The moment we entered the premises of the International Office of Migration (IOM) safe house in Bamako and the girls saw Mrs Abimbola Wonosikou, the Minister (Consul) at the Nigerian embassy in Mali, they were very excited. Some rushed to embrace her shouting ‘welcome mommy’. But it also did not escape my attention, as I surveyed the environment, that the young and brutalized girls, who had been weaned from their ‘Madams’ were only putting up brave faces. I picked a particular one and sat beside her. I did not even have to prod before she started telling me her heartrending story of the hazards of being sold into prostitution in a foreign land.
In the wake of the spiral of killings in Benue, Zamfara, Taraba and Plateau States for which there is no coherent response from the authorities amid a new report which places Nigeria as number one among countries with the largest numbers of extreme poor in the world, we should worry about the future of our country. Yet, if majority of our people live below the poverty line and we are witnessing a total breakdown of law and order in a broad section that is tending towards sectarian violence, then we need more from the federal government than some tepid statements and blame-mongering. It is also important that we all resist the urge to spread some of the hate messages circulating on social media, especially at such a difficult time as this.
Meanwhile, there is a way in which we can connect the killings in the Middle Belt to the poverty report and the rate at which many of our vulnerable citizens practically sell themselves into slavery abroad because there is a class dimension to them all. Anybody who has been following the reportage of the Plateau killings, like that of Benue before it, can only come to one inescapable conclusion: It is the poor of our society that are both perpetrators and victims of the violence on all sides while those supplying the AK-47 and other deadly weapons are secure in the knowledge that they, and members of their immediate families, are far away from the theatres of war they help ignite or inflame.
While we will have to deal with these existential threats to the peaceful co-existence of our country another day, even as I commiserate with those who have lost loved ones to the recent madness in Jos and environs, there are also disturbing challenges with serious international implications that the authorities must pay attention to as I have discovered in the course of my research into the human tragedy dimension of irregular migration for my coming book, ‘From Frying Pan to Fire’. In Mali last week, I was confronted with another Nigerian emblem of shame which also raises questions about the way we manage our affairs and the prospects for the future. The only good news from my experience in Mali is that we have a very worthy ambassador in Mr Ken Nwachukwu who is leading his officials in dealing with the problem despite limited resources among other constraints.
At the IOM centre in Bamako that houses trafficked under-aged girls, Loveth, who hails from Agbor, recounted how she had been cajoled to abandon secondary school last December by the sister of a friend who promised to take her abroad where she could earn big money working in a salon. But, as it most often happens, the story ended in Djinja Kayes, Southwest Mali where Loveth was sold to a notorious Nigerian ‘Madam’ from Edo State, Ms Kate Justina Agbedion, who immediately introduced the young girl into prostitution after subjecting her to an oath.
Stranded in a foreign country where she knew nobody, Loveth had to sell her body for months to pay the agreed sum so she could regain her freedom but the story took a different turn after fulfilling her obligation. Rather than grant the poor girl freedom, Agbedion was in the process of selling Loveth to another ‘Madam’ (a common practice in the business) when she ran into trouble with the Nigerian embassy officials and the Malian authorities who were already on her trail. “Now, I am pregnant”, Loveth said as she shared with me her harrowing experience in the hands of Agbedion.
Born on 23rd June 1972, ‘Madam Kate’ as Agbedion is addressed, hails from Umopke Village, Esan Uwede Local Government Area of Edo State and is one of the most influential Nigerian human traffickers in Mali, with several law enforcement agents in the Kayes region on her payroll. According to the information found in her log book after she was arrested, a total of 150 girls make daily payment of 30,000 FCFA (USD 58) to her. Meanwhile, I understand that she has been providing the Malian authorities with information that could also lead to the arrest of more individuals involved in this nefarious trade of young Nigerian girls. But that will only happen if the federal government shows interest in the matter.
Although she specialises in bringing under-age Nigerian girls into Mali, Agbedion is not alone; she is in fact just one among 13 Nigerian traffickers that have been arrested in recent weeks by the Malian authorities based on reports from the Nigerian embassy. While one has been sentenced to a ten-year jail term, the others, who are either currently in court or awaiting trial, include Favour Okonkwo, Tina and Anita Johnson, Silvia John Osifoo, Cynthia Okechukwu, Joy Winner Idahosa, Lachi Ohiagikpo, Mariam Madou, Leydiby John, Favour Abubakar, Faith Uche Okechi and Jennifa Agbamo.
Agbamo, who works for ‘Madam Kate’, is the abortion specialist. Whenever any of the girls gets pregnant, it is to Agbama, known as ‘Madam Jennifer’ that everyone turns. She reportedly has an instrument she inserts into the womb of any pregnant girl and once bleeding starts, she knows the job is done. Agbama is such an expert in the dark business, according to reports, that only on rare cases do pregnancies survive after her ‘surgical operations’.
However, the most deadly of the prostitution kingpins who is also in the net is a 38-year old Ms Alice Matthew Mahmoud who hails from Calabar, Cross River State and married to a Malian. Nicknamed ‘The Princess of Kangaba’, Alice had fled from Burkina Faso to Mali in 2005 when the Burkinabe authorities were trailing her for human trafficking-related offences. According to reports by her victims, Alice subjects the girls who work for her to serious inhuman treatments. For instance, one of her girls, Hope Okafor has a wound on her chin that has refused to heal after Alice poured an unknown (juju) substance on her. Another girl, Faith Atame, has severe skin infection as a result of the concoction she was forced to drink. There are also reports that some of her girls have died and were buried in shallow graves.
While Alice has been arrested, Mr Elvis Moore, her male collaborator and partner in crime, is on the run and has been declared wanted by the Malian authorities. Based in Cotonou, Moore still enters Nigeria to hunt for the girls he lures into travelling with him under false pretenses until he trafficks them to Mali. Some of these victims are currently under the care of the IOM and will be repatriated to Nigeria, once the trial of Alice is concluded. Last Thursday, seven girls were repatriated back home. I also spoke to two girls the embassy put in the custody of the IOM after they escaped from their trafficker while he was negotiating a price for them with a ‘Madam’ on phone.
The case of Florence Isagbe is a pathetic one and it shows the failure of National Agency for Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) to effectively discharge its mandate. Born on 4th February 2000, the Edo girl was trafficked into Mali with the consent of her father, Paul Isagbe, who reportedly threatened her not to return to Nigeria. Unfortunately, upon arrival back in Nigeria, she was released by the NAPTIP officials in Lagos, and forced to seek shelter with her co-victim, Ross Bature, repatriated along with her. I have given her Benin address and contact details (including telephone number) to an aide of Governor Godwin Obaseki to help follow up. Although I have been assured that help will come the way of the girl, I also believe there is a need for the father to account for why he would sell his own daughter to prostitution.
What my Malian experience revealed very clearly is an urgent need for the Nigerian authorities to take the issue of human trafficking much more seriously. Available statistics from the Malian government indicates that about 80 percent of victims of human trafficking in Nigeria fall within the age of 8 and 25. There is also a nexus between poverty and the lure of prostitution for many of the girls. Indeed, the story of Loveth is not different from that of many others. She is from a deprived and broken home. Her mother died when she was four, leaving her and a sister. Their father married another woman and abandoned them. She stays with her grandmother so the temptation to make huge money abroad, despite suspecting that it might be through prostitution at such a young age, was too alluring to ignore.
The way the network operates, from what I learnt in Mali, is simple: Recruiters will lure the girls (mostly from the villages or among urban poor) with enticing promises before delivering them to their bosses in Lagos who in turn deliver the girls to middlemen in Cotonou, Republic of Benin. In that network, there are transporters, security men, clergy men, juju priests, hoteliers and receivers at destinations before the girls are eventually sold to the ‘Madams’.
For every girl trafficked into Mali on the pretext of taking them to work at a salon in Europe, according to a document from the Nigerian embassy in Bamako, “the trafficker usually pays between FCFA40,000 and 60,000 (USD70 and 110) to criminal organizations (security forces inclusive) for easy passage. They also pay the security forces before selling off the girls to a ‘Madam’ for between FCFA350,000 and 450,000 FCFA (USD625 and 803).” All these activities are conducted within a time-frame of between four to seven days.
According to Nigerian embassy officials, the maximum number of girls a trafficker transports at a time so as not to arouse suspicion is 10. Once these girls are sold, they are usually made to generate FCFA1,500,000 to 1,800,000 (USD2700 – 2900 USD) each for the Madams before gaining their freedom. And because of the demand for commercial sex workers, especially in the mining areas of Mali where they operate, the girls usually pay their ‘debt’ to the ‘Madams’ within four to six months. “The disheartening fact is that, upon securing their freedom, about 70 percent of these girls also become ‘Madams’ thus perpetuating the same vicious cycle”, an embassy official told me.
Tales of brutality also abound. So callous are the Nigerian ‘Madams’ that once their victims fall seriously sick, they find a convenient place to dump them. “There was a day we found a girl at the gate of the embassy. She gave her name as Blessing and was HIV positive. She hails from Akwa Ibom and she explained that she was the bread winner for her family. We helped her back to Nigeria”, said an embassy official who also explained that there is a superstition in the gold mining areas that anytime a new mine was to be opened, there must be sacrifices to the ‘god of gold’ with reports that Nigerian girls are used for such rituals, most of them sold by their ‘Madams’.
The need for a sensitisation programme on the danger of human trafficking was explained by Wonosikou who recounted an unpleasant experience that she said brought her to tears. “One of the Nigerian girls engaged in prostitution named Victory died and there were marks on her body to show she had been physically brutalised but there was nothing we could do about that. It took time to get the number of her mother. But when I called to break the sad news about the death of her daughter in Mali, the mother started arguing with me that the girl in question could not be her daughter whom she said was working in Dubai. When I realised how adamant she was, I had to break it to her as gently as I possibly could that her daughter was doing prostitution in Mali where she met her death” Wonosikou told me.
The sad aspect is that some members of the Nigerian community are also involved in the illicit business. “You see some so-called Pastors acting as informants and intermediaries for these ‘Madams’ whose bail they most often help to procure when arrested. There are as many as 40,000 Nigerian prostitutes in the gold mining areas in Ginger. These ‘Madams’ subject their victims to oaths, using private parts like pubic hair and nails. There was a girl we rescued who started shouting ‘I am going to die, I am going to die’, explaining the oath to which she had been subjected”, said Wonosikou who led the team from the embassy that escorted me to the IOM offices and Brigade de moeurs where I met Malian officials handling the investigations.
Dealing with the menace of human trafficking for which Nigeria has become notorious is almost a full-time job at the embassy as there is hardly a day when no fewer than five girls would either be repatriated back to Nigeria or handed over to the IOM. But Ambassador Ken Nwachukwu and the embassy officials have embraced the task with uncommon diligence.
In his office last Thursday, Nwachukwu who arrived Mali last July shared with me an experience he considers a rude awakening a few weeks after he resumed duty. The ambassador had been invited to witness nine Nigerian girls who had been rescued from a ‘Madam’, majority of them below the age of 18. “The sight of one shocked me and I enquired whether she was also among the girls who were prostituting and she replied in the affirmative. When I asked for her age, she said ‘2004’ which would put her age at 13 as at last year when the incident happened.”
That, according to Nwachukwu was the turning point for him. “How could anybody do such thing to children? From their stories, each of them had been lured from Nigeria by relatives and friends of the family before they were sold into prostitution abroad. After directing the embassy to provide them with with food and generally take care of their welfare, I knew I was going to fight the ‘Madams’ and their accomplices who are destroying innocent children”, said Nwachukwu who added: “From that day, I try to make the girls understand that the embassy is a place of refuge for them. ‘We are your fathers and mothers’, I tell these girls”.
While I believe the Nigerian embassy in Mali is doing a wonderful job, they need to be supported. The office of the Attorney General and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs must work with both NAPTIP and the Nigerian Embassy in Mali if we are to tackle the problem. And that will take the intervention of President Muhammadu Buhari. We need a safe house for the girls and more resources for the embassy. There is also a need for the federal government to go into negotiations with the Malian authorities on how to tackle the menace just as it is important to work with the authorities of the Benin Republic.
What is particularly worrisome is that there is too much reliance on IOM whose officials are doing a wonderful job but can only do so much. Besides, Nigerians cannot continue to be a nuisance to that organisation. We must accept responsibility for our people. There is also a national security issue that is brewing. I understand that many Malian women are already complaining about how Nigerian girls are encroaching into matters concerning The Other Room such that their men are no longer looking their side. That is dangerous. Besides, some of the embassy officials no longer feel safe because the business they seek to dismantle is a big money game controlled by a criminal cartel with agents in critical places. The Nigerian government owes a lot to the Consular Clerk, a young Malian by name Oumar Kuolokogon who speaks impeccable English and is well spoken of at the embassy as an intermediary between them and the Malian authorities.
Prosper Abayomi Michael, coordinator for War Against Human Trafficking, Bamako, (a non-governmental organisation he runs with a partner, Victor Ibikunle Olubusayo) who has been collaborating with the embassy, says Nigeria must pay attention to the problem that sullies our image. “NAPTIP is not doing enough. That is my summation although they may have their own constraints since I am not in Abuja but they need to change their strategy and they also need to send their team to understand what is going on here. Sitting down in Abuja will not help fight this problem. We need the political authorities at the highest level to be involved.”
The Malian authorities, according to Michael, “take the issue of trafficking much more seriously than we do back home despite the fact that prostitution is legal here. There is a need for a serious campaign in Nigeria because the traffickers are targeting the most vulnerable of our citizens. It is slave trade that is going on because these girls are sold and resold like commodities until they eventually reach the ‘Madams’ for whom they must prostitute. Once in the villages where they cannot speak the language and do not know anybody, there is nowhere to run. Body items are taken and then the ‘Madam’ announces what the job is all about. Virgins, I understand, attract higher prices which is why they now target girls from as young as 10.”
The challenge is that because prostitution is legal in Mali, it is difficult to persuade some of the girls to go back home. “If you engage some of them in discussion, according to an embassy official, the usual retort is, ‘what job do you have for me back home?’. At that point, you have nothing to say, even when what they are doing carries enormous risk.”
However, if there is anything that shows the situation is not hopeless, it is in the fact that a recent proclamation by the Oba of Benin seems to be working with a considerable reduction in the number of Edo girls being trafficked along that route. “I believe the Oba’s curse is working and we need more of such interventions”, said Wonosikou, who disclosed that the emerging pattern is that most of the girls being trafficked to Mali these days come from the South-west, South-east and states like Bayelsa, Akwa Ibom, Kogi and Plateau.
Embassy officials recommend more public enlightenment on the menace of human trafficking while the federal government should provide biometric machines to our embassies within the West Africa sub-region. It will also help if the security agencies share information about victims and perpetrators of human trafficking within ECOWAS countries, particularly Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, Niger and Cote d’Ivoire in a bid to stop them from re-engaging in the trade. There is also an urgent need to enact tougher laws against human trafficking.
The Malian police officer with whom I spoke at the Brigade de moeurs told me that the numbers of Nigerian girls is increasing every year while the average age of the victims is also reducing with younger girls now being targeted. “These girls should be made to understand the dangers of the choices they are making or being made for them by some unscrupulous individuals in your country” said the officer.
It is evident that there is so much work to do in Nigeria if we are to wean our young people of the illusion of a prosperity awaiting them in Europe. Anybody who has been following the tragic drama on ‘The Lifeline’, a rescue ship stranded for the past six days with more than 230 migrants on board, will understand that Europe is now effectively closing its doors to poor migrants from our continent who imagine they can sneak in through the Sahara desert and the Mediterranean Sea. But for many not to continue taking the risk that most often end in tears or death, we must also begin to provide opportunities for self-actualisation on our shores.
This is our challenge of the moment.
The 2018 Teens Conference
The third edition of the RCCG (TEAP Zone) Abuja Teens Career Conference will hold on Saturday, 18th August, 2018 with the theme, ‘If you can dream it, you can make it happen!”
The confirmed speakers for this year are: the Executive Vice Chairman of Famfa Oil, Mrs. Folorunsho Alakija; popular social media influencer, Mr Japhet Omojuwa and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon Yakubu Dogara.
Those who have spoken in the past two editions of the conference included CBN Governor, Mr. Godwin Emefiele; former Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) chair, Mrs Ifueko Omoigui Okauru; former PenCom Director General, Mrs Chinelo Anohu-Amazu and ace comedian, Mr Atunyota Alleluya Akpobome a.k.a Ali Baba. Last year, we had veteran actor, Mr Richard Mofe Damijo (RMD); former Education Minister, Mrs Oby Ezekwesili; wife of former Kaduna State Deputy Governor, Mrs Charity Shekari and wife of the Vice President, Mrs Dolapo Osinbajo.
The objectives of the conference, which brings together teenagers from Abuja and neighbouring states, include teaching the young men and women to take responsibility for their future; having their imagination fired through interaction with accomplished professionals in the society; making them realize that no matter the odds, they can reach their goals and getting them to understand that God still intervenes in the affairs of men.
Attendance at this Conference, which promises to be a day of fun with music, food and drinks, will be by online registration is free. However, pre-conference registration is mandatory and this opens on Monday 16th, and closes on Monday, 2nd August. Interested participants should visit the conference website www.rccgteapteens.org for the online registration when the portal opens. All duly accredited participants will be sent mails on 11th August that will admit them to the conference. Meanwhile, enquiries can also be sent to email@example.com.
• You can follow me on my Twitter handle, @Olusegunverdict and on www.olusegunadeniyi.com