Victims of the Boko Haram insurgency in northeast Nigeria are now among the growing number of teenage girls from the country that are forced to undergo oath-swearing rituals to work as prostitutes in Europe.
It looked like it was going to be one of those days of rare heavy downpour in an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in Madinatu, a town located just outside Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria’s northeastern Borno state. The clouds had started gathering, and virtually everyone doing one thing or the other outside their tent had started to rush back inside, as the wind became severe.
Despite the weather situation, 17-year-old Sarah, as I’ll call her, wasn’t disturbed. She had packed her big plastic bag, and was ready to leave the camp to meet with a woman I’ll call Agnes, who is promising to take her to Italy and find her a job.
I met Sarah in January, months after she had escaped from Boko Haram and found her way to Madinatu. The teenager was just about to enter her little tent made of bamboo when I approached her. Like most girls in the IDP camp, Sarah was willing to tell her story. But unlike many, hers is a story of kidnap, rape and heartbreak.
Sarah’s father had died of illness when she was a kid. She lost her mother in early 2015, on the day militants invaded their compound in Bama—50 miles southeast of Maiduguri—and began to shoot sporadically.
“As soon as they appeared, everyone started running,” she said. “My mother couldn’t run fast because she was old. So, a bullet hit her.”
A year after, Sarah was among a number of young women kidnapped by Boko Haram militants during a second attack on the same compound in Bama.
Heavily armed militants arrived from different directions and began to burn down houses, kill every man they saw, and kidnap young women and children.
“They arrived unexpectedly,” Sarah said. “We had no means of escaping.”
Boko Haram carried out some of its most brutal atrocities in Bama. In one incident after it took control of the town in September 2014, the insurgents forced over 100 of its captives, mostly young men, to lie head-down in a school dormitory, thereafter executing them. In another, it slaughtered dozens of women in a bid to prevent them from subsequently marrying soldiers or other so-called non-believers, as Nigerian troops advanced into the town.
The jihadists carried out executions in Bama as if it wanted to prove that it can kill as much as it wanted to. Scores of people were rounded up and killed, and their bodies dumped into wells, while many others were executed on the River Bama Bridge at the centre of the town. Residents, mostly women and children, who tried to flee the area were reported to have died of thirst and hunger as it was hard to get to a close-by IDP camp.
As the terror group inflicted horror on Bama, its fighters patrolled the streets of the town, preventing people from burying the dead, causing hundreds of bodies to litter the streets as a result.
“At the time I was kidnapped, there were still bodies lying decomposed in Bama,” Sarah said. “Bama was in a mess.”
When Sarah was abducted by Boko Haram fighters, she and the other victims were taken to the terrorists’ hideout in the Sambisa Forest where Sarah said she was raped and abused by a number of fighters.
“They (the militants) were doing it (raping her) almost on a daily basis,” the young girl, whose secondary school education was forced to end in her fourth year as a result of the kidnapping, said. “When one militant gets tired, another takes over.”
Sarah endured the pain and torture for three weeks until she managed to escape in the middle of the night, on her 21st day in Sambisa Forest.
“They (the guards) had all fallen asleep when I made the decision to run away,” she said. “I kept running without knowing where I going to.”
Sarah walked for long hours before reaching Magumeri village, not far away from Sambisa, from which she was able to make her way to Madinatu.
“Sambisa was like death for me,” she told me. “I still haven’t gotten over everything.”
Sarah got a chance to live as a displaced person in Madinatu. But she saw hell, on a few occasions in Madinatu, as well.
Life is often difficult, especially for women, in IDP camps in northeastern Nigeria. Basic needs like food and medicine are hardly enough for those taking shelter, as such, victims are forced to seek alternative means of survival. In Sarah’s case, she had no choice than to turn to prostitution to survive.
“It was the easiest thing to do,” she said. “I had no money on me, and so I couldn’t start a business.”
The teenager got strongly rooted in the prostitution business in Maiduguri, and it became like a career for her. She would leave camp every evening, and move deep inside the Borno state capital, in search of clients. But in one of the areas she often visited, Agnes noticed her and walked up to her with a job offer in Italy.
“She said she likes me, and was going to help get me a job in Italy,” Sarah said. “She told me she was convinced I was going to do the job very well.”
When I asked Sarah if she had ever heard about sex trafficking, and how Nigerian women are taken to Italy by traffickers who promise them lucrative jobs only to force them to prostitution once they get there, the girl acknowledged by nodding her head, but suggested that she was prepared for whatever comes her way.
“It’s possible that I may end up being a sex worker [in Italy],” she said. “Whatever job it is, I’m going to do it.”
Nigerians, actually, began moving massively to Italy a few decades ago when many lost jobs as a result of the free-market reforms introduced by the then-military government in the 1980s. But most emigrants were people from the southern part of the country, who were desperate to work and earn in hard currency. Italy, at the time, offered low-skilled labour in agriculture and services, and this attracted many Nigerian citizens who began migrating in large numbers.
In the process, traffickers saw the prospect of making big money in the Italian prostitution market, and so, they began to get young girls enticed with promises of very lucrative jobs, and subsequently trafficked them to Italy using fake and stolen passports that were relatively easy to acquire at the time. The women were then forced to go into prostitution in order to repay the debt incurred in transporting them to their new country of residence. The victims, then, were mostly from Benin City in Nigeria’s southern Edo state. Some, in time, became madams in Italy, from where they employed recruiters and transporters in Nigeria.
Now, Nigeria’s dwindling economy is limiting opportunities for victims of the Boko Haram insurgency in the north, and traffickers are capitalizing on the vulnerability of many women in IDP camps by promising them nonexistent jobs in Europe.
More than a decade ago, Nigeria passed the Trafficking in Persons (Prohibition), Law Enforcement and Administration Act that—when modified in 2015—prescribed imprisonment for a term of not less than seven years and a fine of not less than one million naira ($3,600), but at the time the law was originally introduced in 2003, the trafficking business was “so ingrained in Edo State, especially in Benin City and its immediate environs, that it is estimated that virtually every Benin family has one member or the other involved,” a United Nations (U.N.) report (PDF), published in 2003, noted. Now, the industry has gone beyond Edo state, and is spreading up to the northeast, where the most vulnerable population in the country live in.
At least six women in three IDP camps around Maiduguri told me they had been approached by people who promised to give them jobs abroad. These persons also offered to pay for the respective women’s transportation fare to their destination.
“Two of my [female] friends were also approached,” one of the women said. “The woman, who made us the offer said she’ll return soon for us. We’re still waiting.”
While some are waiting to find out when their trip will happen, others—like Sarah—already have their bags packed and are counting days before their departure.
There’s a high chance that Sarah will end up as a prostitute once she arrives in Italy. It’s what becomes of most Nigerian girls who have journeyed through the Sahara Desert in trucks, motorcycles and minivans to get to Libya’s coast, from where they enter into overcrowded boats that take them across the Central Mediterranean sea into Italy. It’s the same route Sarah is expected to take.
Italian authorities said, last year, that a record 171,000 migrants crossed the Mediterranean between January and November 2016. According to Italy’s Interior ministry, about 36,000 of that number arrived from Nigeria. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) stated that, in the same year, over 11,000 women crossed the Mediterranean in 2016 to Italy.
“About 80 percent of these girls are possible victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation,” IOM spokesperson, Flavio Di Giacomo, told me, adding that “9,286” Nigerian women arrived Italy by sea between January 1 and May 31, this year.
A joint report (PDF) released in September by the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF and the IOM, revealed that migrant and refugee children and youth trying to reach Europe face shocking levels of human rights abuses, with up to three quarters of those traveling along the Central Mediterranean route reporting direct experiences of abuse, exploitation, and practices which may amount to human trafficking.
At 17, Sarah is—as the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child sees it—still a child, and children like her, with lower levels of education, were among those the UNICEF and IOM report found to be highly vulnerable to exploitation at the hands of traffickers and criminal groups over the course of their journeys, especially when passing through Libya which is threatened with anarchy and criminality.
Due to its proximity to the Mediterranean smuggling routes, many end up in Italy, but thousands also find their way every year to Greece, Malta and Spain.
“Between 1 January and 31 July 2017, around 13,800 children under 18 arrived in Italy by sea,” Christopher Tidey, UNICEF Emergency Communication Specialist, told me. “1,170 children [were] from Nigeria.”
The trip across the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean sea could take months to complete, but it usually has a horror start. The journey, in many cases, begins with a visit to a shrine or temple—mostly in Benin City—where the victim is forced to undergo an oath-swearing ritual that binds her to repaying the debt she owes her trafficker on pain of illness or death.
The women are usually made to believe that they will be offered lucrative jobs in Europe, but once they get there, they are told by their traffickers that they must work as prostitutes until they pay off debts ranging from $20,000 to $100,000. The victims are left with no choice but to obey, bearing in mind that they could face huge consequences as a result of the oath they took.
Sarah knows much about this oath-taking ritual, and has figured a way of dealing with it should her trafficker force her into swearing an oath. The young girl had approached a juju priest in Maiduguri for a charm that will ensure that any ritual she is forced to undergo by her trafficker will have no effect on her.
“I don’t want to become anybody’s slave again,” she said. “I’ve suffered too much in the hands of Boko Haram and in this camp. Not anymore.”
Sarah has another advantage, or so she thinks, going to Italy. Not only is her charm supposed to protect her from her being exploited by her trafficker, it is also meant to bring her luck in any business she ventures into.
“With it, whatever I do in Italy will be successful,” she said. “I just need to have it close to me always.”
But how will the charm work to her advantage if she, as expected, ends up as a prostitute in Italy, supposing her trip is successful?
“It will make me look so attractive in the eyes of men,” she said. “It would be so hard for any man to resist me.”
Sarah gave the name of the traditional medicine man as Bana, and described where his medicine shop was located, and how I could find him. I left immediately in search of him, but it was hard locating his shop based on the rough description the girl gave. I tried again the next day, and with the help of a commercial tricycle operator who knows Bana, I was able to find the medicine man’s shop.
Bana does business in a small bamboo depot, about the size of Sarah’s tent in Madinatu. It fits the description of a traditional medicine shop, with transparent plastic bottles containing powders of different colours, animal skins, dried plant leaves, and cut branches of trees displayed outside the depot, as is common in such medicine shops in northern Nigeria.
I introduced myself to Bana as a journalist, who was sent to him by Sarah. I told the medicine man that I was worried about Sarah being forced by her trafficker to swear an oath that could put her life in jeopardy, and, so, I wanted to find out if the charm he gave to Sarah will, indeed, protect her from the danger she could face if she ends up swearing an oath of allegiance to her benefactor.
Bana smiled at me and, then, thanked me for showing concern. He then pointed at the direction of a young girl, who just stepped out of the shop as I arrived, and began to relate her story with Sarah’s.
“The lady walking over there is also travelling to Italy,” Bana said. “I’m also going to give her something that will protect her.”
He then places his leather bag on the ground and began to bring out different objects—some made of beads, the others of cowries and wood—and explaining the significance of each.
“This one protects women from evil curses,” he said of the first charm he brought out. “It is what I gave to Sarah.”
Bana then points to another saying: “This one brings them good luck. It will help them become successful in whatever business they do, provided they live good lives.”
The traditional medicine man, of course, doesn’t focus on making charms for women alone. He also sells medicine used to treat illnesses like “chickenpox, malaria and typhoid” for both male and female sick persons. He only recently began to prepare charms for women when he discovered that traffickers were beginning to exploit young ladies in IDP camps in Maiduguri.
“I don’t charge them anything,” he said. “I do it because I want to protect our women.”
His offer of help isn’t just restricted to vulnerable women who are seeking to travel to Italy, Bana said he also gives traditional medicine to sick women in IDP camps free of charge.
“Most of them can’t afford to buy medicine,” he said. “If I don’t help them, some may die of illness.”
It is by giving such help that Bana became popular among many displaced women. Many began to confide in him, and some sought advice and, even, money from him whenever they wanted to embark on long journeys.
“When Sarah made up her mind to travel [to Italy], she came here to inform me,” he said. “I was the one who told her about sex trafficking, and, then, offered to give her protection.”
Bana said about three girls had told him in the last month that they were traveling to Italy, and were all excited about the trip. He offered to protect all of them with his charms.
“It doesn’t take time to prepare one [a charm],” he said. “Within minutes, everything is ready.”
After my conversation with Bana, I returned to Madinatu, hoping to find someone with a story to tell concerning trafficking in the camp. Surprisingly, I found Sarah somewhere close to her tent. She hadn’t yet left Madinatu. The whole plan had changed. The teenager will no longer be traveling to Benin City along with Agnes, as previously arranged. Instead, she was given an address to a supposed residence in Benin City, and told to locate the place on her own.
“She (Agnes) gave me some money for my transport fare,” Sarah said. “She said the woman I was going to meet is actually her boss, and the person incharge of the company.”
I asked Sarah to share the address with me, and she quickly obliged. What Agnes had written down was a description of the place she wanted Sarah to go to. The woman wrote down the town, the location of the street, the house number, and even described the design and colour of the exact house the young girl was to visit.
It was going to be Sarah’s last full day in Madinatu. The young girl left for Abuja the next day, from where she’ll board another commercial vehicle headed for Benin City.
Women have, undoubtedly, been the biggest victims of abuse as a result of the crisis in northeastern Nigeria. Thousands of them have been abducted and, in some cases, raped by Boko Haram militants since the group began its uprising about eight years ago. Many—like Sarah—managed to escape from captivity. Some were rescued by Nigerian forces, but a large number, including more than a hundred schoolgirls abducted for their dormitories in the town of Chibok, remain in captivity. The jihadists have also deployed far more than a hundred girls for suicide attacks since June 2014 when the group began to use female bombers.
There have equally been stories of abuse of women in IDP camps, perpetrated by those meant to assist and protect them.
Last year Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented “sexual abuse, including rape and exploitation, of 43 women and girls” living in seven IDP camps in Maiduguri. The culprits were “government officials and other authorities in Nigeria,” including soldiers and members of the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), a vigilante group helping the military fight Boko Haram.
Following the HRW report, the Borno Police Command deployed 100 female police officers to IDP camps in the state. Their responsibility, according to the state police chief, was “to handle day-to-day interaction in the camps” and to “dig out true happenings in the camps regarding the allegation.” But that didn’t stop the abuses. Women continued to be exploited in IDP camps in Borno state.
“There are many terrible things happening [in IDP camps],” said Sarah, who once had sex with a member of the CJTF so as to obtain food from him. “I can’t wait to leave here.”
If Sarah had returned to Bama—her hometown—at the time she escaped from Boko Haram, she, probably, would have faced the same exploitation she had experienced in Madinatu. Displaced persons in Bama have been in the same situation as their counterparts in Maiduguri since 2015, according to a rights group they helped to create.
In June, The Knifar Movement, a body advocating for the rights of displaced persons accused soldiers and members of the CJTF of raping women and girls in an IDP camp in Bama, often taking advantage of their need for food.
“If you wanted more food, you had to pay the civilian JTF (referring to the CJTF) and soldiers who guarded the camp,” the body wrote in its petition to the Nigerian parliament. “If they would hand out extra food, the women had to pay by giving them sex. Sexual violence and rape by the civilian JTF and soldiers were rampant.”
The situation in Madinatu may not be as bad as in Bama, where many displaced persons—last year—suffered from acute malnutrition, but Sarah thinks it’s not a place for a girl like her.
“I get sick here everyday,” she said. “It’s making me crazy.”
Her impending trip to Italy coincided with the period when large numbers of female migrants began to return to Nigeria after spending several months in Libya’s detention cells following their arrest by border officials, as they attempted to reach Italy. Some of them have narrated stories of how they were abused by security officials while detention.
“These people (Libyan immigration officials) raped many young girls in detention,” one returnee told me in the southern city of Lagos, late in January. “If you don’t cooperate with them, they’ll make sure you’re severely punished.”
Most returnees are from Benin City, where more than two-third of women trafficked to Italy are believed to come from. Others mostly come from other parts of southern Nigeria. But the story of Sarah and revelations made by Bana are indications that traffickers are creating a solid base in northeastern Nigeria, and are targeting female victims of the Boko Haram insurgency.
I travelled to Benin City, a week after Sarah’s departure from Madinatu, to find out exactly where she went to in the city. I had written down the address and location of the place Sarah was meant to arrive at, from what was described to her by Agnes. It was my first ever visit to the ancient city that is widely known as the main hub of human trafficking in Nigeria.
Centuries ago, the Benin Kingdom attracted huge investors as a result of its rich natural resources like palm-oil, rubber and ivory.
The Kingdom of Benin was largely independent at the end of the 19th century, and the Oba, who is the traditional ruler of the Edo people, was so powerful and influential. But the British hoped to change that, and a visit to the kingdom by its Vice-Consul of Oil Rivers Protectorate in 1892, led to the signing a treaty which gave Britain power to exert huge influence over the Empire.
Later on, the Oba either did not want to keep to the terms of the treaty, or did not understand the treaty in the same way the British did. He kept insisting on customs duties, as against freedom of trade which was granted by the treaty. The misunderstanding, eventually, led to the Benin Expedition of 1897 in which a strong 1,200 British force captured, razed, and looted the city.
In the aftermath of the war, the British found evidence of human sacrifice tied to traditional beliefs. Till this moment, traditional ritual practices involving local gods are common in Edo state and in some areas in Nigeria, especially in the south. These practices, sometimes, blend with Christianity.
My first full day in Benin City was spent finding out about Sarah. I didn’t have much difficulty locating where she was expected to visit, in the heart of the city. The description Agnes gave to her was, indeed, very clear. But the small house, painted in brown colour with a blue aluminium roof, didn’t in anyway look like a residential home. Rather, the big white Christian crucifix that hung above the main entrance made the building appear more like a church than anything else.
Inside the main hall in the building was a woman sitting on one of many church-style pews, facing what looked like an altar. She wore a scarlet gown, and had her hair covered with a scarf.
The hall was decorated with natural flowers and large ribbons, and as I looked round and saw white candles and different sculptures displayed all around, it dawned on me that I had entered a Benin City temple.
A man—wearing a white sheet and tying a red rope round his waist—suddenly walked in from the entrance, close to the altar, and went straight to have a word with the waiting woman. Their conversation lasted for about ten minutes, afterwhich the woman picked up her handbag and left the building.
I then walked up to the man and introduced myself to him as a friend of a young girl whom he might have met a week ago. I showed him a picture of Sarah on my mobile phone, and asked if he had come in contact with her.
“Yes, she was here last week,” Baba, as his devotees call him, said. “She came, I think, from Maiduguri to join other ladies who were about to travel to Italy.”
As Baba explained, the other ladies were brought to the temple by a woman, who happened to be their benefactor and whom Agnes had informed Sarah about. It was planned that Sarah will come straight from Abuja to join the ladies in swearing an oath of loyalty to their trafficker.
“Everyone was waiting for her [for the ritual to start],” Baba said. “After the ceremony that evening, they all left and I haven’t heard anything about them since then.”
The girls may have began their journey to Nigeria’s northwestern region, which—besides the northeast where Boko Haram mostly operates—is the only less dangerous area they can pass through to get to Niger, from where they’ll most likely get into vehicles that will take them across the Sahara Desert into Libya. The dangerous journey across the Mediterranean to Italy—that has led to the death of 2,658 migrants so far this year—could begin thereafter.
When I asked Baba about the oath-swearing ritual he performed for Sarah and the other girls, he said the girls must obey their contract with their benefactor “or face the penalty” which could either be an “incurable sickness or death,” depending on what the deity decides.
“We slaughtered a chicken, and they swore over the blood that they’ll not cheat their madam,” Baba said. “If they do, they’ll regret it.”
The girls did not only swear to be loyal to their benefactor, Baba also made them cut either their fingernails or their hair, and ensured that they left them in the shrine.
“You must leave something behind. Either your finger nails or your hair,” he said. “You only get it back, or we destroy it, when the agreement has been cancelled.”
When I asked about the significance of leaving these body parts behind, the priest said they are important in placing curses.
“These parts represent you,” he said. “As long as the oath hasn’t been cancelled, you (referring to the body parts) must always be in this shrine so that you can be punished whenever you disobey.”
For many centuries, the magic powers of Benin City gods like Ayelala and Sango have been used by priests in the city to deal with numerous cases like marital infidelity, business conflicts and land disputes.
But in recent decades, Nigerian trafficking gangs have evoked the powers of these gods to scare young women into doing what they dictate.
“I ended up giving all the money I made to my madam,” said Gladys, a victim of sex trafficking, who was made to swear an oath to be loyal to her madam, as most victims like to call their female benefactors. “I was told that if I didn’t pay off my debt, I will be struck dead [by the deity] wherever I was.”
News about women falling ill or dying as the result of the oath they took, is hardly heard of. But many returnees from Italy do, actually, regret travelling to the country the way they did.
“I shouldn’t even have thought about it in the first place,” said Gladys, who was trafficked to Italy in 2013 at the age of 17 and ended up on the streets of Turin before being deported by Italian authorities two years later. “Travelling to Italy is the worst decision I’ve ever made.”
But some believe Italy can be profitable “if you are hardworking and smart,” as a lady, who works for a trafficking ring that has taken many girls in Benin City on long journeys to Europe, puts it.
Ivie, who makes a living from trafficking young women, told me many young girls have been able to pay back the money spent on sending them to Europe. Some, she said, cleared their debt under a year.
“It is only those who are either very lazy or very greedy that don’t get to pay back what was spent on them,” she said. “In this area, you’ll find houses built by women who live and work in Italy.”
Ivie lives in Upper Sakpoba Road in Benin City, where many traffickers originally come from. A friend of hers, who used to live and work as a prostitute in Italy, returned to the country after five years in Europe. Now, both of them aid other women in travelling across the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean sea into Italy. Ivie told me she, and her partner, once trafficked a woman from the northeast, where Sarah comes from, recently.
“Someone brought her from an IDP camp in Maiduguri,” she said. “She is an orphan. Her parents were killed by Boko Haram.”
It was just another confirmation that traffickers do have an appetite for vulnerable women in the northeast.
The U.N. said, last year, that many IDP camps hosting Boko Haram victims “are in fact the settings for violence, exploitation and abuse of the most vulnerable,” and that “the situation of women and girls in IDP camps and conflict affected areas is of particular concern and requires urgent action.”
The National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) is saddled with the responsibility of combating trafficking in Nigeria, but the agency has often been criticized for not doing enough to deal with the menace in IDP camps in the northeast.
One man, who lives very close to the IDP camp in Madinatu, told me traffickers have made the camp a place of choice.
“We’ve reported many cases of trafficking to NAPTIP, but nothing has changed,” the man said. “Young girls are still being trafficked here.”
I left Benin City for Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city, where I visited NAPTIP head office to report cases of trafficking in IDP camps in Maiduguri. At the time of my visit in March, the agency had no substantive head. The government sacked the director general of NAPTIP in February 2016 and did not announce a replacement until April 2017. The agency had an acting director in interim charge throughout the period. This lack of permanent leadership, according the United States Department of State 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report, “hampered the agency’s effectiveness.”
An official I met at the office, admitted to me that the agency had no officials monitoring activities at IDP camps in Maiduguri, on full time basis, but it was going to take my report on trafficking in IDP camps “very seriously.”
“Yes we have to do more,” he said. “If not, more young girls will keep disappearing from where they live.”
For girls like Sarah, who are desperate to get out of the miseries of war and exploitation in northeastern Nigeria, it doesn’t matter what means they use to get to Europe.
“I believe that my case will be different from other people who were unsuccessful,” she said. “This time, things will work well for me.”