Benue community where children are trafficked for money, sex

Child trafficking appears to be one of the most lucrative businesses in Igede community of Benue State as the crime is said to be prevalent in the area. While the boys are trafficked to the southern part of the country to be exploited economically, the girls are trafficked within and outside the country for sexual exploitation. In both cases, it was learnt, the victims are always maltreated and brutalised with some of them dying in the process, INNOCENT DURU reports.

How ‘madams’ besiege community to recruit young girls during festivals
Victim murdered in Lagos, alleged by boss to have committed suicide
We’re not aware of trend -Benue govt

JOY, a child trafficking victim from Igede, Benue State, was found dead in her room in Lagos during the recent COVID-19 lockdown. She was said to have been strangled by her boss who then hung her lifeless body and claimed that she committed suicide.

Joy’s boss’ story sounded credible and was taken hook, line and sinker by many who heard the emotional and well-crafted narration.

But they did not sound logical to one of the kinsmen of the deceased girl, Barrister Michael Awo Ejeh, the founder of Ogedegede Community Development Foundation (OCDF), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that leads a coalition of civil society organisations in Benue South.

“Joy was one of the victims of the Covid-19 lockdown,” he said.

“She had a dispute with her madam who strangulated her and hung her body to make it look as if she committed suicide.

“The girl had been starved, so she went to pick noodles to eat but the woman quarreled with her for doing so without her knowledge. She then descended on Joy and beat her mercilessly.

“When the police went for investigation, there were bruises all over her body. If you see the crime scene, the whole bed and everything was rumpled. That shows that there was a fight and that it was not a natural death.

“We shouted to the high and mighty in the police and the National Assembly and involved them in this case. We insisted that she must be charged to court. As I speak with you, the woman is in prison and the trial is ongoing.”

The late Joy’s case is said to be one out of the numerous others involving thousands of Igede children who are susceptible to trafficking.

In a tone laden with disappointment, Barrister Ejeh said the vice is escalating in the area because “Igede is a very remote community where there are no basic amenities like hospitals or social recreation centres.

“We don’t even have a high court or things that could make the youths to stay back at home.”

The wife of Igede monarch, Her Royal Highness, Queen Esther Oga Ero, told The Nation that child trafficking had been the business for many people in the area.

“They traffic young people from here to the southern parts of the country and even up to Italy.

“It is something that has been a problem to us in the domain and we have been trying to curb it but our efforts are not yielding the needed fruits because no interest group is ready to rehabilitate such children when we rescue them.”

The queen observed that human traffickers in the area operate like a cartel.

She said: “They always come home to look for house helps. Because poverty is palpable here, when some of the girls get to junior secondary school, they go out to look for a job in order to come back and write their junior NECO and WAEC.

“Sometimes they fall into the hands of some agents who connect them to supposed masters and mistresses where they would work as house help, but at the end of the day, it turns out to be something else.”

Sunny Abara, who coordinates the activities of OCDF in Lagos State, also shared the story of 13-year-old Sarah who was trafficked at a very tender age and had served seven different families before she was eventually rescued.

Amara said: “Sarah had not had any education when she was trafficked from Benue to Lagos. From the age of five, she had served seven different families, taking care of women of over 80 years.

“After working in one place for one year, the stepfather would come and tell the boss that he wanted to take her back home.

“But what he does in the actual sense is to take her to another family, pretending that he just brought her from the village. One day, she had issues with the old woman she was taking care of. The woman fell down and she started laughing.

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“Angered by her action, the woman threw a bottle of water at her. She ran out of the house and started loitering on the street.

“She was picked up by the police welfare unit at Adeniji under the tree where some boys were smoking Indian hemp and dealing in other illicit drugs. She is now under protective custody in Abuja.”

Ejeh also recalled how three Igede children loitering the street of Lagos were found by a good Samaritan who assisted them to return home.

“We have a serious existential threat to the future generation because of trafficking in the land.

“We rescued many children who were found roaming the streets of Lagos and other major streets in Nigeria.

“They were being maltreated because they were under gruesome child labour.

“I invited the owner of an orphanage in Makurdi from Abuja to come and intervene in the case of three children found by a Tiv man, wandering in Lagos. They had serious bruises on their legs and other body parts. They had been seriously maltreated. Many of them were sexually violated.

”The man who found them paid their fare and had them dropped in Makurdi.

“At Makurdi, somebody led them to the orphanage which contacted my organisation, Ogedegede Community Development Foundation.

“We then reached out to Obi Local Government Area’s officials who volunteered to help in tracing the identities of these children.”

Ejeh noted that many of the rescued children hardly remember where they came from or recall the names of their parents. “A lot of these children, like I said earlier, are seen loitering around the streets with different degrees of bruises and attacks on their bodies.

They have been under child labour for years.

“A lot of the trafficked children are so tender that they could not just remember their parents’ names or the names of their communities.

“What we do is to send our members to those locations, incident the matter with the police, interview the victims, take their pictures and go to the social media to ask if any of our people knows the victim.

“If the victim is able to mention a particular community, we will then narrow it down.

“We have at various times succeeded in tracing some of the parents of the victims and reintegrating them with their children.

“We have some of them in orphanages in Abuja. There was one that was being trafficked for prostitution abroad and we intervened.

“We have taken the campaign to the doorsteps of our people. We have met the traditional ruler of Igede, we have met with past local government executives to drive home the message that our children can no longer be sold in the common market because of wrapper or because of bottles of wine or money.

How Igede girls are trafficked for sexual exploitation

Many young girls in the area were said to have been innocently trafficked to various African and European countries for the purpose of working as prostitutes.

The Makurdi commander of National Agency for Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), Aganran Ganiu Alao, said the madams often come to traffic the victims during the new yam festival and Christmas period.

He said: “Obi and Oju axis are very close to each other and highly endemic in trafficking in persons. They are areas that have been known as border points where most of the victims in Benue State are taken through to the South East because they share boundaries with Ebonyi and the rest.

“They take victims from there to Enugu, Delta, Port Harcourt and other neighbouring states. We also have international trafficking taking place there.

“In the course going there for sensitization and campaigns, we discovered that a lot of children from these areas are in Mali and Bukina Faso engaging in prostitution. A lot of them.

“They normally come home during the Igede Agba Festival also known as New Yam Festival. They just did one about a month ago.

“During this festival, most of the victims that have gone out come home to celebrate and also come home in December to showcase whatever they have been able to achieve in those countries they have gone to engage in prostitution.

“In the course of this also, we have a lot of their madams coming home. When they come home, it is also an avenue for them to recruit more girls and take them to places like Mali, Burkina Faso and the rest.

“We go there during this period for sensitization and campaign, especially during and after Christmas.

“The Igede Agba held before this last one, we were part of the programme from the beginning to the end.”

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He noted that the Makurdi Zonal Command came on board in 2013 and since then, “we have been able to rescue over 860 victims of human trafficking. We have been able to process (investigate) over 750 cases of human trafficking, child labour and child abuse.

“Within that period till date, we have also been able to have 23 convictions. At the moment, we have over 14 cases that are pending in court.

“The Benue State Command covers the entire North Central zone and not only Benue. As we work here in Benue, we also work in Taraba, Jos, Kogi and Nasarawa states, but because our office is in Benue State, that is why our work is more in the state.”

Ejeh also recalled his experience when he travelled to Cairo, Egypt for a programme of the African Union last year.

He said: “I was asking to know if there was any Igede person there. Before the end of that day, I saw someone who said she was trafficked from Ogun State all the way to Cairo.

“When she arrived in Cairo, they seized her travel documents and she has been stranded there for more than five years. Our children have continually been sexually abused, our children have continually been at the mercy of merchants.”

Age-long practice worsens trafficking

Checks revealed that the incident of trafficking of male children in Igede is worsened by an age-long traditional practice called Okwurumi. According to Ejeh, it is a socio-cultural issue that a whole lot of people don’t like to talk about. He said: “It is a practice whereby children and youths from the age of five to adulthood are trafficked for economic purposes to the southwestern part of the country to work on the farms.

“It is socio-cultural in Igede land because it is widely accepted as a means of earning income and a means of social certification cum wealth distribution among Igede people.

“When you see old people in Igede, many of them must have gone for Okwurumi when they were in primary or secondary school.”

Explaining how the practice works, he said: “A man who owns a large farm in the South West, possibly an Igede man, comes home to recruit so many workers.

“In the whole of the six states in the South West, an Igede person must recruit the highest number of non-indigenous settlers in that community.

“Because of the intensity of work in agriculture, the young ones of these days who do not want to get themselves dirty prefer to go to urban areas to work as house helps. They work as unskilled labourers, washing dishes and pounding yams for food vendors.”

He added: “There is a terrible motor park in Igede where children are trafficked from. We went to the park and we summoned all the leaders of the union and threatened them, using NAPTIP.

“We told them that anybody who engages in transporting children to any part of the country without the consent of the traditional ruler or their parents would be dealt with. A lot of them became afraid.

“According to what I was told, any time they see underage children who say they are travelling to see their uncles, they now chase them back or get the driver arrested and all of that. That is part of the impact we have made.

“We have visited more than 25 communities. In September we spent more than eight days at home moving from one village to another, speaking to community leaders, religious leaders , market women, youth groups and student unions, among others, about the dangers that our children are facing and about the existential threat in the sense that if you go to Igede community, you will hardly see able bodied boys and girls. All the people you would see are old or disabled people. Why? The young ones have gone for Okwurumi economic migration. They have been trafficked to urban areas to work as house helps.

Speaking from his experience in dealing with the menace, the Zonal Commander of National Agency for Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), Aganran Ganiu Alao, said: “At the beginning of planting season, people come in and take able bodied men from the state to the South West, specifically to Lagos and Osun states, purposely for farming. In the course of taking them away, there is an intermediary who we call trawley.

“These intermediaries benefit from the labour of these victims in the sense that a certain percentage of what is due to the victims is also given to them. To us, exploitation has taken place there. Assuming they are supposed to pay those people N10,000 per month, the intermediary will be there to get N2,000 or N3,000 from that money every month.

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“The victims are always paid at the end of the year. They work from January to December when the bulk of the money is paid. At the end of the day, there is a shortage because the go between will get a certain amount from that money.

“When that happens, they come to us crying that they have been exploited. That is when we come in to intercept them. Purely, it is labour exploitation.”

The practice, he said, is tantamount to labour exploitation which is against NAPTIP law.

He said: “It is only when they have issues with the people that took them to the South West (traffickers) that we get to know and investigate.

“These are able bodied young men that are taken away to work in plantation farms, rice farms and cassava farms. They leave here because of the high wages they have been promised, but at the end of the day, you discover that a lot of labour exploitation comes in.

“Even in those places they are going to work, they are not properly fed and they come back with a lot of sickness.”

Although child trafficking is most prevalent in Igede, the NAPTIP Makurdi Zonal Commander, said: “I must be honest with you that almost all the 17 local government areas in Benue State are endemic to trafficking.

“We just came back from Buruku in Katsina Ala area to rescue some victims. We go as far as Kwande, Zaki Biam, and as far as Guma in Nasarawa axis. Most of those areas are endemic to trafficking. That is what we are witnessing now, and it is on the rise.”

We’re not aware of trend — Benue govt

The Benue State Government said it was not aware of any child trafficking trend in any part of the state.

In a telephone chat with our correspondent, the Commissioner for Information, Ngunan Adingi, said: “I am not aware of such. I will find out and get back to you.”

Worried by the development in the community, the wife of the monarch said: “When talking about trafficking, the authorities should beam their searchlight on Benue, my community in particular.

“If only individuals or the government can come to this poverty stricken place and establish something that can help the children stay back.

“It is not enough to arrest the traffickers. If you dissuade them from travelling, the children will boldly ask, ‘Are you going to pay our schools fees? Are you going to take care of us? Are you going to empower us?

“The children don’t always know the purpose for which they are being taken away. The traffickers, like I said earlier, always come innocently asking for house help.

“Through my contact in Lagos, we were able to discover that the people who recruit them keep them in a place and later give them out and collect money on their behalf.

“Some of them got killed. Some children as young as nine or 12 years never knew they were going into such a situation.

“Yes, of course, some of them get killed. Before my husband became the monarch, I was following a particular case where a man was bragging about what they did to an 11-year-old girl that was allegedly bewitching the family.”

As the wife of the traditional ruler, she said: “I don’t have any budget or anybody reaching out to us in such a situation. Because there is nobody to enable me to rehabilitate these children or empower them with skill for them to be self-reliant.

“I feel so weak. It is a pain to me. The authorities should turn their searchlight on Benue, my community in particular, when talking about talking about human trafficking.

“If individuals or the government can come to this poverty stricken place and establish something, that can help the children stay back.”

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