In late May 2018, a Parisian court sentenced 15 Nigerians – 11 women and four men – to prison terms of two to 11 years for human trafficking. They were running a criminal network that forced women, including teenagers, into prostitution in Italy, France and Spain.
The global sex trafficking industry is worth an estimated US$99 billion. It accounts for approximately two-thirds of the revenue generated from human trafficking worldwide. In Nigeria, one of the main countries engaged in sex trafficking, 94% of women trafficked to Europe are from the southern state of Edo.
During trials in European courts, Nigerian victims often describe how madams come from Europe to recruit them, promising employment or education. Often encouraged by their families or social networks, recruits are generally taken to a voodoo priest – or native doctor – to make an oath and undergo bondage rituals. These involve spells to make victims obey and fear the madam.
Sometimes, the native doctors also offer protection from bad spirits on their journey, which typically takes the women from Edo to Libya, through other West African countries such as Niger and Mali, and then on to Malta or Italy. From there, members of the trafficking networks dispatch them to other European countries.
On arrival in their destination country, victims are told they are expected to repay the money that the madam had spent on their trip. Debts can reach up to €70 000, according to various victims’ testimonies in court cases. During the rituals in Nigeria, native doctors threaten victims with death or harm to their families if they fail to repay any debts incurred.
But in the same way that these victims fear and obey voodoo priests, they in turn fear their supreme leader – in the case of Edo state, the Oba of Nigeria’s Benin Kingdom.
In March last year, Oba Ewuare II Ogidigan called on native doctors to revoke the oaths taken by victims of human trafficking. Taking on native doctors in their own terms and fighting fire with fire, the Oba also made them ‘revoke curses already placed on victims’, according to Nneka Aniagoh, the spokesperson for Nigeria’s National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP).
As a former Nigerian ambassador to Italy, Ewuare II is familiar with the issue. He is thus well placed to ally tradition with modernity to address the trafficking of women from his state.
It is too early to determine whether the Oba’s involvement will radically reduce trafficking numbers. But according to Aniagoh, the Oba’s decision was in response to a request by NAPTIP Director-General, Dame Julie Okah-Donli. Consequently, ‘victims are walking out on their madams in Europe, and testifying against traffickers’, Aniagoh told ENACT.
Inspired by the Oba’s initiative, NAPTIP is seeking to replicate it with other traditional rulers. It plans to set up anti-human trafficking task forces in other states, in partnership with state governors. ‘They will aim to ease the flow of information between NAPTIP and people at the grassroots. The ultimate goal is to prevent illegal migration and human trafficking at state level,’ Aniagoh concluded.
Agnes Ebo’o, ENACT Regional Organised Crime Observatory coordinator – Central Africa, ISS