Pushed beyond borders: A peek into the dark world of child trafficking between Benin and Nigeria (1)
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When Beninese parents are pushed to the wall due to poverty and the burden of caring for too many children, they often send their wards to neighbouring Nigeria with the help of traffickers to earn extra income. In part one of this investigative series, ‘Kunle ADEBAJO tells the story of what lies on the other side of the border for children from the former French colony.
ONLY two days to the phone call, one of his agents smuggled in three people from the neighbouring Benin Republic: a 30-year-old female divorcee, an 18-year-old boy, and another boy of 15. Yet Baba Gebu, as he is fondly called, is expecting more soon—including, hopefully, a much younger girl requested by the reporter, who was posing as a customer.
The business is slow at this period of the year, hence the little difficulty in getting a prompt supply.
“People have gone to Lagos a lot. If we had known each other before, ah no, you’d have got your exact request immediately, even if you wanted four children,” he brags.
On most days, Baba Gebu works at a popular cement factory in Ewekoro, Ogun State. But, when he is not in the middle of his weekly work shifts, he makes extra money from delivering trafficked persons, especially children, to persons in Nigeria who need cheap labour.
Unless you are known to the network of traffickers though, getting a child can be a bit difficult. It is an illicit, underground business and to be trusted enough to be part of it, you would need not only a convincing story why you want a child but also how, in the first place, you gained access to the dealer’s contact details.
“Who gave you my number? You’re from which town?” are some of several questions asked by Iya Eleko, another popular trafficker who lives in Rounder, Abeokuta. “It’s difficult to negotiate since I don’t know you,” she tries to explain during a second phone conversation. “I don’t know where you are, and it is people I know I give children to.”
Trafficking children, as young as nine, from Benin, Togo, Ghana and other West African countries is a practice that dates back several decades. The person to whom a child is delivered has no obligation to enrol them in school and is free to use them however he or she pleases: as house helps, factory workers, street vendors—in whatever way that can bring a return on such investment. The trafficker gets a one-off payment of about N10,000 while the child’s handler, guardian, or the trafficker himself is paid periodically.
In 2005, in Cotonou, the governments of the Republic of Benin and the Federal Republic of Nigeria signed what is called a “cooperation agreement to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons with emphasis on trafficking in women and children.” The agreement provides notably for a common front aimed at suppressing trafficking, including a joint security surveillance team meant to patrol the borders. But 14 years on, trafficking in persons, though less brazen, still persists.
As negotiations go on, Baba Gebu says he will bring the 15-year-old boy the following week if attempts to get a young girl are unsuccessful.
“We’ll make arrangements and bring the boy to you at Oshodi on Monday. However much his parents want to charge, I’ll let you know,” he assures.
This amount depends on how old the child is. “If the oga says this is how much he wants to pay, everyone will negotiate, so no one runs at a loss. If it is N10,000 (per month), it’s okay; and if it’s N8000, it’s okay.”
Asked if he can deliver children to work as a quarry in Nasarawa State, the middle-aged man replies he can, but says one would have to wait till next January because many of the children who travel between the countries have resumed work and won’t return to Benin until December.
“At that time if you need a lot of children, they will be available. They are our children, there is no problem.”
December is the time most trafficked children from Benin are returned home. Parents use the opportunity to renegotiate better wages on each child.
There is hardly a paper trail for any aspect of the trafficking business. Beninese children are brought into Nigeria frequently, most often without proper checks. One parent bringing his daughter to Baba Gebu promised to arrive with her on a Sunday. “On Sundays, there are usually no immigration officers on the road, so the route should be free,” he explains.
The borders between Nigeria and Benin Republic are porous, with or without police checkpoints, and citizens of any country are easily admitted. It is, therefore, impossible to have accurate statistics of how many foreign immigrants are in the country, how many are children, or where they are from.
Through the Ilara border in Ogun State, this reporter travelled to Bohicon, Benin Republic, on Thursday, August 8, and returned to Nigeria on Saturday, August 10, without an international travel passport. Yet, he was not queried anywhere along the road, despite the presence of numerous security checkpoints every few kilometres.
All that cab drivers with smuggled commodities and immigrants had to do was give bribes of N200 to operatives of the Nigeria Immigration Service and Nigeria Customs Service at the checkpoints. Travel passports were not requested, let alone checked or stamped.
But it is not only the inter-border movements that are tough to trace; the transaction between the trafficker and the buyer is also done without much ado. To prove he has experience delivering children to Lagos Island, Baba Gebu recalls a previous transaction and admits he has not once visited the home where the child is working. “But the child is okay,” he quickly adds, hinting that they occasionally communicate on the phone.
In establishing himself as a professional, he also speaks proudly about a “contract” that is to be signed. It will contain such information as when the child starts working, how much is to be paid monthly, and the contact details of both parties.
However, upon demand for a template three days later at a second meeting, what he brings is a small, black, timeworn journal. The pages have become brown owing to contact with a lot of water. The agreements are written sometimes in as few as one or two sentences, mostly in Yoruba language, and sometimes as many as five or six sentences. There’s no standard amount of information to expect and it is not arranged in any particular order.
The document shows the handwritings belong to other parties, who refer to “Baba Gebu” in the third person. There’s usually a date, amount paid, and name of the “buyer”; but other details are scarce if not inexistent: including full name and age of the child, full address and contact information of the “buyer”, and signatures.
The “buyers” are mostly addressed with nicknames such as Mama Kampala and Iya Ibeji, not named at all; and the children are identified only by their first names.
A good number of the transactions took place in 2019. One dated May 14 states, “Baba Gabriel brought Bose to my place in Ayetoro. I paid transportation costs of N10,000. The monthly payment is N20,000. 08023066***.” One dated July 28 is about a 10-year-old called Bola, for whom N10,000 was also paid. Another one written by one Olakunle, having paid N35,000 reads thus: “I paid for five months to Baba Gebu who brought Sunday to my place.”
“This is my copy,” notes Baba Gebu as he sits on a mat right outside his unpainted bungalow. “As they’ve written this, they also have a copy with them.”
The use of child labour in quarries located in Abeokuta, Ogun State, received unprecedented attention in 2003. The government clamped down on illegal immigrants and deported many of them. And then, non-governmental organisations paid visits to see how they could better help the children. One of them was Terres des Hommes, an international children’s rights humanitarian organisation.
But the weight of the problem was too heavy for Terres des Hommes alone to handle. It partnered with another body, the Union of Beninese in Nigeria (UBEN), an interest group for nationals of Benin Republic resident in Nigeria. This partnership led to the creation of an autonomous branch for Ogun State, separate from that of Lagos.
With the international NGO providing funds and the local association providing manpower and experience, together they retrieved the children, placed many in school, empowered others with various vocational skills and business grants, and engaged in various orientation exercises in Beninese communities where the problems arise. Terres des Hommes also bought motorcycles for the association with which its members combed the forests, farmlands, and quarries for underage children who were being forced to work.
Victorin Adekoute, president of UBEN’s Ogun state chapter since 2013, says child trafficking between the two countries has existed for a long time but Beninese people only started realising its legal implications in 2003. Before then, it was the norm—considered just another means of earning a living.
The mindset, he tells The ICIR, was: “Since I have given birth to many children and we are hungry, let some go and work so the others can eat.”
UBEN’s efforts partly led to a near-eradication of child labour in Abeokuta’s quarries. Where the really young Beninoirs now flock the markets and streets. Their efforts partly led to traffickers restricting their trade, to an extent, to children who are above 14 years. Their intervention, done in collaboration with the Nigeria Police and Immigration Service, has also led to the arrest and jailing of some persons found guilty of trafficking.
But the formidable partnership with Terres des Hommes only lasted for six years. Though many families still come for help, UBEN no longer has a source of funding for its activities. The members have had to tax themselves to continue to assist the children in distress, with schooling and empowerment. They operate a French school in Abeokuta called Ogbondara Community Primary School and also coordinate informal skill acquisition programmes for rescued kids.
Fifteen-year-old Nadesh Zoidji, who hails from Zakpota, is one of many young Beninese now under the supervision of UBEN; but it’s not all right and rosy yet. During the week, she receives lessons on tailoring, and at weekends she hawks for her aunt to raise money to send home and for her apprenticeship.
Because of lack of care at home, she moved to Nigeria in 2016 with her aunt, who then contracted her to a family in Olomore, Abeokuta. But her service as a maid only lasted six months because of defaults in payment.
Though Zoidji saw that it was common in her neighbourhood for house helps to be beaten, starved, and overworked, she says her boss was nice to her.
Also 15, Julianne Gbedgi was given out by her parents when she was only eight years old and in primary four. She worked for six years, between 2012 and July 2018, both at her boss’s home and for her catering company.
Her life of servitude started with the illness of her junior sister. Her parents could not afford the hospital bill and needed some money. Two years after, her sibling recovered but that did not make them discontinue the contract.
“Since the place was okay, I also liked it,” she admits, though she also complains they were usually overworked.
Speaking to this reporter, Osoba Olapeju, Terres des Hommes’ Country Director, says while working with UBEN, they observed child movement between Benin Republic and Nigeria is not only as a result of trafficking. A longstanding Fon tradition known as djoko also influences boys and young men to temporarily migrate by themselves to large farming areas for income.
“So for them, it didn’t start as a criminal activity. People moved mainly for economic reasons and also for social reasons,” she explains.
“We discovered that instead of just boxing everything into trafficking, there was the need to look at the social factors of the movement. We had children who came to Nigeria to do holiday jobs. We had children who came to Nigeria who had had some vocational training, tailoring and so on, and they needed money to establish themselves.”
At the bottom of the problem, Olapeju says, are issues of poverty. But it is more than that. They’ve also discovered there are children who travel for the thrills of adventure, some are forced due to insecurity in their communities, and others are in pursuit of developmental opportunities.
This broader understanding of the problem informed the international NGO’s ongoing project commissioned by the European Union, where it focuses on the movement of migrant children generally, not just victims of trafficking, across the Abidjan-Lagos route.
Unlike Zoidji and Gbedgi who had considerably kind-hearted masters, Sedoni Lasu wasn’t very lucky. The 10-year-old’s Egun father and Yoruba mother are divorced. Her education was sponsored by the father until she got to primary five. When he could no longer afford to pay, he brought her to Nigeria in 2018 to work as a domestic help without her mother’s knowledge.
But, because of ill-treatment, Lasu only spent one month where she was assigned: a book and stationery store in Abeokuta, notorious for using child labour and maltreating workers.
She worked as a salesgirl alongside another girl—even younger than she was. After closing from work, they would both return home to cook, fetch water, wash the toilets and the cars—and then wake up the next day to repeat the same routine.
“I ran away because they didn’t take care of me, and they didn’t allow me to eat on time,” she tells The ICIR. “We go to work in the morning, and then it is by 12pm they just give us N50 to eat.”
With that N50, she could only buy garri and groundnut. The second and last time she ate in the day was at night when they were given the family’s leftover. If nothing was left, they were simply asked to again drink garri, this time mixed with sugar.
The young maids were not allowed to sleep until all the tasks were completed—even if this meant staying up till 1 am. By 6 am, they were up again to commence the day’s work. But an inadequate, unbalanced diet and overworking weren’t the end of Lasu and her friend’s problems. If they stopped for too long to catch their breath, they risked being physically assaulted.
“They used to beat us, if we didn’t work on time,” she narrates matter-of-factly. “If we were working too and they noticed we were slow, they would beat us. Both the husband and wife.”
She still has numerous scars on her arms and legs, from the fan belt used in whipping them, serving as a constant reminder of the gruesome experience.
Exactly a month after she arrived, Lasu picked up a few of her belongings and fled, never again to look back. She was encouraged by her friend who did the same weeks earlier and had spent only two weeks with the family. She gave her mom’s phone number to a commercial motorcyclist who eventually handed her over to UBEN.
Assaults suffered by young domestic helps from Benin Republic are not merely physical in nature, as in Lasu’s experience. Adekoute says his union has also received numerous reports of sexual assault against children.
Likewise, some children have been recovered from remote farmlands in different parts of the country, including Sagamu, Ogun State, and Ajebandele, Ondo State, where they are exploited. According to the UBEN boss, it is impossible to estimate how many children are used on these farms, where they plant maize, plantain, cocoa, cassava, among other crops.
“We may get there and meet one child on a farm and numerous adults. We can’t say exactly that this is the way it is,” he says.
“If their people don’t accompany you, there’s no way you can see anything. Since they are very remote, and you don’t know the places. We work with information that comes to us; and if for instance, a child runs away from such a place, we support him or her.”
Established in 2003, it is the job of the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons, NAPTIP, to help children like Lasu. The agency provides shelter to rescued victims and also supports them with schooling and vocational training.
The agency declined to cooperate with The ICIR on this investigation. It did not acknowledge or respond to a letter addressed to its Director-General in March, in which The ICIR requested a meeting with the NAPTIP boss to explore ways of collaborating on trafficking investigations.
The newspaper’s editors explored informal avenues and succeeded in meeting with other officials of the agency but all that came to naught, even though our editors offered to share our findings with the agency to enable it make arrests. When the investigation was concluded, NAPTIP also did not respond to requests for a reaction to our findings. Calls placed to Stella Nezan, its head of public relations and information, were not answered. She has also not replied sms and email sent to her phone and email address. A letter of enquiry delivered upon request to the agency’s Abuja head office in September is yet to be acknowledged.
The children under the care of UBEN, aged between eight and 15 years, are hopeful for a better future. But they are not waiting on the government or their families, nor are they expecting to be spoon-fed. Each one of them is apprenticing at one workshop or the other, training to become a tailor, an automobile mechanic, an aluminum worker, and so on. They yearn for the day they will set up their own businesses and maybe raise enough to sponsor themselves through school. They, however, cannot do it on their own.
All the children, asked for their urgent needs, have two things always topping the list: apprenticeship fee and necessary tools to start their business. The apprenticeship fee is the amount traditionally paid to the professional from whom they are learning before they can “graduate”. It is a one-off payment that varies from N80,000 for mechanics to N100,000 for tailors.
And UBEN is not as financially capable as it used to be, with external support. Yet, it continues to carry the burden almost all by itself—giving priority to children who have become orphans.
“Immigration doesn’t have any help they can give the children except to deport them. And Abeokuta, for instance, has no rehabilitation centre that is government-owned for the children. It doesn’t exist. They always bring them to us. What we have are funded and managed by private individuals,” UBEN Vice President in Ogun State, Hounmenoun Jean, explains.
Adekoute says the primary need of the association is help for the children in terms of shelter and security. They also think it is a good idea to have a constant supply of internally generated revenue, so they don’t have to rely on government or NGOs.
“When Terres des Hommes was here, they took care of those responsibilities for us. But after they left, the burden became too much,” he adds.
For Osoba, any NGO or government agency interested in the protection of migrant children cannot do without community actors and leaders.
“Institutional actors alone cannot protect the children,” she states. “We must incorporate community support. We must allow the communities to take ownership of the action and not necessarily bring our own ideas but sit with them to understand why and how these things work.”
She also urges Nigeria’s government to implement commitments it has signed under international treaties related to migration, especially the five priority areas contained in the ECOWAS Strategic Framework on the Protection of Children.
* This investigation is supported by the Institute of War and Peace Reporting and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting, ICIR.
You may read the other parts through the following links: