In this concluding report of a two-part story, JESUSEGUN ALAGBE writes about how teenage Nigerian girls are trafficked from Ejigbo, Osun State, and sold to brothels in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, for prostitution
Rukayat (not real name) has yet to fully recover from the trauma of being used as a sex slave in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.
In March 2018, she left Nigeria to the francophone country through the help of her aunt.
She was told that jobs were waiting for her in the French-speaking country and that once she migrated, she could start making money immediately. But what she was never told was the kind of job that was waiting for her.
“It was one of the dangerous trips I’ve ever embarked on,” said the 15-year-old who is a dropout from Iwo, Osun State.
The teenager, who lost her father about five years ago, said after the father’s death, life became tough for her mother and four siblings; hence, when her aunt suggested to her mother that she could earn a living doing menial jobs in Abidjan, the 57-year-old widow mother didn’t object.
Regrettably, what Rukayat’s mother didn’t ask was the specific kind of job her daughter was going to do in Abidjan as her daughter prepared for the trip. She was told not to bother to pack many clothes for the trip because it was not necessary.
“I was told I would start making money and so, I shouldn’t pack too much load,” Rukayat told SUNDAY PUNCH.
On the morning of the departure from Nigeria, Rukayat was asked to travel to Ejigbo, a 39-km distance from Iwo, where she would board a bus commuting to Abidjan.
Ejigbo people are known for massive migration to Côte d’Ivoire, a phenomenon that started in 1902. They also have the largest population of Nigerians living in the francophone country.
It was one of such trips that Rukayat embarked on.
“My aunt paid for my trip; all I thought was that she was doing me a favour. She said she could not see me suffer while there were opportunities to make money in Abidjan,” she said.
Obviously, Rukayat’s aunt made arrangements with some of the bus escorts she boarded on the departure date. “Before departing Ejigbo, my aunt called me again and told me to feel comfortable on the bus. The bus escorts gave me a seat and we left afterwards,” Rukayat said.
When they got to the various borders at the republics of Benin, Togo and Côte d’Ivoire, Rukayat said she was initially afraid of being repatriated to Nigeria because she did not have the required documents that would be asked by the immigration officials of those countries.
However, she said the bus escorts helped her navigate her way through them all.
Rukayat recalled, “I don’t really know how they did it, but at one of the borders, which was the final one before we arrived at Abidjan, I was asked to disguise as a bread seller. I was given a tray containing loaves of bread and told to walk past the officials.
“I was lucky. I saw some bread hawkers and simply joined them to pass through the border. I eventually joined other passengers a few metres from the border post.”
On the third day of departing Ejigbo and arriving in Côte d’Ivoire, Rukayat said she was picked at Treichville, a suburb of Abidjan, by a lady who had been waiting for her arrival. She said the lady appeared to be in her early 30s.
“I thought I would see my aunt, but when I asked the lady where my aunt was, she said she sent her to pick me,” Rukayat recounted.
From there, the duo took a taxi and made a journey of about one hour from Treichville to an unknown area within Abidjan. At this point, Rukayat said she was already panicky. Their final destination was a three-storey building with about 12 rooms in total.
She recalled, “Once we got to the place, I saw young girls like me and older ladies wearing skimpy dresses. First, one fair-complexioned woman with a gold tooth collected my phone from me and said I wouldn’t need it.
“My bag, where I put a few belongings, was also collected. I asked about my aunt; the woman
Cote d’Ivoire-bound passengers at Ejigbo bus park
laughed. She said I should not worry about my aunt. I said I wanted to speak to her, but I was rebuffed.
“I was given a set of skimpy clothes and condoms. They said I should get ready to resume work soon. I knew immediately that I was not there to do menial jobs, but prostitution.“
Rukayat said while she was in the brothel, all she did was to pray for an escape. Fortunately, her prayer was answered.
She said, “Towards evening, around 7pm, we were all asked to go and make money. I had no choice but to wear the skimpy clothes I was given. The dress I wore from Ejigbo was torn in my presence.
“The lady, who came to pick me at the bus stop, was asked to give me and two other girls food. Instantly, I became a friend to the girls. I didn’t even know we were all from Osun State. There were other girls who were from Edo, Delta and other states.”
After the meal, the three new friends went out like the other inmates, forming a long line outside the brothel. One after the other, they were picked up by male customers.
Rukayat said, “From that day, I was encouraged by the ‘madam’ with the gold tooth to be hard-working if I wanted to leave the brothel soon and be free. From her conversations with an unknown person, I realised I was sold by my aunt to the brothel. The brothel owner eventually told me I had to remit two million CFA (about N1m) to her to be freed.”
The 15-year-old said she got no male customer three days after her arrival, which earned her a severe reprimand from the ‘madam.’
Rukayat said she was told she had to ‘market’ herself well to the male customers, else she would stay for years in the brothel. She was also warned against trying to escape.
“If I tried, I would be found and severely tortured, the madam threatened me,” Rukayat said. But the threat didn’t move her as she was determined to find a way of escape.
On the fifth day of living in the brothel, Rukayat and her new two friends got talking and planned how to leave the bordello. An opportunity finally came.
By a twist of fate, Rukayat said a male client, who wanted a foursome sex, approached them and asked their ‘madam’ to allow him take them to a hotel. She agreed after he paid her a “large” sum of money.
She said, “When we got to the hotel, he engaged us in a discussion and we got talking about our family backgrounds. The man seemed to be a Yoruba, though he didn’t tell us his name.
“He then jokingly asked how many men had slept with us before. I told him I was a virgin; my other two friends also said they were virgins. At this point, the man was silent.”
Surprisingly, Rukayat said the man told them he would not sleep with them and advised them not to go back to the brothel.
She said, “It was about 9pm. He gave us about 3,000 CFA and asked us to hail a taxi to take us to Adjame and ask for an official of the Association of Nigerians in Adjamé.
He said we could find our way to the Nigerian Embassy from there after meeting with the officials to help us return to Nigeria.”
When the girls got to Adjamé, Rukayat said they luckily came across an indigene of Ejigbo, Osun State, who helped them to find their way to the embassy the following day.
Today, Rukayat lives in Osogbo, Osun State capital, where she has learnt tailoring. Her two friends are based in Ede, a neighbouring town. One also works as a tailor while the other is a hairstylist.
She added, “I will never embark on such trip again in my life. The trip also taught me a lesson not to trust anyone. Up till now, we’ve not been able to reach my aunt on the phone since I returned.”
Risky trips to unknown destinations
Rukayat and her friends were not the only girls to have been tricked into prostitution in Abidjan. But they were among the lucky ones to have escaped alive.
Sometime in January 2018, a 52-year-old Ejigbo indigene, simply identified as Ramon, boarded a bus from the town to Abidjan and observed something suspicious.
Six teenage girls, looking worn-out on the bus with her covered their heads with blue scarves. As a regular traveller to and fro Abidjan, Ramon said he immediately knew they were going to be sold to brothels in the city.
Our correspondent spoke with Ramon in Ejigbo before embarking on the trip to Côte d’Ivoire
He said, “I boarded the bus at Ejigbo and the girls were picked up in Lagos. By the time we reached the last border to enter Côte d’Ivoire, I saw the girls calling someone. Because I had experienced a similar situation, I approached them as an uncle and gave them my phone number, asking them to keep it in a safe place because I knew what was going to happen to
The girls many times don’t know what they are going to do at Côte d’Ivoire. They are usually deceived. Pathetically, some of them were sold by their relatives.”
Ramon said once they got to their destination, their mistresses would seize their phones first so they wouldn’t be able to call anyone.
“I asked the girls to write my number somewhere before the person they were calling to pick them arrived. They were all Yoruba mainly from Ondo and Ekiti states.
“They later told me they were taken to one woman who bought them. As they got there, they saw many girls in the building, dressed in skimpy clothes.
As they gave them condoms, the girls understood they were there for prostitution. They sneaked out of the place and ran.
“They hailed a taxi and used the driver’s phone to call me, which means obviously they had seized their phones. I spoke to the taxi driver in French, asking him to take them to the Yoruba community in Adjame.”
Ramon said the girls were thereafter directed to the Nigerian Embassy, where they were safely lodged and repatriated to Nigeria two weeks after.
“I am happy they escaped, some don’t. In fact, if you want to help some of them, their mistresses have so much manipulated them to the extent that there is nothing you can tell them that would make them listen to you,” he said.
According to the United States Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, Nigeria is a source, transit, and destination country for women and children subjected to trafficking in persons including forced labour and forced prostitution. In its 2018 report, the US placed Nigeria in the tier 2 watch list of countries being monitored for human trafficking.
According to the US DOS, ‘tier 2 watch-list’ countries are those whose governments do not fully comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s minimum standards.
The list indicates that such countries are those where the absolute number of victims of severe forms of trafficking is significant or significantly increasing.
It also implied that in such countries, there is a failure to provide evidence of increasing efforts to combat severe forms of trafficking in persons from the previous year.
The report however stated that such tier 2 watch-list categorisation could also mean a country was making significant efforts to bring itself into compliance with the TVPA’s minimum standards based on commitments by the country to take additional future steps over the next year.
Due to the free movement of persons by member countries of the Economic Community of West African States, the report said several Nigerian women and children were taken from the country to other West and Central African countries for forced prostitution.
Bemoaning the situation, a non-governmental organisation dedicated to the prevention of modern-day sex slavery and liberation of enslaved women and girls in Nigeria, the Pathfinders Justice Initiative, said poverty remained the number one factor rendering women and girls vulnerable to sex trafficking.
In its recent report, the group also noted that other factors such as parental pressure, eroded mindset/values, limited education and economic opportunities were responsible for the vulnerability of young women and girls (most between 15 and 25 years of age) into sex trafficking.
According to the International Labour Organisation, human trafficking, a form of modern-day slavery, involves illegal trade of people for exploitation or commercial gain and it is a $150bn global industry.
ILO said in its 2018 report, “Two thirds of this figure ($99bn) is generated from commercial sexual exploitation, while another $51bn results from forced economic exploitation, including domestic work, agriculture and other economic activities.
“The average woman trafficked for forced sexual servitude/exploitation generates $100,000 in annual profits, anywhere from 100 per cent to 1,000 per cent return on investment”.
According to the ILO, a United Nations agency, trafficking from East, North and West Africa alone is said to generate $150m in annual profits and $35bn in industry value.
Similarly, the Global Slavery Index, in July 2018, showed that there were 40.3 million victims of modern slavery worldwide, 71 per cent of whom were women and girls.
Out of the figure, 99 per cent of the 4.8 million victims of commercial sexual exploitation in 2016 were women and girls, with one in five being children.
Porous borders, endemic graft
SUNDAY PUCNH investigations revealed that the large number of girls trafficked from Nigeria to Côte d’Ivoire was possible due to the porosity of African borders and the prevalent bribery and corruption by immigration officials at the borders.
For instance, a trip from Ejigbo to Abidjan by SUNDAY PUNCH correspondent showed how immigration officials engaged in bribe negotiations with bus officials to allow passengers pass through the border without thorough checking.
At all border posts encountered at Benin, Togo, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, a bus official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, revealed how they usually bribed the officials with amounts ranging from 30,000 CFA (N15,000) to 50,000 CFA (N26,000).
“If we don’t pay them, they will offload the luggage for checks and this could take several hours. The best thing to do is just to give them money and leave the border within minutes,” the bus official said.
He added, “Also, some passengers don’t have the necessary travel documents like carte identité (the Ivorian permanent residence permit that is valid in all member countries of ECOWAS) and passports.
“Hence, we have to bribe the officials to let them pass while some of the passengers have to negotiate directly with the immigration officials.”
During a trip to Abidjan, three teenage girls, who covered their heads in blue scarves, were also on the bus which conveyed this correspondent, thus echoing a pattern described by Ramon among girls being trafficked to Côte d’Ivoire.
One of the girls boarded the bus from Ejigbo while the two others were picked up in Ibadan, Oyo State. The trio held only small bags and looked worn-out.
At each of the border encountered, the bus officials negotiated with immigration officials on their behalf since they had no means of identification.
At the Ivorian border at Noé, which seemed to be the strictest during the journey, the girls were asked to disguise as bread hawkers to go past through the unsuspecting officials.
One of them was ‘arrested’ by the immigration officials and were bribed before she was released.
In Abidjan, it was observed that that many Nigerian girls used as sex slaves worked in several areas of the city, including Bracodi, Treichville, Sikensi and Marcory.
In one of such brothels at Bracodi, our correspondent saw many Nigerian girls, some of them probably aged between 15 and 20, forming a long queue and ‘marketing’ themselves as men passed by.
Speaking to SUNDAY PUNCH, the chargé d’affaires at the Nigerian Embassy in Côte d’Ivoire, Mohammed Maccido, also noted the prevalence of bribery and corruption among some immigration officials at the various borders.
He said, “Corruption is in our system as Africans. There have been cases when the girls trafficked to this country had no ID. I think in such cases, the immigration officials might request a bribe.
“There are cases where the immigration officials already know the people bringing the girls in; so, once they see them, they will pay to bring the girls in. Some girls were arrested at the border recently but they still got to Abidjan. I had to ask the girls, ‘How did they allow you in? They should have sent you home from the border’.”
Maccido said the embassy would keep making efforts to stop the situation. The The Chairman of the Association of Nigerians in Adjamé, Alhaji Adekunle Bashiru, said according to findings, most of the girls trafficked for sex were mostly from Edo, Delta, Ondo, Ekiti and Benue states.
He described the situation as embarrassing and needed to be stopped.
Bashiru stated, “We have in times past raided buses coming from Ejigbo when we heard this and found out that sometimes, bus drivers don’t know anything. They are just told to carry girls.
All I can say is that the Federal Government needs to stop this. Personally, I have arrested some perpetrators of this crime with the help of the Ivorian Ministry of Interior. They were eventually jailed.”
Like Maccido, Bashiru called on the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons to send its operatives to Côte d’Ivoire and, with the help of the Ivorian government, go from one location to another to arrest the perpetrators and rescue the victims.
He said, “As it is, there are people living on prostitution and would do whatever it takes to frustrate it. NAPTIP should come and stop it because it’s a shame.
“As the girls are ‘working,’ there are those collecting the money from them. They would tell the girls they would give them the money when they are returning to Nigeria, but when the time comes, they tell them there is no money.
“If a victim proves stubborn, they can kill or lie against the person, arrested or send the person to jail. The Nigerian government must come to stop this trade.”
We repatriate rescued victims to Nigeria monthly –Envoy
Maccido said human trafficking was the biggest burden the embassy was facing in the country.
“The worst challenge we are facing now is human trafficking, especially of girls,” the envoy told SUNDAY PUNCH.
He however said the embassy would do everything within its power to end the situation or reduce it drastically.
Maccido said he had travelled to Abuja to discuss with officials of NAPTIP.
He said, “Girls trafficking is a great burden to us. Recently, some of the victims escaped and came to the embassy. We had to repatriate them to Nigeria.
“It’s an issue we handle every time. When I was in Abuja, I told the NAPTIP officials that the burden was too heavy and we could not handle it alone. They told me it’s the same problem in Malaysia, Cairo and Italy.”
Asked how often trafficked girls were repatriated to Nigeria, Maccido said it was almost on a daily basis.
He said, “There is one of our officials who is always on the move; she is always going to police stations. There is no week that we don’t repatriate girls home and this situation is draining the mission’s resources. Sometimes, the embassy workers sponsor some of the trips. We repatriate at least 20 girls home monthly.
“From our interactions with some of the rescued girls, the whole thing is a chain and works thus: Person A would lure the girls with lucrative jobs at Nigeria and then sell them to Person B in Abidjan, who could also sell them to Person C.
A would say he paid a lot to get the girls, let’s say N1m. He would sell to B for N1.5m, who would sell to C for N2m. Before you know it, a girl could be sold for N3m and then she starts working as a prostitute for many years of her life before she can regain her freedom. They are slaves.”
Maccido said although it was tough, some of the perpetrators of the crime were arrested and prosecuted.
He said, “Recently, three girls came to the mission from a place with a distance of seven hours from Abidjan. They said they were locked in a room; they didn’t have phones to call anyone.
“But luckily, they ran away when an opportunity came. In some cases, security agencies were able to arrest some of the operators of the brothel.”
As of April 24, Maccido said the embassy repatriated 19 rescued victims to Nigeria.
Preventing sex slavery
The Trafficking in Persons (Prohibition) Enforcement and Administration Act (2015) – upon which NAPTIP operates – prohibits all forms of human trafficking.
It also stipulates that any person, who exports another person from Nigeria, knowing or having reason to know, that the person will be forced or induced into prostitution or other forms of sexual exploitation in the country to which the person is exported or while in transit, commits an offence and is liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term of not less than five years and a fine of not less than N1m.
The law also states among others, “Any person who procures or recruits any person under the age of 18 years to be subjected to prostitution or other forms of sexual exploitation with himself, any person or persons, either in Nigeria or anywhere else, commits an offence and is liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term of not less than seven years and a fine of not less than N1m.”
Asked in what ways NAPTIP had complemented the efforts of the Nigerian Embassy in Côte d’Ivoire to fight girls trafficking, the agency’s Senior Information Officer, Mr Vincent Adekoye, asked our correspondent to send an email.
He promised that the email would be responded to before the close of work on Thursday. However, the agency had yet to respond to the mail as of the time of publishing this report.
During the inauguration of the Osogbo, Osun Command of NAPTIP in August 2017, the Director-General, Ms Julie Okah-Donli, said NAPTIP had increased efforts to stop human trafficking.
Noting that Ejigbo and Iwo were major transit points where human trafficking and child labour took place within the state, an official of the Osun State Command of the Nigeria Immigration Service, Mrs Funmi Bewaji, said the command would tackle the menace.
Also, the Chairman of the Ejigbo Local Government Area, Mr Omoboyede Jaiyeola, said the government would seek the support of NAPTIP and the Department of State Services to stop human trafficking by transport companies operating in the town.
“We will investigate this and bring it to an end,” he said.
Likewise, the Chairman of the National Union of Road Transport Workers, Osun State chapter, Mr Sulaiman Ibrahim, said the union would advise its members involved in transporting passengers from Ejigbo to Abidjan to be on the lookout for cases of human trafficking.
He said, “It would be good if NAPTIP or the police can deploy their officers in the various parks on Wednesdays and Sundays when people travel from Ejigbo to Abidjan to check the menace.”