Obaseki, who is trying to make his indigenes know that they don’t need to travel abroad. He has promised to train them, give them technical skills and even send them to school for those who want to go to school. In that regard, we are doing a lot of enlightenment campaign, we also have Benin City Zonal Command there; so those in Benin City are actually doing a lot in terms of sensitising children, parents, schools, Churches, Mosques  and all that. We are on top of our game.

Aside Edo, which other states are very pronounced in the human trafficking?

So many states: Kwara, Plateau, Lagos, and in fact, it is in every state. Some of the states are source states, where they go and source victims. Some states are transit; people pass through those states. Enbonyi State is also endemic, Imo State, Benue State is also endemic as well. It’s spreading everywhere.

Have you been able to arrest big names, big players and syndicates?

Over the years, NAPTIP has made many significant arrests and get some convictions; we are hoping to get more. So far, we have been able to get 325 convictions, and we are going to get much more as the months go by.

Is the human trafficking only about international?

Trafficking is both local and international. We have the source, the transit and destination states. If you take somebody from Lagos and take her to Abuja or take her to Edo State, you are trafficking. I think the proportion of trafficking locally, can almost compare internationally. We partner with other organisations; we share information; we do joint task force; we investigate together, and there are so many cases where we are prosecuting criminals jointly.

What is the new trend now in trafficking?

The new trend in trafficking has gone beyond sexual exploitation; now it has gone to organs harvesting. What do I mean by organs harvesting, they sell your organs. Before it’s just prostitution, sexual exploitation and force labour, you may have the opportunity to come back home peacefully.

From your investigation, what do these human traffickers do with human organs?

They sell them; there are so many people wanting to go for transplant, kidney transplant; liver transplant and heart transplant. By the time they take various parts from them, they get as much as $400,000.

The recent global report about human trafficking rated Nigeria poorly. What was responsible?

I am so heart broken right now; Nigeria was able to get to first tier, before now. Unfortunately, we dropped to tier two; now, they have downgraded us further to tier-two watch list. It is really so sad; because they gave us a lot of reasons why we were downgraded. It’s not just a NAPTIP thing, it’s a Nigerian thing and so many factors were responsible for it. They talked about child soldiers being used in the North-east; they talked about inadequate funding for NAPTIP, because they were not satisfied with the meagre resources NAPTIP was given to carry out its mandate. They also talked about labour inspectorate not doing enough, child labour and Almajiri.

What is your vision, given that you are new in the agency?

My vision is to eradicate human trafficking; to take Nigeria back to tier-one, where we rightly belong; to put Nigeria back to that international map where our integrity will be restored.

Given the roadmap to achieve all these, how far can you go?

We have started already; most important thing for us now is the awareness campaign, which we have started. There is massive awareness campaign, which we are launching on July 27 this year. Going forward, we are going into all the nooks and crannies in Nigeria, all the local governments. We are engaging every stakeholder you can think of. We are engaging the Church; we are engaging the Mosques; we are engaging the local government chairmen, the governors, and everybody. Then, we are going to protect our victims, in the sense that when traffickers are caught, we would prosecute them. We want to expand our partnership base. We want to look inward and also engage local partners.

Apart prosecuting these traffickers, you also have the mandate to rehabilitate victims; how far have you gone in this regard?

So far, we have done very well. When we have victims of trafficking, we keep them in our shelters. We take them in, we have shelters in 10 states, and we keep the victims with us in our shelters. As soon as we get those victims in our shelters, the first thing we do is to counsel them; we teach them skills so that when they are leaving, they don’t go back empty handed. We teach them technical skills. Some of them go back to school; some have even graduated from different universities. When they are leaving the shelter, we give them starter pack to go and start some kind of businesses to sustain their livelihoods.

What kind of experience do the victims share with you?

The experiences are horrible, there are very gory details. When they tell you things, you just shudder and wonder how evil people can be. You have cases of even incest, where fathers rape the children continuously; uncles, brothers and others rape their relations. There are cases where people who work for their madams are abused, they are battered, and they are beaten, sexually exploited. There are so many gory tales. Even boys are abused; but because of the stigma, they don’t talk about it. They are basically sexual exploitation and force labour you don’t even get a dim for the work you do. Someone else is collecting your money and you’re not treated well, you’re beaten. Some of them have bruises from the top of their heads to their feet, and so many details like that; you see so many cases like that, you get very sad.

On a monthly basis, what number of cases do you receive?

In Abuja alone, we get nothing less than 20 reported cases daily. We are not talking about all the other states, all the other zonal commands where we have offices. I’m sure they also get the same reports. These things happen on a daily basis, not weekly, not monthly.

You talked about financial challenge; have you made a case for increase in budgetary allocation that will enable you do your job?

Yes, we recently paid a courtesy call on the Minister of Budget and National Planning, and we made a strong case and we also made a strong case before the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, and we still want to make a case before the National Assembly. We will continue to make a case until our budgetary allocation is reviewed upwards.

Does the federal government care about the worrisome human trafficking menace?

The federal government is worried and it is doing what it can within its ability. We are trying to tell them, they can do more and I’m sure they will do more when we justify why they should do more. So far, we have had the support of the federal government because our supervisory ministry is the Ministry of Justice and we have a very good working relationship with the Honourable Minister and Attorney General of the Federation. I’m sure that he will lend his voice and help us to make a case to the federal government to increase our budgetary allocations so that we can work better.

You said you are very concerned with the recent rating of Nigeria. Tell us what you want to do in order to change the situation?

We are having strategic meetings to engage those involved in downgrading Nigeria; we are going to have meetings with the Chief of Army Staff, Minister of Defence, we are going to meet with the Police, Customs, Nigerian Immigration Service; we have meetings with Ministry of Women Affairs and Ministry of Labour and Employment. So, we need to come together to fight this fight because all of us need to complement one another. Everyone look at NAPTIP, but there are so many factors and so many reasons that were adduced for Nigeria being downgraded. So once we can come together and meet and device strategies, we can do things better and complement one another; share information, work together; form joint task forces, we will be able to take us back to tier one.

Do you have the necessary human capital in your agency to achieve that?

Yes; I have fantastic staff members; they are very hardworking; dedicated officers and very experienced officers. Trust me, we will get there.