Lagos — The anti-human trafficking law recently claimed its first casualty in Abakakili, Ebonyi State when a 28 year-old child trafficker, Miss Nneka Orji-Okoro was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment without an option of fine by a Federal High Court in the state.
As the campaigners count their blessings, investigation has also revealed a new face of child trafficking in the eastern part of the country that requires urgent attention.
Nneka was 17 years old early last year and in SSS II when she discovered she was pregnant. She kept the secret away from her parents and made a successful attempt to hide the pregnancy from everybody until the delivery. Nneka only confided to her friend who suggested to her that there is a hospital in Enugu that will be ready to buy off the baby from her and offer her the opportunity to go back to school and continue life without anybody knowing what happened.
She bought the idea and disappeared from the village to the undisclosed hospital in Enugu, where she had a baby girl. Before the birth of the baby, she was offered to sell the baby to the hospital at N25,000 if it's a baby girl and N30,000 for baby boy, which she agreed and was made to signed a document to that effect.
However, after the birth and looking at her bundle of joy lying by her side, the string between mother and baby made Nneka to change her mind of selling the baby to the hospital. Looking at what it was going to loose, the management of the hospital insisted that Nneka must fulfil the terms of agreement earlier entered into-to abandon her baby with them and be paid N25,000 for that effort. This is how the young lady's pregnancy came to public notice and the knowledge of her parents as well as the intervention of the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons and Other Related Matters (NAPTIP). With the efforts of the agency and the poor parents of the girl, the hospital was paid about N40,000 as the bill incured by the mother and child at the hospital.
According to THISDAY investigations on the enormity of child trafficking in South Eastern part of the country, especially in Ebonyi, Enugu and Abia States, this new face of child trafficking is on the increase. Unregistered and illegal hospitals and maternity homes are springing up in neighbourhoods. According to Mr. Tony Ezego, a resident in Umuahia, this ugly practice has been going on, a common practice no one can actually come out to confront.
These illegal hospitals and maternity homes exploit the ignorance and greediness of some of these young girls who mistakenly got pregnant in their parents houses. Some of them run away to some of these hospitals, maternity homes immediately they discovered they were pregnant. They are taken care of by the homes or hospitals until they put to bed and made to sign away the babies, which are later sold over the hospital counters to willing couples or individuals who pretend to adopt them, circumventing existing adoption procedures and laws.
Further investigation revealed that the hospitals or illegal maternity homes sell these babies to these people who pose as they need the babies for adoption. For the hospitals, baby boys go for about N400,000, while the baby girls are given out for about N300,000. All these transaction are done without any documentation unlike when appropriate adoption is contracted. That means that the buyers can do anything with the babies even for ritual purposes.
At Umuosu, a village out skirt of Umuahia, Abia State capital, Miss Oluoma Agbara told THISDAY that everybody knows that such maternity homes exist, but no one will point exactly that this is the hospital that engage in such illicit business. She said there was this girl in the village that was pregnant at a time even to the knowledge of everyone. Suddenly she disappeared, had her baby and came back to tell people that the baby died after birth. Oluoma said what baffled everyone was how the girl went on spending spree to the amazement of the villagers. She suspected that the girl patronised such dubious maternity homes.
Mrs. Ijeoma Okoronkwo, Zonal Head, NAPTIP, South East, Enugu State confirmed to THISDAY the increasing rate of child trafficking in the South East. She said that the activities have been going on but were not reported or people did not know it was wrong. She explained that with the zonal office of the agency in Enugu, there have been avalanche of reports and petitions on child trafficking, especially on the sell of newborn babies by dubious hospitals, illegal maternity homes and their collaborators across the states with emphasis on Abia State.
"Yes, since we opened our office here in the past couple of years, there is this new trend of child trafficking in the South East. There are these hospitals and maternity homes that go for young girls who are pregnant and helpless. They shelter them till delivery time and they are made to sign out there babies.
"For example, for having a baby girl, the girls are paid about N20,000 to N25,000 while for baby boys they are paid N30,000 to let go their children for adoption. Interestingly, these hospital turn around and sell these babies between N150,000 to N200000 for girls and ^200,000 to N300,000 for boys. I must tell you that the trade is booming in south east states and we are watching some of these hospitals and maternity homes in Imo, Abia, Anambra and Enugu States," she told THISDAY.
Late last year, Mrs. Okoronkwo said her agency received reports from some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from Abia State that there were some hospitals, maternity homes and traditional birth attendants who are involved in this illicit business and have been placed under watch.
The agency's zonal Head, South East also confirmed the case of Nneka who found herself pregnant and agreed to sign off the baby, but later changed her mind after delivery, whom the hospital refused to let go until NAPTIP intervened before mother and child were later released after the hospital bill was paid. In Enugu in particular, she said some of the dubious hospitals and maternity homes have abused the law and provision made by the former Enugu State Government to allow school girls who discovered they were pregnant to go to certain designated hospitals to have their babies, give them for adoption and come back to continue their education.
But what actually happen to these babies that are sold to the buyers? Are they really given out for these fees for adoption or for other ulterior motives? Mrs. Okoronkwo said while there may be genuine ones who buy these babies for adoption, she assumed that many of these babies end up on the ritual table, which she described as very unfortunate. Her assumption that some of the babies are used for ritual purposes was hinged on that fact that there was this man who came back to the same hospital to buy another baby after a week he bought a baby boy.
"There should be a question on what he did with the baby he bought the previous week? They may be using these innocent babies for rituals and not adoption. It is sad that babies are now bought off the shelves in hospitals and maternity homes; anybody can come in and buy one. Unfortunately we have not prosecuted any of these hospitals and maternities because of the slow process of the courts. But many of the hospitals and maternity homes are also under the agency's watch across the states mentioned.
It could be recalled that Police authorities last September disclosed the arrest of two people who offered to buy a six-year-old girl for N600,000 in Maiduguri, Borno State capital northeast Nigeria.
The disclosure followed the arrest of six people, including a medical doctor, for alleged involvement in the sale of children.
Then Borno State Police Commissioner, Alhaji Mohammed Abubakar, said the doctor (name withheld) and a member of his staff had sold a newborn baby through an intermediary for N30,000 to a woman who was being trailed by the police.
Abubakar said Police received information that the woman had earlier visited a motherless babies' home in Maiduguri and inquired about adopting some of them.
Her request, he said, was turned down because she was not a resident of Maiduguri. The same woman reappeared in Maiduguri with a man who police suspected was her intermediary's brother. This time she bought a baby boy for a price the police was unable to ascertain. Abubakar later handed the doctor, who allegedly got babies with the connivance of women who had unwanted pregnancies to NAPTIP for further action.
In Abia and Ebonyi States, NAPTIP discovered that some churches also use children to beg and make money. The agency last year got a petition that a church was using some 25 children for begging, which the agency intervened. Mrs. Okoronkwo said it's not all the cases that they handle that end up in court. Some suspects or offenders, she said are cautioned and monitored in other to check them incase they repeat the offence.
Another trend of child trafficking identified in the south east by NAPTIP is the growing rate of kidnapping of girls who are later sold for between N15,000 to N20,000 to ready buyers as domestic house helps. There are also cases of rape in the zone, Mrs. Okoronkwo noted, while admitting that there have been quite a number of rape cases reported to its office in Enugu. She said the agency was currently investigating the case of a lecturer at the Imo State University who raped an eight year old girl. She also mentioned the case of an 18-year old girl who was abused by a 70 year old man. She said the girl is currently undergoing rehabilitation at the agency's temporary accommodation.
Mrs. Okoronkwo admitted that there has been an increase in reported cases of child trafficking in South East largely due to awareness the agency has been able to create since its doors opened in Enugu. She said before NAPTIP came to the zone, there was a study carried out which identified Abia, Ebonyi and Enugu States as endemic states. As the agency began work in the area, it discovered that each state has its unique challenge in terms of the problem. "It's no more Edo and Abia thing. For example, in Abia State, the traffic is high in Item area because of its border with Cameroun, while Ebonyi also records high traffic in child trafficking.
Last year, the agency got information from a network in Ebonyi State that a group of youths (150) were being trafficked to somewhere, probably to Cameroun. "When we intercepted them, the traffickers said they were taking them on holiday camping and will bring them back after the holidays. But if you know the antecedent of young men of this area, some will not come back as many will drop by to become house boys and girls or ply the streets selling petty and cheap products on the streets of major cities. In the case of the girls, some will get pregnant.
"Another group comprising of 122 young men was also intercepted as they were passing Ebonyi State, claiming they were going to another country. According to our investigation, they were being moved from Niger to Cameroun, it's a cartel moving the trafficked people from one country to another. There are people who dispatch them; there are another who receives them and their others whose business is to recruit. It's a network of traffickers," Mrs. Okoronkwo said.
The victims apparently moved from Mali, were about 13 years old and could not speak English, but French. According to NAPTIP, they had no passport and did not know their destination, did not pay their fare, meaning that somebody recruited and transported them. The agency described Nigeria as both destination and transit country for human trafficking.
In its own account, the Ebonyi State Police Command said it recorded a major break-through in the fight against human trafficking and child slavery, when it intercepted two bus loads of illegal emigrant at Ezzamgbo community in Ohaukwu local government area. The immigrants, the Police said where on their way to Cameroun and other central African countries.
In a news conference, the Ebonyi State Police Commissioner, Mrs. Julie N. Iroha said it was a major breakthrough in crime combating by her command as she paraded the suspects numbering 121, including 12 women in connection with the offence. She narrated how on July 12, 2007, at about 0600 hours following a tip off, a team of detectives from the state command intercepted two luxurious buses belonging to Ifesinachi Transport Company conveying 122 persons from Lagos to Cameroun.
The CP said that luck ran out of the desperate emigrants when their chaperon, Esther Eze, from Uburu in Ohaozara local government area of the state could not give believable reasons why such a number of people, most of who are males cramped in the luxury buses. She said strong indication emerged in the course of interrogation that the 122 persons were being trafficked. While admitting that the matter was still under investigation, the CP said of the number, 92 were from Mali, 14 from Senegal, one from Sierra Leone, one from Guinea Bissau, two from Mauritania, seven from Guinea, three from Niger Republic and one from Cameroun.
The suspected human trafficker, Ms. Esther Eze told newsmen that she was just serving as a guide for the immigrant pointing out that they were assembled at a park in Cotonou en route to Cameroun and other countries where they hope to find jobs. She stated that this was not the first time she was shepherding such immigrants to various destinations. Eze dismissed insinuations that she may have been a member of a racket.
Surprisingly however, one of the suspects, who gave his name as Alabi Abudu Kabiru, from Cotonou, said he paid 70, 000 CFA to Esther to facilitate his emigration to Cameroun where he said his elder brother is currently sojourning. Also another suspect, a lady, who gave her name as Beya, said she paid 80, 000 CFA to the suspected trafficker pointing out that she had been staying in Cotonou as an immigrant but decided to go back to Cameroun, her country of origin.
Since it opened its office in Enugu, Mrs. Okoronkwo said the agency in the last few years has rescued 55 cases of human and child trafficking, while 35 arrests were made within the period in Ebonyi, Abia, Enugu and Anambra States where THISDAY investigated.
Often times too, according to investigation, the victims are coerced, tricked, lured or out rightly forced out of the country with promise of a very bright future in the destination country which always turns out to be a fluke. Stories from repatriated victims revealed that some of them were made to swear before priests in shrines where their pubic hair, finger nails are cut for keeps, to make them pliant.
A regional project launched in 2003 by the United Nations Office of Drug and Crime (UNODC) found in a succinct Nigerian case study that although trafficking of persons from Nigeria involved both Nigerian and nationals of other countries; it appeared that the human trafficking activities that take place in Nigeria are conducted entirely by Nigerian citizens.
"Those involved include recruiting agents, native doctors (voodoo priests) who often perform ceremonies to control the victims, lawyers who draw up debt bondage agreements, estate agents who help to launder trafficking proceeds through real estate transactions and travel touts and agents who provide the necessary travel documents and arrangements.
Generally, foreign nationals work as temporary guides across borders or provide shelters and safe houses along the routes or harbour victims traveling by land. This seemingly innocuous transaction has taken such dimensions that Nigeriatoday has been dubbed an endemic country in the trafficking of human beings.
In a citation index drawn up by UNODC, Nigeria ranks as "very high" as an origin country, and together with Cote D'Ivoire and South Africa, they are frequently cited as destinations for victims trafficked from African countries, bringing with it negative portrayals and odium internationally.
Perhaps, this propelled government to enact the Trafficking in Persons (Prohibition) Law Enforcement and Administration Act, 2003, which also created the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons and Other Related Matters (NAPTIP). As a result, Nigeria is the first African country to enact such a law and establish a specific agency to implement it. Since its establishment, NAPTIP, in collaboration with other law enforcement agencies, international agencies like UNICEF, the Italian and Belgian governments, have collaborated towards reducing the incidence of this illicit phenomenon. According to NAPTIP, an estimated 4.5 million persons are trafficked internationally, while about 10,000 are trafficked from Nigeria annually.
Before now, many people never knew that Trafficking in Persons (TIP) and Forced Labour (FL) constituted an offence. Reactions hitherto have vacillated between ignorance and indifference. Executive Secretary of NAPTIP, Mrs. Caroline Ndaguba said it has been difficult obtaining accurate statistics on the trafficking situation in Africa because of the nature of the illicit trade. Quoting an earlier report from UNICEF on the phenomenon, she said that four per cent of repatriated victims of international trafficking in Nigeria are children. The female/male ratio is seven to three. "Internal trafficking in Nigeria was also reported to be forced labour (32 per cent), domestic labour (31 per cent) and prostitution (30 per cent)," she said. Inadequate as the statistics may be, Ndaguba said they illustrated the magnitude of human trafficking in Nigeria and efforts that need to be made to combat the illicit trade.
The agency's interventions have been in prosecuting traffickers, rehabilitating victims, collaborating with nations and agencies to fight the scourge and generally creating awareness in the public about this new menace. NAPTIP however, disagreed that poverty is not the reason and can never be the reason for human trafficking, but greed.