The trial of the Abolarinwas holds lessons for Nigeria

A Nigerian couple based in the United States were last week convicted of forced labour by a federal jury in New Jersey. Isiaka Abolarinwa and wife, Bolaji, were also found guilty of operating a coercive scheme to compel two victims to perform domestic labour and childcare in their home. “The defendants confiscated the victims’ passports, threatened them, degraded them, physically abused them and kept them under constant surveillance, all to coerce the victims’ labour and ruthlessly exploit them for the defendants’ own profit,” said Kristen Clarke, the American assistant attorney general. She explained that the couple lured the victims to the US from Nigeria with promises of a better life and an education, but instead subjected them to hours of physical and psychological abuse.

This is a familiar story that should concern relevant authorities, especially as unscrupulous Nigerians now recruit young boys and girls from rural communities with the promise of securing them good jobs in the cities when the real intention is to subject them to servitude. Therefore, a demonstration of political will to diligently prosecute offenders would serve as a deterrent. Indeed, the case confirms the position of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) on the prevalence of modern-day slavery known as trafficking in persons (TIP) in our country. “Its high occurrence has made Nigeria to be classified as a source, transit and destination country in TIP,” UNODC once stated while estimating that 750,000 to one million persons are trafficked annually in the country. But the increasing number of our citizens being trafficked abroad for nefarious activities places a heavy burden on the authorities to provide leadership in communication and political action. 

It is shameful that our country is regarded not only as a transit route for this illegal trade but also a source as well as a destination with children and young adults, especially of the womenfolk, now becoming merchandise. In what is clearly an organised crime, human traffickers move their victims from country to country until they reach their destination. In the process, many die even as the survivors are subjected to all forms of indignity, in the bid to repay the heavy debts owed to their “benefactors” by way of travel expenses. But the trade is thriving because most of the people involved wield powerful influence with which they circumvent the law.

According to the evidence presented at the US trial, including the testimony of two victims, the incident happened between December 2015 and October 2016. “Once Victim one arrived in the United States in December 2015, Bolaji Bolarinwa confiscated her passport and coerced her through threats of physical harm to her and her daughter, verbal abuse, isolation and constant surveillance to compel her to work every day, around the clock for nearly a year,” the court heard. The US department of justice (DOJ) said both victims endured continuous abuse until October 2016, when one of them (victim one) summoned the courage to share her problems with a professor at her college, who in turn, reported the targets to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). They face a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison for each forced labour count, and a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison for the alien harbouring count. 

Critical stakeholders can no longer continue to watch from the sidelines while unscrupulous people classify fellow human beings as commodities and benefit from their ignorance and desperation. As it has come to light in the trial of the Abolarinwas, these unfortunate Nigerians are constantly under threat of being harmed each time they complained of unbearable workload. We must cast away the complacency that has emboldened the perpetrators of this criminal enterprise who exploit the most vulnerable of our society for illicit gains.

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