Pushed beyond borders: Why Nigeria’s worsening economy isn’t stopping young Beninese migrants from seeking a better life (2)
Though Nigeria’s economy is yet to fully recover from the 2015 recession, young Beninese immigrants seem not to mind. For them, any life away from the extreme hardship back at home has to be good enough. ‘Kunle ADEBAJO reports.
GYAUME Gohoundgi had to drop out of primary school after his father passed away in 2003. One in 10 Beninese children reportedly has lost one or both parents, thus orphans are found almost everywhere, especially in impoverished towns such as Zakpota where Gohoundgi lived. And, like others, the 12-year-old had no one to help with his school fees or even daily upkeep. Then he saw a path that held the promise of survival and financial stability. That path led to Nigeria.
Despite his young age, Gohoundgi travelled to Nigeria the following year, hoping to acquire skills that could help him earn a living. He spent the next four years at a tailoring shop in Ibara-Orile, Abeokuta, learning all there was to know about the trade. Then, when he discovered that he needed capital to establish his own business, he got a motorcycle on hire-purchase and ventured into okada-riding to raise money.
Fortunately, he had two elder brothers already in Nigeria working as commercial motorcyclists as well as manual labourers on farms and quarries. Finally, in 2017, he returned to Zakpota and set up his own tailoring business, Goodness Couture.
Today, 28-year-old Gohoundgi has four young apprentices. Not only is he transferring his skills, he also has to feed three of them who otherwise have no means of fending for themselves.
Seeing someone like Gohoundgi return from Nigeria with good clothes, a motorcycle, and sizeable amount of money, many children in Zakpota also long for a chance to try their luck in Nigeria.
“We are trying to get some of my juniors in school, but they say they want to go to Nigeria,” Gohoundgi says, sitting cross-legged under a tree shade somewhere in Zakpota as three of his apprentices and other children stand around him.
“I tell them our people in Nigeria are working really hard; they are suffering. A brother of mine spent numerous years in Nigeria, but when he got back, he didn’t come with anything. If I didn’t learn a skill in Nigeria and I’d ventured in farm work or quarry work, I would have had to start afresh.”
But such counsel fails to discourage many young people in Zakpota.
Life is tough for the average Beninese child. Despite making primary education free in 2007 and recording improvements in enrolment, nearly half a million (39 per cent of) children are still excluded from primary education, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. Especially in low-income communities like Zakpota, engaging children in hard labour is a norm. Provisions of Benin’s Labour and Child Codes stipulating 14 years as the minimum age for work nonetheless, 21 per cent of children aged between five and 14 have been found to work as adults while 16.3 per cent are combining work with schooling.
Every year, hundreds of children are trafficked to Nigeria. Unlike Gohoundgi, most of them are used as domestic helps, street vendors, or are forced to work on remote farmlands and quarries. The trend has continued even though working in Nigeria is not as profitable as it was in the past.
The circumstances of travel vary from child to child: some are forced to travel by their parents, some have no parents, some move to Nigeria while school is on vacation to raise fees for the next academic year, and there are those who even sneak away without their parents’ approval. But one factor that connects nearly every one of them is abject poverty.
Asides having the world’s 26th worst human development index, the World Poverty Clock notes that over 5.1 million people in Benin live in extreme poverty. This is nearly half of a population of 11.2 million. The United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, also stated in a 2019 report that 41 per cent of people living in the country are suffering from severe multidimensional poverty while 14.7 per cent are vulnerable to the condition.
Why trafficking remains an option
In many agrarian African communities, children are seen as a blessing. The traditions strongly encourage a family to have multiple children —especially because more hands are available to work on vast farmlands. But having more hands to work also means having more mouths to feed; and with dwindling resources, the duty of raising children properly is becoming increasingly difficult.
Stakeholders in development circles agree that the source of many of Zakpota’s troubles is the lack of family planning. With each woman giving birth to an average of five children, Benin is ranked as having the 12th highest population growth rate in the world.
“The first problem is that our parents are having too many kids,” admits Victorin Adekoute, President of the Union of Beninese in Nigeria, Ogun State chapter. “Ah! Some men may marry up to five wives. Some wives can give birth to up to ten or eight children. Or more than that even.”
The chapter’s vice president, Hounmenoun Jean, notes that parents who sired many children have themselves not fed satisfactorily.
“If, for instance, someone gives birth to 16 children, for that family to sit down to eat in the morning, afternoon, and night will be difficult,” he explains to The ICIR.
“So, they start thinking perhaps some of the children should go and become house helps. If it’s three that are left, at least those ones will go to school. The money from those serving as house helps will be used to cater for the remaining children at least to some extent.
“Our own problem is that when our men marry, they make sure they deliver the woman of all the children in her body till she reaches menopause. There is nothing like family planning.”
Though Gabriel Azagbe, 15, still has both of his parents alive, his life is no different from that of an orphan. His mother has remarried. His father, a returnee from Nigeria, married five wives and has given birth to 20 children. Two are dead because of inadequate care, the teenager says.
To survive the hardship, he decided to learn photography. During the week, he goes to Zakpota-based Adis Photography Studio to improve his skill, and during weekends he engages in manual labour on farmlands to make some money. With this, he buys garri to eat for the following week at work.
Local laws and customs that frown at abortion and the use of contraceptives encourage Benin’s high fertility rate. The country has the 10th lowest contraceptive prevalence rate in the world. Though abortion is legal in cases of risk to the woman’s life, rape, incest, even in these cases, legal or medical authorisation is required.
Another factor driving many Beninese to neighbouring countries is the loss of arable land for farming. Soil infertility is a gnawing problem especially in the rural communities where most depend on farming for food and income. This is as a result of monocropping, frequent flooding incidents since 1970 according to the World Bank and, some suspect, excessive use of fertilisers.
Adekoute estimates that a piece of land capable of yielding up to three bags of cassava in Nigeria cannot produce more than one in many places in Benin. The crops have also been observed to have significantly smaller sizes.
“People farm on the same spot for several years and do not have any other place to go. Whereas, children are increasing in number. That is the problem,” Jean notes.
Having no reliable means to earn money, many families are unable to enrol their children in school. As a result, the country has the seventh worst literacy rate in the world. Children are also reluctant to work as apprentices, having no money to buy food for sustenance.
And for the few who did attend and graduate from school, they are prevented by high unemployment rates from getting decent jobs. Ganguisou Vinceur, a photographer and resident of Zakpota, who himself spent his youthful days labouring in Nigerian quarries, laments that there are not enough factories around. There is, in fact, none in the local government, he says—“It is only schools we have.”
His son, Fadele, got a degree in German Language over three years ago but has since found no place to work, despite promises from the government.
Vinceur is grateful to Nigeria where he learnt photography. “Nigeria is taking care of us o!” he exclaims. He notes that if not for interventions by international non-governmental organisations such as Terres des Hommes and Bonne Fontaine, the population of Zakpota would have taken a greater hit.
“As they are chasing us from Nigeria, we are going back there because wherever there is corn, you’ll find chickens. There is no food in this place [Zakpota]. We are suffering a lot,” he says.
“It’s not our desire to take the children to Nigeria but… I am suffering, children too are suffering; we all sleep on empty stomachs. Is it good? … Are we going to die here?”
Though Zakpota is notorious as a home to victims of trafficking, the problem cuts across all regions of the country. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported there is also a high prevalence of child trafficking in Zogbodomey and Glazoué. And, in the south, Zou, Mono-Couffo, and Ouémé-Plateau have been found to be high recruitment zones.
As a child, Didie Kloue had no support, no one to enrol him in school or guarantee him adequate feeding. He had to engage in manual labour to raise money for food and learn tailoring. Now, president of the association of artisans in Zakpota Local Government, he has vowed to uplift as many children as possible who find themselves in similar circumstances.
For years, he has been operating a vocational training centre for young people: the Centre D’appui a la Formation Professionnelle des Artisans de Zakpota (CAFPAZ). Presently, it has 22 people enrolled: 18 girls and four boys. Out of this number, 10 have parents who relatively cater to them. He gives food and shelter to the others, many of whom are orphans, using his personal resources.
“I can’t help as much as the government or well-to-do parents would. But I try to make sure they don’t sleep hungry and are learning,” Kloue says.
His centre has, however, been facing several challenges since Beninese President, Patrice Talon, came into office in April 2016. Educational materials which the previous administration distributed to the children for free were no longer shared. These materials, he states, made it easy for the students who had received some formal education to grasp the lessons.
A government-run training centre in the community was closed down too and a programme, where teachers commissioned by the government taught the children how to read and write, was stopped. Another programme that sponsored artisanal leaders to travel, give talks, and train people in various communities was also discontinued.
He says the change in policy is affecting all of Zakpota.
“We have many children who are willing to learn a skill but have no support, no person to give them food, and it is the lack of this support system that makes them go to Nigeria to do what they are not supposed to do,” he adds.
“When this government came on board, all assistances rendered were stopped. If people go to the government for help, they would reply that it is the people who are supposed to help the government, not the other way round.”
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Benin is ranked as a tier-2 country by the 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report. This means its government does not fully meet minimum standards in protecting victims of trafficking but is making significant efforts to comply.
More help needed
Neither the Beninese government nor people are shy about admitting their inadequacy. Benin already has the 32nd highest foreign aid per capita in Africa. It is receiving more development assistance by the year—and this trend is not likely to change soon.
Speaking to The ICIR, Vigan Olivia, Assistante Sociale at the Centre de Promotion Sociale (Centre for Social Promotion) in Zakpota, appreciates the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) for supplying needed materials to children enrolled in schools.
The government-run centre, established in 1987, receives returnees from neighbouring countries and assists some children in schooling and getting technical skills. But its activities are heavily dependent on humanitarian support.
“We still need help from other NGOs,” Olivia pleads. “We are trying but the help from NGOs is reducing. Those who have heard are benefitting us, but there are some who have no idea what is happening here. We need further assistance so the work can continue.”
She says the centre is willing to monitor grants or loans given to families in the community by NGOs to ensure that they are properly utilised. If the families are empowered financially, she explains, children will not have to go hungry.
“We just pray that NGOs come to assist the children so that those already in school don’t end up dropping out. During this holiday especially, we’ve been praying about this.”
Adagbe Oussou Celestin, General Secretary of the Zakpota City Council, believes that NGOs can also intervene in the area of the richness of farmlands. He says this is because some of them have the expertise to test the soil and determine what it is suitable for growing or how to replenish it.
“If there is a means of fertilising the soil without spoiling it or taking so much time before results are seen, that’ll be great,” he says.
Asked what steps the Benin government is presently taken to curb the problems, Celestin said that the government’s revenue is limited and cannot all be spent on child development. The government builds schools while expecting help from non-governmental organisations in providing necessary materials, he says. It also repairs roads, he adds, and funds other infrastructures meant for the betterment of everyone.
Adekoute submits that the government needs to do more in promoting family planning in the communities. He would also like to see more NGOs coming around to support the children with opportunities for quality education and skills acquisition, as well as financial empowerment.
This model has worked in the past. For instance, after his apprenticeship in 2013, Elize Azandjo, 26, who is from a poor family background received two sewing machines from Terres des Hommes. Today, six years on, he has bought two additional machines for his workshop, built a house, and bought a piece of land as well as a motorcycle. He also has under his care, six young apprentices.
“I am happy with what Terres des Hommes did for me,” he says, grinning.
“Today, it is they who have made me somebody. And I want them to continue. That is why I am doing what I’m doing with the children so they too can gain in the future.”
* This investigation is supported by the Institute of War and Peace Reporting and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting, ICIR.
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