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Nigeria: Strong Political Will Fuels Fight Against Trafficking

Nigeria, like many countries in Africa, must cope with issues such as corruption, mismanagement and poverty. Nonetheless, the country has become a success to be emulated with its drive to end human trafficking, according to Reed Slack, who spent three years helping Nigeria implement programs to combat modern-day slavery.

"There was tremendous political will from the highest levels of government to tackle the issue of trafficking," Slack told America.gov in a recent interview. The effort of the Nigerian government, he said, "is most commendable and is -- and ought to be -- a model for other countries, not only in Africa but in Europe and in North and South America and Asia."

Slack is now the executive director of the Utah Health and Human Rights Project, but from 2006 to 2009 he served as chief of party in Nigeria for the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA-ROLI). In that capacity, he worked to help implement a program underwritten by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to fight human trafficking by building capacity in Nigeria's law enforcement agencies and the judiciary and to provide support for victim rehabilitation services. The ABA-USAID program provided training for hundreds of Nigerian prosecutors, police, immigration enforcement officers and government officials in various agencies.

According to Slack, public awareness of the problem of human trafficking in Nigeria began to increase in the mid- to late 1990s, with a series of widely publicized stories about the repatriation of a number of Nigerian women who had been trafficked to Italy for prostitution. Photos showing the women being dropped off on the tarmac at the Lagos airport and abandoned to make their own way engendered a feeling of public insult in Nigeria's citizens, he said.

Amina Titi Atiku Abubakar, the wife of the vice president under the former Obasanjo administration, became alarmed about the issue of trafficking and saw it as "a national affront to the dignity of all Nigeria," Slack said. She established the Women Trafficking & Child Labour Eradication Foundation (WOTCLEF), which was able to further raise public awareness and lobby for the passage of an anti-trafficking statute. The statute was adopted in late 2003 with the strong support of then-President Olusegun Obasanjo, Slack said.

The National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) was established as a stand-alone agency within the executive branch. Responsible for preventing trafficking, protecting victims and prosecuting traffickers, NAPTIP engaged all of the law enforcement agencies -- local police as well as immigration officers -- in the fight against trafficking, Slack said.

The greatest strength of Nigeria's anti-trafficking effort, Slack said, was its ability to marshal and coordinate considerable law enforcement resources with the backing of a legislative mandate and political support. "Perhaps the next greatest thing," Slack said, "was the personnel that were chosen to head up these agencies and offices."

"They were all dedicated to the fight; they were passionate about it; they understood the issues very well and were committed to doing all that they had power to do to combat trafficking in Nigeria," Slack said.

Slack attributed the ability of Nigeria's anti-trafficking efforts to evade the corruption that sometimes hobbles other government programs to the fact that human trafficking "affects the dignity and pride of all Nigeria" and the public's "genuine concern for the citizens who are affected by it."

Nigeria's success has been reflected in the United States' annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, which tracks to what extent governments worldwide comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), a U.S. law (PDF, 39KB) adopted in 2000 that seeks to prevent human trafficking overseas. Since the report's first publication in 2001, Nigeria consistently ranked as a Tier 2 country -- meaning its government did not comply with TVPA's minimum standards, although it was making efforts to do so. In the 2009 TIP Report, which evaluated governments for the year 2008, Nigeria climbed to Tier 1 status, meaning it fully complied with TVPA minimum standards.

Slack said he believes Nigeria will be able to sustain effective anti-trafficking measures. Ongoing training courses remain, even with the conclusion of the ABA-USAID program. "That is a sustainable long-term impact of the program," he said. "I think it will continue to yield good results in building the capacities of the law enforcement agencies to detect and prosecute trafficking."

The real benefit of training, Slack said, is "helping an officer to see something differently. And in my experience, both in the United States and in Nigeria, we become accustomed to seeing things around us in a way that it becomes, I don't want to say invisible, but it just kind of blends into the background. But once you understand what it is you're seeing, you understand that it's not just normal. There is something abnormal about what's happening. It's not just prostitution; it is slavery. It's not just farm labor; there is someone who is being forced to do that. People see things differently, and that changes the dynamics within law enforcement as to the attention and efforts that they are able to bring to bear on tackling trafficking."

Perceptions within the general public in Nigeria are changing as well, Slack said. Ten or 15 years ago, Nigerians were proud to have a daughter working overseas and sending money back to her family. "There was not an awareness of what actually was involved or what their daughter was doing, or being forced to do," he said. But as awareness grew about the realities of what was really happening to many Nigerian women in Italy and elsewhere, it no longer was socially acceptable to boast of having a daughter working overseas.

The enticement of good pay and a better life somewhere else remain the traffickers' biggest lure, Slack said. "Desperation makes people vulnerable to those enticements," he said. "How do you then address the underlying socio-economic issues that might reduce the vulnerability to those enticements? But it is not a helpless situation, and I don't know of anybody who is actually working in trafficking that feels that it's helpless. Daunting, yes. But there is progress to be made, and is being made."

Nigeria ranked in Tier 1 again for the Trafficking in Persons report for 2010, which reports on 2009 activity. According to the report, Nigeria demonstrated sustained progress to combat human trafficking, convicted 25 trafficking offenders and provided care for 1,109 victims -- an increase over 2008. Nigeria continued to undertake strong efforts to raise awareness of human trafficking, according to the report. The full narrative on Nigeria is available on the State Department website.

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