Governments in sub-Saharan Africa must do more to address poverty

In apparent response to the international outrage that greeted the recent Cable News Network (CNN) documentary with footage of where migrants were auctioned as slaves, some 164 Nigerians stranded in Libya were flown back to the country last Friday. They were the latest in a wave of hurried repatriations with assistance from the European Union and the International Organisation of Migration (IOM).

At the last count, almost 4000 Nigerians have been rescued from the vicious slave enclaves where reports said large numbers were still being kept in inhuman conditions. They, along with other sub –Saharan migrants were humiliated, abused, oppressed, sexually exploited or killed. Between 400,000 and 700,000 African migrants were reportedly conscripted in these detention cells. Perhaps to underline the weight of the problem and the defining image of suffering conveyed by the CNN footage, the African Union itself, last week, pledged to return 20,000 migrants from Libya within the next six weeks.

Propelled by poverty and harsh economic conditions, these desperate migrants, after a hazardous and disjointed itinerary trying to reach Europe, were often trapped in Libya, a country notorious for exporting sub-Saharan labour to Europe during the Ottoman era. Libya’s current embrace of slave labour was aided by the collapse of law and order after the death of the country’s strongman and dictator, Muammar Gaddaffi. According to the IOM, nationals of Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Cote D’Ivoire and Gambia after being detained by people smugglers or militant groups, were taken to town squares or car parks to be sold like commodities.

Curiously, until the recent revelations, hardly any African country took a conscious effort to address the new servitude. Yet the increasing number of our citizens being humiliated or killed in the migration reversals places a heavy burden on the Nigerian authorities to provide leadership and stem the dangerous trend. “Human trafficking has become a security threat in the state as over 10,000 young men and women were trafficked in a space of 12 months and more than 30 per cent of them lost their lives in the process,” said Godwin Obaseki, Edo State Governor, a state where human trafficking is a scourge. “One cannot but weep for their harrowing experiences, deceived and moved from Nigeria by a cartel and syndicate who trade these people like common commodities. For us to start selling ourselves into slavery means something fundamental has happened. We can no longer fold our arms.”

It is heartening that the authorities have taken the first step by ferrying home some of the stranded. But much more needs to be done. There should be a deliberate effort to investigate and identify the people smugglers who lure and misinform the victims on decent jobs in Italy and across Europe. Some of them are based in Benin and indeed some of the returnees have vowed to expose them. But they need protection from the authorities because the vicious cartels involved in the business have no regard for human life.

The National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) could be of much help here. The human traffickers should be fished out and punished. Besides, there is also a need for a sustained sensitisation campaign to let our young men and women know that the grass is not necessarily greener out there. It is hard to exaggerate the sordid revelations from the returnees.

But by far the greatest challenge is good governance. Much needs to change. Nigeria and indeed most of Africa is wracked by poverty and many of these young men and women are fleeing poverty, which ironically is getting worse. Good governance remains crucial in the eradication of poverty. As the 12th African Economic Conference recently underlined, African economies are among the most dynamic in the world, but good governance is critical to the transformation of economies and inclusive government.