Victims of trafficking in Anambra recount ordeals

By Alfred AJAYI

STATISTICS of human trafficking incidents in Anambra within the three years of the establishment of the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) command in the area are troubling.

Lucy – lured by neigbhour, spent a year in traffickers den

Seventeen-year-old *Lucy lived with her parents in a ghetto settlement around Onitsha, the commercial nerve centre of Anambra. The place is notorious for its dirty nature and as a safe haven for criminal gangs, making it ripe for trafficking gangs.

In October 2021, Lucy, an SS2 student, suddenly disappeared from home in pursuit of a non-existent enticing offer by one of the supposed good neighbours.

The development threw her parents, siblings and relations into utter confusion. In their bewilderment, they reported the matter to the Police, which swung into action immediately with the arrest of the suspects.

“Aunty told me I would be fine if I agree to her plan to send me out of Nigeria for a good job,” Lucy recalled after returning to Nigeria. The trafficking took place at a time when she was desperately in search of freedom as a teenager growing into adulthood. The father was a disciplinarian who never anticipated what happened to his daughter.

The offer landed Lucy in Burkina Faso, where the supposed “good job” awaited her. Right from the first night, she was forced into prostitution as a sex slave. She lost her human dignity and rights. “My madam said I must raise the money she used to sponsor my journey away from home.

“I slept with as many men as possible. There was nothing like I am tired or sick. Once you are called upon, you must be ready,” she said, recounting how she was drugged to keep her active for each day’s work. After all, the money she makes goes to the madam.

“Life became unbearable for me, but there was no help in sight,” she recalled.

Back here in Nigeria, Lucy’s parents were fast slipping into hopelessness until one day, they received a terse message from a strange phone number which read, “I am your sister, Lucy. Call this number”.

“Our joy knew no bounds that day. At least we now know she is still alive,” said Lucy’s father. Yet, getting her to return home from Burkina Faso was a tall order.

Accusations and denials went on for weeks until the link between her and the woman who facilitated her migration was established. “My daughter told us to stop harassing the woman (neighbour) and other suspects,” the father said.

“I called my dad and mum to plead with them because I would bear the consequences if they do not stop maltreating her”, Lucy stated, corroborating her father’s statement.

The sexual exploitation went on until the ‘mistress’ was satisfied with the return she had gotten from her victim; coupled with a life-threatening disease, she was freed from sexual enslavement.

“I was released to go. My madam gave me some money to take care of myself, but the sickness got worse after I came back to Nigeria”, she explained.

“She came back with wounds all over her as a result of maltreatment by her madam,” her father recalled sobbing.

The NAPTIP, in collaboration with her parents, took her for medical tests and treatment. She was finally diagnosed with HIV.

“I was devastated” Lucy noted in reaction to the news,  “I saw my entire world crashing.”

“We became confused, especially my wife. But we cannot disown her. We faced the treatment, and thank God she started responding to treatment,” the father also recalled.

The parents’ decision not to leave her to her ate paid a great deal.  The NAPTIP Anambra State Command, commander Ibadin Judith-Chukwu, noted that “She sat for the West Africa Secondary School Certificate Examination, WASSCE and passed all the subjects”.

Lucy is getting close to her dream of becoming a nurse. “Next year, I will write UTME and seek admission into the University of Nigeria, Nsukka”, she said.

As lofty as the dream is, her lowly family background is a threat to its realisation.

“I am a *technician, and my wife is a *works without a certificate [lower cadre]. I have another son at *University at 200 level,” her father stated.

As she struggles to recover from the one-year life-threatening encounter, NAPTIP promises to bring all her tormentors to book. “We have two in our kitty right now. But it’s a chain. We must bring all of them down,” the state commander assured.

The numbers…

Since the NAPTIP Anambra State command became operational from 2021 to 2023, 127 victims of human trafficking have been rescued.

According to information sourced from the NAPTIP command in the state, 17 of the victims were rescued in 2021, while 69  were rescued in 2022 and 41 in 2023.

In 2023, a total of 25 human trafficking cases were reported, with 41 victims rescued. Seven of the cases were being prosecuted in court, 17 others are still under investigation and no conviction was secured in the year.

NAPTIP Commander, Anambra State, Ibadin Judith-chukwu
NAPTIP Commander, Anambra State, Ibadin Judith-chukwu

“This year (2023), we have received a lot of cases, most of which are external trafficking. The victims are still abroad. We have been able to bring back seven victims this year from Burkina Faso, Ghana and Mali.

“We are working to bring others back. Internally, we have been able to rescue a 4-year-old and 15-year-old child,” NAPTIP state commander in Anambra, Judith-Chukwu explained.

She added that some of the perpetrators under review period have been arrested.

In 2021, 31 suspects (16 males and 15 females) who hailed from the states of Anambra, Edo, and Ebonyi were arrested. In 2022, up to 80 of the criminals (44 male suspects and 36 female) were nabbed. They are from Anambra, Benue, Imo, Rivers, Ebonyi and Akwa Ibom states. In 2023, 18 suspected traffickers were arrested have been arrested with Akwa Ibom, Niger and Anambra as their states of origin, the state commander explained.

“I can say that in spite of everything we are doing, human trafficking is endemic in Anambra state. The number keeps increasing despite the sensitisation efforts. Traffickers are stubborn because of the huge money they are making in it,” the NAPTIP commander submitted.

The harder the campaigners try, the tougher the war against crime becomes. For this, Hope Okoye, the Executive Director of the Integrated Anti-Human Trafficking and Community Development Initiative (INTACOM-Africa) offers an explanation.

She said, “Human trafficking is the third most lucrative crime globally after arms and drug trafficking. It is a billion dollars lucrative. So, because of how much the criminals make from it, they cannot just give up.

They must put up a fight. So, the more you think you are closing up on them, the more they are evolving in their mode of operations, especially now that technology is aiding the crime. No part of the world is free – call it America, call it Europe. Many of the victims are being recruited these days on the internet”.

Okoye has said that human trafficking has been traced to several factors under two major broad categories – the Push and Pull factors. While the push factors deal with current realities which compel Nigerians to seek greener pastures elsewhere in the world, especially in Europe, the pull factors are the things that attract and lure them abroad.

Onyeka’s journey from abundance to poverty

As rehabilitation and reintegration processes continued for Lucy, the case of *Onyeka trafficked from Anambra with her children beckoned for attention.

Orphaned at six, Onyeka was sexually assaulted at 14 and became a single mother at 15. “My father died when I was six years old, and I did not know my mother. I’m their only child,” she recalled emotionally.

Onyeka  said she grew up fighting against envy and hostility. “My father left many landed properties. His sister was in charge of them when I was tender.

“She did not treat me well. I stopped my education in Primary 5. The lawyer later transferred the ownership to me. My aunt never liked it,” she explained.

Onyeka found the love and protection she desperately needed in 2018. “I met *Folahan through my friend. He proposed to me and promised to help me fight those who were against me”.

Shortly afterwards, “He advised me to sell the property before my father’s sister would sell all of them. I sold the first property for N15 million”.

“After that, debit alert kept coming from Access Bank, but I didn’t think Folahan was responsible for it until I finally understood the meaning of debit and credit”.

Despite this, Onyeka entrusted her lover to build a house in her father’s compound. “But, whenever I asked for an account on the house, he would beat me with a belt, wire, and anything he found around. Then, the house was at the lintel level. We roofed some parts and fenced it.

“When I got another N5 million, I finished the roofing, fixed the doors and tiles and rented it out”.

After some time, Folahan successfully relocated her to Lagos state. But, the Lagos trip jeopardised her freedom. “In Lagos, we first stayed with his family. I was not permitted to go out. Still, I was feeding everybody, including his family.

When he finished the N5 million I gave him, he took me to [a neighbouring] state, where I bought land for N2.8 million”.

Even without knowing its location, Onyeka gave the lover another N4,000,000 to build and furnish the house in the neighbouring state. “After lavishing the whole money, he took me to the land in  the [neigbhouring] state. Then, I discovered that he did not do anything tangible on it. But, any time I asked him for my money, he threatened to kill me”.

Onyeka, a multi-millionaire, ended in abject poverty. “I started begging before I could feed my children, and they were not going to school. I also did menial jobs. Each time I asked for the documents of the land, he kept dribbling me”.

“At a point, he came to ask me to run with him to Cotonou, but I refused, not knowing that he is from there. He told me he is a Nigerian”.

Eventually, the man who bought one of the lands in Anambra traced Onyeka. “I was detained in the police station because the man said he could not access the land he bought”.

On November 2, 2023, the police prevailed on the man to aid her return to Anambra state with her four children, two of whom she had for Folahan.

“Life has been so unfair to me and my children. Also, Folahan has been threatening that he would kill me for ritual,” she sobbed.

The tragic reality of homelessness and penury now stares her in the face. Her case is best described as a transition from prosperity to poverty. “I lost up to N32 million. But now, I don’t have a place of my own,” she said.

“I don’t pray for my children to pass through all I have passed through,” she concluded.

In an interview, NAPTIP said all the perpetrators would account for the crime. “The suspect is currently imprisoned for another criminal offence. But, we have secured approval of the Correctional Service to access him at any time”.

Poverty led me here – Gloria

Twenty-year-old *Gloria from Bayelsa state relocated to a community in Anambra, some years ago and later got admission into a higher institution.

However, she abandoned her academic pursuit at 200 level due to financial hardship. “My sponsor asked me for sex, and I refused. So, he stopped paying my tuition”.

“After that, I got a job in a hotel, but I couldn’t stay long there because they were not treating us fine. They don’t give us food”, she explained.

She was among the three girls rescued by vigilante operatives at Umunze, Orumba South LGA.

“After leaving the hotel work, a man I met through my friend’s mother promised to find a job for me in Onitsha or Lagos”, Gloria stated.

Unknown to her, the man had a sinister plan. “He asked me if I am truly pregnant. I said yes, and he promised to shelter me. He took me to a big compound with many residents”.

Like a ram being fed for the slaughter, he was feeding his newest catch three times a day. But, on September 19, 2023, the story changed.

“We were playing at home that morning,” Gloria said, pointing to another rescued victim. “He rushed in and said we should dress up quickly. We changed our clothes, and when we came out, we saw the vigilante men”.

The veil of ignorance fell off their faces. “At the local government secretariat, they queried us, and I explained what I know. I also took them to my friend’s mother”.

One of the three girls rescued from Umunze, Orumba South LGA of Anambra State
One of the three girls rescued from Umunze, Orumba South LGA of Anambra State

“They asked her if she knew the man is a child trafficker. She said no. That was when we knew that he would lure pregnant girls, take care of them and pay their hospital bills. After delivery, he takes the child for sale and gives the mothers some money”.

The suspect, Oruchukwu Okoroafor, from Arondizogu, who claimed to have started the business in 2021, revealed that he had gotten potential buyers who were ready to pay N300,000 for each of the unborn children.

He has since been handed over to the police for investigation and possible prosecution.

The push and pull factors

The Push and Pull factors associated with human trafficking. The push factors deal with negative realities pushing Nigerians to seek greener pastures outside the country, while the pull factors are the things attracting them to those countries.

“There is a total system failure, and Nigeria offers no hope to its citizens. People are desperate for a better life,” noted the Executive Director, INTACOM-Africa, Hope Okoye.

“Poverty, greed, natural disasters and conflicts are also the push factors. Anambra has suffered displacement by flood and erosion while insecurity (killings by unknown gunmen) forced many people, especially youths, to migrate from the state. Some of them become victims of human trafficking”, Okoye stated.

On the pull factors, Okoye said, “Some Nigerians call Nigeria hell on earth while Europe and America are like heaven. But, there is no gold on the street of Europe, and all that glitters is not gold”.

“However, their good system ensures prudent management of resources. Bad leadership has undermined the rich endowment of Nigeria,” she regretted.

Anambra’s Commissioner for Women Affairs and Social Development, Ify Obinabo, explained during the stakeholders’ forum that the location of the state is an attraction for traffickers.

“Anambra houses the largest market in West Africa. Everyone wants to partake in its supposed cash flow, legally and otherwise.

“The traffickers lure their victims, promising them solutions to their problems. The gullible ones, who are mostly not from the state, are trapped.

“Some of the victims graduate to become traffickers themselves, and they don’t have mercy on their victims,” the Commissioner said, even as she called for funding assistance for the successful prosecution of the war.

“Also, parents should educate their children about this problem. The church, traditional rulers, vigilantes and other stakeholders should join in the advocacy. If you see something, say something,” Obinabo advised.

Battle tough but on course – NAPTIP

“Within our three years of operation, I can tell you that the rate of trafficking is so high. But, as they change their trends, we are on top of the game. We train and retrain constantly for efficient and effective performance,” Judith-chukwu assured”.

However, some challenges undermined the efficient prosecution of the anti-trafficking war. “We have only one vehicle donated by a foreign agency. Our job demands movement, which we do at our own pace. If we rescue victims, we take them to our zonal office in Enugu or keep them in a private shelter because we don’t have a shelter here,” the commander regretted.

She appreciated the assistance so far rendered by the state government, including offsetting the rent of their current office. “But, we are still appealing that they help us address our logistics problems”.

With over eleven cases already running in courts, the NAPTIP commander still finds the grinding delay in the justice system worrisome. “Our cases are prosecuted at the federal and state high courts. At the federal high court, the judges handling our cases are often transferred, and when new judges come, the cases start afresh. It is a setback to proceedings and convictions.

“Just last month (October), we filed another three or four charges in court. Expectedly, we will soon begin to record convictions”.

    The crime of human trafficking is thriving in Anambra state despite many local and international laws, conventions and instruments bringing their adequacy and efficacy into question.

    All the stakeholders interviewed believed that there are still gaps to fill in the area of sensitisation and awareness creation to arm the citizenry with helpful information that can help them escape the tactful techniques of the traffickers.

    “People must understand what the problem is, what to do, where to go and who to report to,” Okoye said.

     NOTE: Names and words with asterisks were changed to protect the identity of the source. 

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