Premium Times (Abuja)

Nigeria: I almost lost my life in this undercover project but I have no regret — PREMIUM TIMES' Tobore Ovuorie

interview

Photo: Siegfried Modola/IRIN
A sex worker. (file photo)

Abuja — Tobore Mit Ovuorie is health editor and senior investigative journalist with the Premium Times in Nigeria. She was motivated to carry out this risky assignment by a desire to expose the syndicates that caused the death of her close friend Ifueko, who returned from sex work in Italy with full-blown Aids in 1999 and died shortly thereafter. Ovuorie hopes that this story will help to improve anti-criminal policies and their execution.

Brave reporter exposes murder by human traffic syndicates in Nigeria

For four months last year, Tobore Ovuorie, 33, senior investigative reporter with the PREMIUM TIMES Nigeria, went undercover in that country's human traffic circles. Before taking that step, she had researched the rise and causes of human traffic in Nigeria for years.

"Six out of every trafficked persons arriving in the West are Nigerian", she says. "So we need to look at what causes all these, mostly young, people to put their fate in the hands of these criminals." What she noted throughout is that many women will go willingly into prostitution hoping to escape from poverty. To many of these women, leaving Nigeria for sex work elsewhere seems a beckoning prospect. Going abroad is known as 'the next level' Ovuorie pretended to be desperate for the trip as documented in her report, published in her own paper, PREMIUM TIMES, as well as ZAM Chronicle.

Ovuorie decided that to go undercover inside such a transport destined for this 'next level' was the missing piece of the puzzle. She wanted to tell the story of the many women who leave, often never to return. What happens to you after you cross the border? What do the traffickers do once you decide to 'sign the contract' with them?

Voodoo doctors

Ovuorie found that out in the most horrific way: by witnessing two fellow trafficked 'products' being beheaded and slaughtered in front of her. She herself barely escaped alive from the 'training camp' where her group was taken to be sorted into a group for travelling onwards and a group of 'unsuitables'. The 'unsuitables' were deemed to be possessed by demons: they were sent to be treated by voodoo doctors and beaten.

Ovuorie was one of them. In a nightmare that continued for two days, her hair was roughly cut off with a machete and she was whipped through the night in order to be cleansed from 'evil spirits'.

STREAMER: "Many rural girls and even traffickers are superstitious, so so-called prophets could be used by the syndicates' bosses for security checks."

Ovuorie believes, however, that the 'witchdoctor' who was responsible for this treatment was more like a security operative than a real 'prophet'. "Many rural girls and even traffickers are superstitious, so so-called prophets could be used by the syndicates' bosses for security checks. They are very well organised and this is probably a system to weed out 'bad apples', people like me, who could inform authorities about them. Two of the three other 'unsuitables' were women who had had run-ins with the authorities in the West before."

Nightmares

In her nightmares she still sees the murders she witnessed. "I don't know why they chose these two unfortunate souls to kill and harvest their organs. There were visitors, two men and a woman, dressed to the nines - clearly people of influence- who had come for a 'package'. Our traffickers told them they had not been able to get that 'package', which was apparently promised. The two victims then seemed to be randomly chosen from our group, simply to quickly assemble a replacement package right there. One of the visitors had pointed at me, but our traffickers decided that they had invested too much in me and chose the other two."

The criminals' horrific and murderous acts in the camp were as unexpected as they were traumatic to the survivors, including Ovuorie.

"I and my team at the newspaper, Premium Times, had embarked on this assignment knowing it was risky, but we had never expected murder. What I discovered was the merger of criminal syndicates in the field of prostitution, human smuggling and organ traffic. I believe this merger to be the direct result of the extreme criminalisation of prostitution and migration in Nigeria, under the guise of the fight against human traffic."

"When my closest friend died of Aids after she was trafficked, the reality hit me hard."

1. What made you decide to take up this incredibly dangerous assignment?

This is more to me than just a story. Some years back, I became aware that the rate at which girls were trafficked in Nigeria kept soaring.

When my closest friend died upon contracting AIDS after she was trafficked, the reality really hit me hard. Other returnees I interviewed later are also very sick and may die. They are not receiving help; on the contrary, they are being called bad names and are in some cases denied medical treatment in their 'decent' religious communities.

These are the same communities that are represented in parliament by politicians who appear equally decent and God fearing, but many among these powerful men are actually clients of pimps and traffickers. There is also internal traffic inside Nigeria.

I cannot stand by and watch my fellow young citizens being enslaved and dying with the complicity of politicians and government officials, who maintain a façade of decency and who even profess to be fighting human traffic, for God's sake! Their government salaries are partly paid by development aid budgets, some of which is for the express purpose of fighting human traffic. They live the good life with that money whilst my generation dies. And they call my friends 'bad girls and boys'.

I am happy I succeeded in collecting many names of VIPs who are complicit in this business. My newspaper is taking this up with government, holding those responsible accountable. We are very happy that this story gets out internationally, too. Our government listens more when the story comes from 'outside', than when we Nigerians make noise locally.

2. One could still argue that your newspaper should not have allowed you to do this - not in this way. The accepted rule in the journalism profession is that no story is worth your life.

This was a big discussion. We all agreed that we should ensure my safety and only go ahead if we could minimise the risks. We based the risks on the stories we had heard from returnees. They had mentioned loss of passports, not having money, not having a return ticket, not knowing the way in a foreign country, not speaking the language, the loss of mobile phones. We had planned for all these risks. I was to be extracted a mere 100 kilometres from Lagos, in our neighbour country Benin's capital Cotonou. A colleague, Reece, was ready, with her phone active on a 24-hours schedule. I had been briefed about taxis in Benin and what to say to the taxi drivers in French, because Benin is Francophone. We had catered for the eventuality that I would lose my mobile phone and money.

I knew that taxi drivers in Benin would drive me as long as they could phone Reece and Reece would promise them their payment.

We had also calculated that girls destined for prostitution would not be harmed on their way to the 'market' because the criminals are sophisticated and generally don't damage their 'products' before they collect money for or from them. We knew that there could be unforeseen events, but we decided that the importance of the story and the general risk analysis provided sufficient basis to go through with it.

The boot camp

3. Clearly, there was a major new element that was unforeseen and very dangerous: the 'boot camp' your transport was taken through, where people were even murdered.

Yes, this was unforeseen. Had we known, I think we would have reconsidered. We all got a shock when we realised I could have died there. And to witness others dying was also terrible, as you can imagine. I am fortunate that I am alive and surrounded by support. I am at a place of safety and have access to therapy. I do think of the others, however, who were with me and who went through the same experiences. They are still in the hands of these criminals.

That said, it is important that the world now gets to know that the cross-border sex traffickers have merged with even more ruthless crime syndicates and that murder for profit is a business that is mixed with prostitution. It is important that women and men who are considering prostitution as a way to a good income and a life of comfort realise that things have changed, and that they may well be slaughtered for their organs. This is actually a grisly new development.

Sex work as a logical choice

4. You say that this criminal merger has been driven by the war against human traffic. How can fighting something make things worse?

From my earlier research, I know that it was different before.

Traffickers were not this sophisticated. In Nigeria, it seems that the more we combat a situation, the more hardened, sophisticated and criminal the perpetrators become. There is something wrong with the strategies and this usually has to do with the fact that the criminals also reside at the top. A big problem is the erroneous assumption that girls can be 'educated' to stay away from prostitution. I don't think people in more comfortable countries realise how much of a logical choice prostitution is for many families, girls, and even boys, who can't see another way of getting an income. It is also a logical option for many of them to seek greener pastures and try to find work in prostitution elsewhere. But ever since the international and national clampdown on willing migrants and their 'helpers', the cross-border sex trade has become monopolised by criminal syndicates. And they are getting more and more professional, more and more branched out and more and more sophisticated. Today, trafficked girls don't stand along bushy tracks or road sides alone while awaiting customers. The most beautiful educated girls are being recruited, properly groomed, placed in elitist environments and seamlessly contracted out to clients. At the same time, this increased 'professionalism' has closed the net around the recruits, limiting their freedom and opportunities to escape.

Therefore I conclude that criminalisation of prostitution in Nigeria has helped the criminals and done a disservice to women whose only crime is that they seek greener pastures.

Politicians and prophets

5. The element of murder is particularly unsettling. Is the sale of body parts really such big business in Nigeria?

It isn't widespread in the sense that people are murdered in this way all the time. But criminals have noticed that human organs can make them a lot of money. The organs can be used for medical transplant purposes, but of course one would need surgeries and special boxes if that is the situation. What I witnessed was probably the harvesting of organs for 'ritual', or 'magic' purposes. Regrettably, some powerful individuals, particularly those who are profoundly insecure, believe that their power depends on attributes they receive from advisors who call themselves 'prophets'. Many at the top know full well that they did not get there through skills, dedication or capability. Hence, they live with fear that they could lose it all for no reason, just as they got there for no reason. That prospect is such a nightmare to them, that they are easy prey for the 'prophets' with their symbols and potions. These prophets are connected to the crime syndicates. This earlier ZAM Chronicle essay may be helpful to understand this

6. Traffickers like the one who was in charge of you, called 'Mama C', and the girls who are trafficked themselves also seem to believe in 'prophets' and traditional 'doctors'?

Belief in 'spirits' indeed still exists among some Nigerians. Girls who come from a background of rural poverty have grown up with such superstition, and these rituals are carried out by the traffic syndicates to terrify them into obedience and silence. Someone like Mama C would have come from such a background once, too, so I am not surprised that she shares those beliefs. In the case of the 'doctor' who pinpointed me as 'bad luck', I suspect strongly that he was employed by the syndicate as a security operative to detect lies, suspicious backgrounds and cover stories. It would be easy for a syndicate to parade such an operative as a 'prophet'. The 'prophet' cover facilitates such a background check, without having to explain anything to the likes of Mama C.

International support

7. What should international governments and agencies do to ensure that women trapped by syndicates can escape? Should international policy makers consider decriminalisation?

In the present situation it would be helpful if women could receive health care and support to return to their families, whether they were willing migrants or not. Better still would be an awareness that women will travel to work in prostitution in higher income countries, and that maybe ways could be found to tolerate this reality in a legal or semi-legal way. At least if they could just make their own way to sex work abroad, they would not become enslaved by ruthless criminals.

Alternatively, Nigeria's authorities should be forced to really fight the criminals and their accomplices, and not 'fake fight' them whilst actually being complicit. There should be assistance to women doing sex work in the fields of information, health care and career advice. Such assistance desks should also be available for trafficked women in the countries where they work. Embassies of feeder countries should be purged of criminal infiltration. This won't be easy but strong and continuous pressure on authorities in feeder countries, and monitoring of notorious embassies in host countries, should have some effect.

Also, international policy makers can help with the decriminalisation of prostitution the way they are doing with same sex related issues. I know it will sound strange to many Nigerians that I would call for such because Nigeria is supposedly a 'religious' country, but we have to face reality, stop groping in the dark and covering up horrific realities with 'religion'.

Acting to purge criminals from government

8. What is the way forward for Nigeria, where criminal syndicates and corrupt power seem to rule?

We at PREMIUM TIMES, and other activists and serious media, are involved in a daily struggle for better government. We work to build a movement that, we hope, will eventually succeed in transforming our state structures from nests of criminals to properly functioning departments capable of service delivery. Nigeria is wealthy. If our state could use that wealth to build schools, healthcare and a properly functioning justice system, we would be well on our way to provide alternatives to so many who now only see prostitution and emigration as a way out of poverty. This is our general outlook.

With regard to this story, we are engaged in addressing questions to parliament, government departments and institutions that are supposed to 'fight' human traffic. We now have names and facts to work with and we will not rest until we achieve at least the beginning of a purge of criminals from state structures. We have also already approached NGOs and officials in key positions to come on board in this struggle.

9. What is the way forward for you? The criminals from whom you escaped could still take revenge on you, or not? And you mentioned a need for recovery, and therapy to recover from the shock?

Yes, I know the criminals are hunting for me. My team at PREMIUM TIMES is presently seeing to my safety but I'm actually not afraid to take risks for this cause. The investigation leading to this story was really an eye opener for me and I'll be spending the rest of my life in contributing my quota in running these traffickers out of business.

I have been affected psychologically. This is why provisions are being made for a recovery period for me, including therapeutic treatment. But first I am working to get the story out.

Shortly after returning from her undercover assignment, Tobore Ovuorie was told that she had won 'runner up' in the online category of the Nigerian Wole Soyinka Awards for Investigative Journalism. She had won in the health category in 2012.

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InFocus

Investigation - Inside Nigeria's Ruthless Human Trafficking Mafia

A sex worker. (file photo)

Six out of 10 people who are trafficked to the West are Nigerians. PREMIUM TIMES investigative reporter, Tobore Ovuorie, was motivated by years of research into the plight of ... Read more »