Why did you decide to go on the expedition across the Sahara and how did you fund it?
It was based on my past experience with the organisation in countries where I have served, seeing how Nigerian girls and boys are being enslaved and ‘monetised’ through sex, hawking and other odd and barbaric ‘jobs’. It has always been my dream to fight against this menace.
So when the NAPTIP came, we decided to work with them to curtail this nefarious act to the barest minimum if not totally eradicated. Nigerians back home know little about what human trafficking is really about and our experiences out there in the desert were really touching and heart-breaking – the cartels and how they exploit the innocence of children. We wept but had to gather all we could.
We had a lot of mind-blowing discussions with our willing and stranded Nigerian sisters and they spoke with us on camera and audio tapes about their ordeals in the hands of ‘Oga Madam’ and ‘Oga Man’.
With the funding we got from Mr Banji Okunola, Chief Dada Agabuzo, Mr Akin Saliu and Mr Yemi Alake, we were able to cover 11 countries from Benin Republic, Togo, Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, Mauritania, Cape Verde, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, and Guinea Conakry to Sierra Leone in 14 weeks. We went into all the villages of these countries where Nigerian girls are mostly used as local prostitutes.
We started on March 8 and returned on June 21, beginning from Benin visiting the clubs and brothels to Togo. The major work started from Burkina Faso where over 50,000 Nigerian girls are scattered in different locations and regions like Ouagadougou, Bobodelaso, Boulgou. We then went to Mali where a great number of Nigerian girls are scattered through the cities and villages as well as in the other countries we visited.
What perception has the encounter given you about human trafficking in Nigeria?
Most Nigerians believe it’s mainly the Niger Delta area that is in this trade. That was my belief too until this trip. We saw more Niger Deltans, then Yoruba and Ibo. Each of them is involved in running cartels as well as being victims of cartels. The cartel chiefs live like kings and protect their victims to the maximum that they could not escape. They keep their travel documents and prevent fellow Nigerians from making friends with them.
There was an instance when I disguised as a customer to get some information only to be turned down when the young beautiful girl discovered I was a Nigerian. Despite the mouth-watering money I offered, she still turned me down and said the boss would skin her alive.
Greed is what took most of these girls to where they are today according to their revelations and stories on how they got themselves into this mess. They are made to go through tedious experiences when embarking on the journey and find it scary to return or run away from their masters, with the oaths and swearing they were subjected to.
What was the difference between the situations in the Anglophone territories from the Francophone ones?
The victims are more located and settled by the cartels in Francophone countries where they cannot easily communicate and understand things. This is one of their strategies – the girls in Anglophone countries are either there on their own or have gained their freedom. Locating them in Francophone countries makes them more comfortable and gives enough exploitation time before the victims acclimatise.
In what state did you meet the children at the various points?
These girls are virtually slaves to the Madams and Men. In Burkina Faso, Mali and Mauritania, girls from age 13 and above are housed independently in a mud house with about 20 to 30 rooms. In some other places, girls queue up for men to make their choice before they enter the rooms where a well-built man guards the entrance and another collects the fee charged. Unbelievable as this is, it is the reality.
Security are beefed up around these innocent girls and the kingpins have strong connections with the securities in those countries. They have built an empire in these countries. They are promised goodies like taking them to Europe after serving them for a certain period or meeting a particular target of amount. They are ignorant poor girls thinking they are going for greener pastures. The majority of them don’t know what they are into, while some of them are aware of their mission and ready for it but end up being used as money-making machines.
Some are HIV positive, while some have been brutally attacked by wild customers. A girl told us a story whereby some customers refuse to use condom, and if they refuse those, they get the beating of their life and get injured.
The boys are used in restaurants and other petty trades, but very few compared to the girls. Some of the boys leave home with the hope of travelling to Europe by road and through the deserts but get stranded and end up being used by some people with little pay and much stress.
Did you make any attempt to rescue and return them to Nigeria?
We rescued the few we could with the assistance of the Nigerian embassy in the country. The NAPTIP received them when I alerted the Abuja office through their advisor on our mission, Baba Dede; and a lot of them are willing to return home, but could not due to financial incapability. Though we promised to go back for them, a lot of them are tired but ashamed of coming home empty-handed after being used and dumped by their masters when they are no longer of use.
How did authorities you came across treat you?
Our experience was anything but pleasant. We had to sneak into these countries, though we always visited the Nigerian embassies resident in each country and we got great reception and support from them. They guided us well in areas we didn’t know.
We went to the entire 11 countries by road and saw a lot of irregularities and molestation from the securities at the borders. It’s so disheartening that we fellow Africans treat one another with hatred and disgust. Money is demanded to pay for border passage with Nigerians paying highest of all nationals.
Nigerians are being checked like animals and with insults. I had problem with a Guinea Bissau policeman over the way he checked a Nigerian businessman resident there. He was forcefully stripped naked in full view of onlookers. There was no sign of struggle or restraint from the Nigerian. He said it’s the way they treat Nigerians.
How have these experiences affected you emotionally?
This project gave me a lot of emotional torture. I feel there should be a way out of this mess that some Nigerians are going through. I am imploring the Nigerian government to efficiently equip NAPTIP and other bodies to tackle this menace.
Is there a case of any girl which affected or touched you in a particular way?
There two girls of 12 and 13 years old in Burkina Faso and Mali that I tried to get out of their bondage but could only get one whom we returned along with others to Nigeria. I’m willing and ready to go back for the others. There is a particular one in Sadjola region of Mali who is even wilder than and has more customers than the older girls. In one of the revelation from the girls, they have sex with at least 15 to 25 men per day and all the money goes to their masters.
They start the hawking from 7pm to 5am and sleep from that time till evening again. They hardly have time for themselves; food is cooked for them as if they are in the hostels. We once trailed a Madam to the bank through reliable information from our source. We have it on tape. She goes to the bank every morning to deposit all the money her girls have made from the previous night into her account. This young lady is in her 30s and has three mud houses where she keeps girls. She runs the business with her boyfriend who provides the securities and traffics them from Nigeria down there.
Did you speak to any of the traffickers?
Speaking to the traffickers is next to suicidal; what will I ask them? I am sure if I do that, I would not have lived to tell you this story. My mission is to know how we can help the victims there and also bring the experience back home to fight it with sensitisation and campaign to all affected areas. We made sure we gathered enough information on the traffickers and we hope the NAPTIP will work on it. The photos we got of them were from a birthday party to which we were invited. It was so risky.
Can you the journey of how one or two of the children left Nigeria to the point at which you met them?
Well, some of them told us they were deceived through family friends that they were going to Europe to learn hairdressing. Even some greedy relatives collaborate with traffickers to fool and take them into this horrible life. There is the story of an Ibo girl who was deceived by her boyfriend whom she thought was in Europe. The guy came to Nigeria for Easter and deceived the girl to follow him without her parents’ consent, which the girl agreed to. The truth only dawned on her when they travelled for six days to Kaye, Mali in terrible situation and got stranded and the guy encouraged her to sleep with men in order to raise money to further their journey to Mauritania. It was when they arrived there that he made her understand what it was all about.
You said some of the children didn’t even know they had left Nigeria. How come? Were they drugged or too young to understand?
Initially, a lot of them don’t know where they are; they believe they are still in Nigeria. It takes a few months before they understand. They are mostly illiterates from villages. The cartels don’t pick the civilised ones; they go where they get easily exploitable ones and trick them.
Also, some of them are sold to traffickers in Europe. We reliably gathered that some particular young beautiful girls are picked and sent to Europe and traded to their connections in Europe. The already made girls in Europe become traffickers and also send for the younger ones or relatives to join them wherever they are. Most of them use the documents of other countries to get to their destination. Dakar and Mali are major points from where Nigerian girls are trafficked to Europe.
What is the average cost of an individual when they buy?
It goes like this: the girls said they are usually tasked to work for some certain amount ranging from CFA 1, 500, 000 (USD 3125) before gaining freedom. Those brought with the intention of going to Europe pay more because of their final destination.
Cartels then sell each for about $1200. Agents in Nigeria take them through the borders and put them on the bus from either Cotonou or Lome to their destination or link where they are taken to their ‘final destinations’. Once they scale through the Nigerian border the rest is child’s play.
What kind of oath do they take?
Blood; before a shrine under treat and as insurance, they submit the underwear which they have on during the oath from Nigeria or when they get to their destination. A lady told us that virgins are usually disvirgined by paid hands before they start work and are put through the routine.