By Jennifer UGWA
ON a breezy evening, January 6 2021, five young girls and one boy walked briskly behind Madame Joy as she led the way to a motor park to catch a night bus due to depart from Makurdi, the capital of the northern state of Benue, in Nigeria, for Kaima in Kwara state, in the western part of the country. Anyone observing the group could assume that they were off to school as each child clutched a backpack containing clothes and a few essentials.
Barely 72 hours earlier, Madame Joy hardly knew any of them by their names. She visited several camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Benue, selling the colorful tale of offering job opportunities to “pretty” girls in her grocery stores in Kwara state to assist their families financially. She found these six persons at an IDP camp3 in Daudu.
Her real name is Nguamo Joy. By day, she poses as the owner of a beer parlor in Kaima, which serves as the base of her sex trafficking business. Daudu camp officials were recruited by Madame Joy to convince the children’s families that they would be safe and would be able to start sending money home in a matter of months.
According to a 2017 report by the International Labor Organization (ILO), human trafficking earns roughly $150 billion a year for traffickers—a lucrative venture for people like Madame Joy. Women and girls in IDP camps are especially vulnerable, lured by the shiny assurances of lucrative employment as domestic workers, waitresses, or maids in hotels.
Five of the girls were being trafficked to work as prostitutes while the boy was supposed to serve as a barman in their new destination.
On the day Aondohember Mneater, 20, left with Madame Joy, she recalls hauling her backpack onto the back of the bus with vigor and excitement, grateful to her new guardian for taking her out of the squalors in the camp.
Mneater was in secondary school when herdsmen invaded her village in 2018 in an attack that reportedly killed more than 83 people. She narrowly escaped death then and relocated to Daudu camp alongside the family members, who also survived.
“I was so happy that my goodbye to my mother was a brief one,” Mneater told me. She speaks barely-passable English and switches to her native Tiv to communicate effectively. “At the time, I felt I was signing up for a good life. I practically jumped out with my bag.”
But when she arrived in Kaima, there was no cashier job waiting for her. Instead, she was forced into a tiny room in what seemed like a hostel at the back of her benefactress’ beer parlour where other ladies also lived.
Mneater said madam Joy assigned them rooms and offered the new arrivals packs of spaghetti and cornflour meal to prepare and eat before she left to run errands at 3 pm that afternoon.
“A few hours later, when she came back, she called the girls together and handed us nylon sacks with g-string panties, bras, packs of condoms, and skimpy wears,” said Mneater. “She said to put it on and get ready for business.”
The girls were to charge a minimum fee of N500($1.22). “For Fulani or Hausa men, charge N1,000 ($2.44) per time, but for men from other tribes, you charge N500,” she said. “A full day of service outside the brothel costs N3,000 ($7.32).”
Fulani or Hausa men, Mneater said, were billed higher because they were believed to take performance-enhancing drugs to prolong sessions.
The only way any of them would be able to leave is if they paid Madame Joy back for their transport costs, the sum of N14,000 ($34). Debt bondage is a standard method used by traffickers, who often coerce victims into signing a moral remittance contract with them to finance their journey.
Mneater said she was the only one that kept a phone on her. When madam Joy left the premises, she hurriedly placed a distress phone call to an acquaintance, Sunday Felix Akperega, an officer of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) in Benue, by 10 PM–19 hours after their arrival.
Within an hour after she made the call, an officer of the Kwara state division NSCDC was dispatched to the brothel to facilitate the girl’s release.
“We were seated outside when he arrived, and he called my number, so we knew it was him,” Mneater said.
By midnight madam Joy was arrested by the officer, and with the girls, they boarded the next bus leaving Kwara for Benue state.
Upon arrival in the evening of the next day, officers of the National Agency for Prohibition of Trafficking in Person (NAPTIP), an agency saddled with combating human trafficking in Nigeria, arrested madam Joy upon arrival at the bus station.
But she has since been released on bail.
“Childhood aborts when human trafficking begins,” said Ummi Bukar, program director of Participatory Communication for Gender Development, a non-governmental organization promoting the inclusion of marginalized groups in social conversations. “It is a great offense against the child’s future.”
And for 17-year-old Abba Cherish, the time she spent at the brothel before her rescue, asides from escaping killer herdsmen, quickly became one of the traumatising seasons of her life.
The men at the premises made catcalls at her calling her “new meat”, a term used for new arrivals.
Madame Joy would also take her to visit a witch doctor who would change her face with juju (witchcraft) to attract more business, just like other girls on her payroll.
Cherish is among thousands of Nigerian girls vulnerable to human trafficking and sexual exploitation who are deceived into travelling with traffickers with false promises of jobs and migration to Europe.
Betrayal close to home
Mbayi Bridget, Mneater’s mother, told this journalist that two camp officials introduced Madame Joy to her as an “honest businesswoman”: Torgega Geoffery, a former chairman, representing the IDPs at Daudu IDP camp3, and Ugber Emmanuel, a former secretary—and Mneater’s uncle. Considering that her brother was involved in the arrangement, she acquiesced to letting her daughter go.
“He chose my daughter to be defiled and preserved his. I thought he had good intentions for me,” said Bridget. “Madam Joy told Emmanuel the nature of work the girls will be doing in Kaima, but he accepted money and sent the girls anyways”.
Aondoaver Tsenougu, a staff of Benue State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA), the agency saddled with managing the affairs of IDP camps in the state, said that the actions of the IDP representatives were without the agency’s knowledge.
“It was when we interrogated the parents, we found out that Madame Joy paid Emmanuel N16,000 ($39) before the girls left the camp,” Tsenougu said.
The money he said was a stipulated amount required by tradition when parents want to send their children forth from home.
“The money is used to buy food and drinks to celebrate with neighbors. It is a way they mark new beginnings for the kids. That was the only money they said they received.”
Tsenougu claimed that IDP representatives camp officials allegedly collected an extra payment of N100,000($243) from madam Joy, in exchange for the girls before pitching a “life-changing chance” to parents of the girls by lying that the trafficker would pay a monthly fee of N20,000($49) directly to the family of each girl.
The journalist confronted the officials allegedly involved in trafficking the girls for Madame Joy with her findings. However, they denied knowing that Madame Joy was a sex trafficker and refuted collecting bribes from her either.
“I was not in the camp when the woman visited. We have never met until this incident,” Geoffery said.
Mneater’s uncle, Emmanuel, admitted he received N16,000 on behalf of the parents but claimed that was the only cash he got from Madame Joy. He claimed they had run a background check on the trafficker who ticked all the boxes.
“No one forced the parents to release their girls. Madame Joy met with the girls’ parents twice. We asked madam Joy to come with her husband, and she brought a man she called Uche before we released their children to her.
“I didn’t know she wanted the girls for prostitution. And I did not force them to go,” he claimed.
Sources familiar with the operation of the brothel administration who spoke to this journalist anonymously for fear of reprisals said, “the brothel has lots of law enforcement officials calling there. And this is just one of her outlets.”
Madam Joy runs other brothels in surrounding towns within the local government where One Naija is situated. Her illegal business may extend beyond the Nigerian border into the Republic of Benin that borders Kaima said a source.
With the clientele soliciting sex from the women in the brothel, this illicit act is swept under the rug.
The man known referred to just as Uche, who madam Joy presented as her husband, manages One Naija pub and collects N4,000($9.76) monthly lodging fee from the ladies in the brothel madam Joy gets the girls for business.
Based on sources, most of the sex workers at the premises are from Benue– a statement also collaborated by Mneater.
Between 2019 and 2020 alone, Nigeria recorded 1881 cases of trafficking. Unpublished data obtained from the Benue State NAPTIP command revealed that between July 2013 to September 2021, the agency recorded 453 cases of trafficking in Benue.
Unfortunately, this data does not document the number of internally displaced women, and girls trafficked across state borders or outside the country.
Women and displaced persons in conflict-rift states like Benue are at greater risk of being trafficked, according to Barrister Ruth Evon-Benson Idahosa, Executive director, pathfinders Justice Initiative, an international organization working to check sex slavery and sexual violence and the liberation of enslaved women.
“This is a common trend we have seen in situations of conflict due to insecurity, having worked with IDP’s since 2014. Their bodies are used as pawns; they are forced into marriages, raped.
Idahosa, a BringBackOurGirls organiser, said, “until government begin to prioritise and humanise displaced women and girls, we will not see the kind of impact we need to make sure these groups are safe”.
Nigeria is a signatory to the Transnational Organized Crime Convention (TOC), which prohibit all acts of trafficking.
Madame Joy’s activities violate the provisions of Chapter Three of the IDP policy and is punishable under the Trafficking in Person Prohibition Enforcement and Administration Act as amended in 2015.
The Act stipulates that “recruitment of any person under the age of 18 years for prostitution or other forms of sexual exploitation with him/herself within or outside Nigeria is liable on conviction to a term not less than seven years and a fine of not less than 1,000,000($2439).”
“any person who procures with the intention to defile any person by fraud commits an offence and is liable on conviction of imprisonment not less than two terms and a fine, not less than N250,000 ($608).
Mneater currently offers labor in surrounding farms at Daudu camp3, where she gets paid a weekly wage of less than N2000 ($9). Still, the pay is better than nothing for an IDP who relies majorly on goodwill donations from charitable organisations.
It has been almost one year since she came home, but the trauma of being sold out into prostitution has lingered. However, Mneater told this journalist that she is willing to try outside the camp again for opportunities.
“If I find an honest job, not like the other one because my family needs help.”
But until she finds this future, every evening when the trucks from the farms stop in front of the camp, Mneater says she counts herself among the lucky ones. “This is better than prostitution,” she said.
Emmanuel and Tsenougu have since been sent out of the camp.
Until press time, the Executive Secretary of the State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA), Emmanuel Shior, did not honor a promise to an interview on the case and didn’t respond to text messages sent to him.
Nevertheless, Gloria Ivieren Bai, Benue state NAPTIP Zonal Commander, said suspects would appear in court for the first hearing in December.
Efforts to speak to madam Joy have proved abortive. Her number failed to connect, but TrueCaller, a caller identification app, confirmed her phone number.
*Images in the report are used with permission of person’s above 18 mentioned in the report