How modern-day slaves are imported into Lagos

Human traffickers are always a step ahead of law enforcers in bringing in their cargoes. LEKAN OLABULO, TOLA ADENUBI, NAZA OKOLI and AYOMIDE OWONIBI followed the traffickers’ routes.

It would seem that there is a high demand in Lagos for house-helps ‘imported’ from outside the borders. Countries like Benin Republic, Togo and Cameroun appear to be the most preferred. As of 5.44 p.m. on Thursday, there was a total of 521 requests for nannies and domestic helps on a popular website, all posted between October and December 2016, with many indicating a preference for certain countries.

In the past, men lived in villages, in simple homes, surrounded by farmlands and domestic animals. The women did the housework. Little children and older girls helped their mothers in the kitchen, while older boys accompanied their fathers to the farm.

But that was a long time ago. These days, it is increasingly difficult for families in large cities like Lagos to meet up with the demands of home and work at the same time. To resolve this, working parents often find it more meaningful to recruit the services of house-helps who are often paid on a regular basis or rewarded in some other ways.

Not so long ago, it was relatively easy to engage the ‘services’ of close or distant relatives, or just a native of one’s hometown. Parents who allowed their children to work as house-helps in the city almost always believed that their children would, through the ‘opportunity’, attend schools and, at least, complete their secondary school education.

However, what appears to be the trend today is the hiring of utter strangers, including foreigners from neighbouring countries.

Findings show that there is now a large market for house-help jobs in Lagos. The system is complete with agents, referees and registration fees. Only last year, the nation was alarmed by the troubling tale of a house-help in Lagos who absconded with three little children placed in her care, a day after she was employed. Even more startling was the discovery that the 23-year-old nanny was contacted through the Internet.

One of the posts on the website earlier mentioned read: “Good morning, admin. Kindly help with a house-girl. I want an intelligent and hard-working girl, between ages 20 and 23, preferably from Cotonou or Ghana. Thanks.”

On another website, a user identified as HardleyC disclosed his payment package for his house-help who is also from Cotonou: “My house help is from Cotonou. (I pay her) five thousand for transport, five thousand per month, and three months down payment. When she is leaving by December, her parents take the balance of N45,000.”

These domestic helps are of different sizes and ages, most of them girls. They come from Togo, Benin Republic and other neighbouring African countries to Nigeria to serve.

Some of them also work as sales/service girls and waitresses at cafeterias. The rate at which these underage children move to Nigeria to do menial jobs is alarming.

Investigations by Saturday Tribune revealed that some women purposely visit neighbouring African countries to bring underage children whom they distribute to willing masters.

In some cases, the women, whom most of the children refer to as “mummy” or “madam”, collect whatever salary is paid on such children for as long as three years.


How they are moved from freedom into slavery

On how the children are moved, a Badagry resident, who claimed to be familiar with the routes, style and modus operandi of human traffickers coming into the country through various border points in the town, Mr Ajilola Badru, explained that child traffickers often work alongside drug cartels and vehicle smugglers to carry out the nefarious activity.

“When the children are moved from Benin Republic, they come in mostly through the Seme border in Badagry and the adjoining bush paths. If you have come to Seme before, you will know that not much screening is done on people who carry nothing with them when crossing. This is so because at the Seme border, even though Customs officers are everywhere, what they are usually interested in, and which they focus on, are products, not humans. Customs will overlook anybody that wants to cross as long as you are not carrying any load or luggage on you.

“It is when you are carrying something that you will be thoroughly searched. These traffickers move these children across the border, having promised them a better life on the other side.

“Before getting to the border, they simply advise the children to pretend as if they are going to Nigeria with an uncle. Since there is not much rigorous search carried out on humans across, the child trafficker and the victims simply walk across the border.

“That is why in a lot of reports involving child trafficking, the victims and the trafficker are always caught right inside Nigeria, as they would have successfully crossed the border.

“After crossing, some of the traffickers have contacts in border towns and villages like Ashipa or Gbethromey. They don’t have permanent houses. That is why they mostly use hotels to camp the children before moving them in vehicles to their preferred destinations.

“In the past, some used to have permanent abodes to camp the children. However, due to easy pick-on by security operatives during very rare raids on their hideouts, they now use hotels around the border town before their final departure to various destinations”, he explained.

According to Badru, as soon as a maid is about to be brought into a new home, the middlemen will ensure that they take oaths in shrines, pledging that they would not steal, commit any offense or implicate their “madams”.

The idea of trafficked kids being made to swear was confirmed by another individual who claimed to be a middleman for traffickers.

The man, who identified himself simply as Baba Segi, disclosed to Saturday Tribune that the girls were often made to take oaths so that evil would befall anyone that attempts to take advantage of them sexually.

“This is necessary because some of these girls’ masters are so promiscuous that they abuse the girls sexually and impregnate them and even infect them with diseases. So, the oaths would scare them off”, he said.


Victims’ ordeals

The business of child and human trafficking, it was learnt, is always at its peak in December and early January as many families are left without adequate help.

The middlemen and women make enough gains as they collect about three months salaries on the maids in advance with a promise of remitting same to their parents or guardians which they seldom do.

Ope, a canteen salesgirl in the Ajegunle area of Lagos, narrated her experience: “My own case is different. My younger sister and I were brought to Nigeria by our aunt to make money. She said she wanted to help us. But since I came about three years ago, she has been collecting my salary. She only gives it to me anytime I want to go back home, which is usually in December”.

On how she came to Nigeria, she said, “When we were coming, we told them (security operatives) that we were coming to learn trades. We showed them our identity cards. We also gave the policemen we met money which ranged from N100 to N200. When we want to go back to the village to celebrate Christmas, security men on the road will extort us. They will search our bags and seize phones and other valuable”.

But Farida, a Togolese, shared a somewhat different experience. The teenage girl said: “Many of us were brought to Nigeria by our madam to work. She was the one that paid our fares from Togo to this place. She will get her money back when we begin to work. Madam knows the way. There were places we went through the bush to beat the security men and there were places that she would speak with them and give them money. We are not the first set of people that she brought to Nigeria.

“Some people work for her for about three years. It depends on your age and the relationship between her and your parents. She collects your salary on your behalf and gives part of it to your family in the village.

“There was a time that she sent one of the girls back to the village. The girl had become very wayward and uncontrollable. She wanted to be collecting her money herself and Madam had to return her to the village”, the teenage Togolese girl said.

None of these volunteers would identify their madams – perhaps due to the oath already taken to protect the traffickers. Saturday Tribune’s findings also revealed that many of the trafficked girls either didn’t really know they had been forced into covenants or weren’t told the real implications of the oaths they took and the processes they went through in taking them. A native doctor was of the opinion that such covenants could continue to have negative effects in the lives of the brainwashed girls long after they have severed relationships with their madams and become free.


Porous borders to blame?

Human trafficking is another prominent ‘trade’ that is carried out on the nation’s borders in Lagos State, all of which are believed to be porous.

Thus, from the Ashipa area to Gbethromey axis in Seme, illegal movement of children (and adults in some cases) ranks second to movement of drugs and vehicles.

Speaking to Saturday Tribune, the Badagry resident, Badru, also noted that many of the country’s borders around the Lagos area are often unmanned.

“These borders are just territorial on paper when people look at maps and discuss them. In reality, people just walk across them from one end to the other. Many of them are unmanned. That is why child trafficking has been on the rise for a long while now. It is only second to vehicle and drug trafficking”, he said.

When reminded that the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) is mandated to safeguard Nigeria’s border points and look out for illegal human entries, he explained that lack of adequate workforce had been the bane of the government agency.

“The porous state of the borders is not the fault of the Immigration because from our own vantage view of happenings around the border area, it is obvious that the NIS is understaffed. Or how do you explain a situation whereby it is the operatives of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) that chase and arrest child traffickers instead of officials of the NIS? Customs officials, while chasing smugglers, sometimes arrest drug dealers and child traffickers before handing them over to appropriate agencies of government.

“In the Ashipa and Gbethromey areas, human trafficking is very rampant maybe because of the many unmanned bush paths that lead to Nigeria from Benin Republic. If you go to these places, you will find Customs officials patrolling the area in large numbers”, he further noted.

While giving insights into the activities of the “super child trafficking agent” Porsu David, who was recently arrested, Badru pointed out that David might have helped traffic scores of underage children into Nigeria.

“The most recent was when Porsu David was arrested and handed over to officials of the NIS. It was the Customs that arrested Porsu who had been a thorn in the flesh of many homes. He was a super human trafficker and focused more on children. Tales of his exploits had sent fear into many homes nurturing children. That was why when he was arrested there was a great sigh of relief among many residents of Badagry. He operated more in Badagry. But it was the Customs that nabbed him and handed him over to the NIS”, he stated.

The NIS boss, Martins Abeshi, had disclosed recently that NIS required about 5,000 personnel annually for the next five years to meet its manpower capacity.

“Over the years, the NIS has been contending with poor funding, especially for capital projects for construction of border control plazas/automation of control posts. Lack of modern communication equipment and security gadgets such as sensors and alarm systems and surveillance cameras to cover the flanks through which irregular migration occurs, is also a major challenge”, Abeshi said.

The National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons and Other Related Matters (NAPTIP) confirmed that trafficking underage children for labour in Nigeria is alarmingly high but “rampant” in the south-western part of Nigeria.

The national spokesperson of NAPTIP, Josiah Emerole, spoke with Saturday Tribune on the influx of foreign underage children into Nigeria: “We know that the problem has been on for a  long time, especially in the South West, where people traffic little children from neighbouring African countries to Nigeria to serve as house helps and also work in other areas.

“We have always arrested people who engage in such act wherever we find them. There have been a lot of such arrests in the Lagos State axis, including in the Saki area and the Seme/Idiroko area. They take advantage of the porous borders, but in the last few years, we have made a lot of arrests, including a lot of women who go to the neighbouring countries to bring in children who they would then distribute to people”.

He aded that “over the years, we have arrested a lot of them but you know criminals, they will always find a way of carrying out their nefarious activities, but as soon as we get information, we go after them and arrest them.”

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