Interview

Trafficking in Nigerian children

Children were intercepted while on transit. A government official said he was surprised children were on transit. It may mean some officials live where Nigerians don’t. The moon is one likely place, while they claim to govern the country. What happened? Once the current school holidays begin, these children move in every direction across the country to work and earn an income. The ones who do not attend school precede them; those work as house-helps on a permanent basis. It is a known occurrence that has been going on for decades. When over one hundred young ones, mostly from Benue, Kogi and Cross Rivers States, were intercepted in Kogi State lately, the military official whose men carried out the operation had said, “I can’t believe this.” The official was of the Joint Military Task Force, JTF, one of the batches chasing Boko Haram about in their hide-outs in that part of the country.

The 103 passengers in buses that were intercepted aged between 3 and 16 years. Initial interrogations showed that some of them would be received at their destinations by some yet-to-be-identified persons who would then pay transport fares to the drivers of the buses that conveyed them. The JTF official said the development shows that many parents have failed in their responsibility toward their children’s upbringing. Good observation, except that he transferred the blame, wholesale, to those who should have the least of it. As bad as the practice is, the parents he referred to won’t beg, and they won’t steal, so they put the human capital they have to use. And some of the children are orphans, it was discovered. They wanted to work during the holidays and return to school later, they had informed news hunters. There is an issue in that. It shall be further looked at down the line.

Trafficking in Persons Reports 2011 released by the US Department of State says, “Nigeria is a source, transit, and destination country for women and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking.” Trafficked Nigerian women and children are recruited from rural, and to a lesser extent urban areas within the country’s borders. The report added: “Women and girls (are) for domestic servitude and sex trafficking, and boys (are) for forced labor in street vending, domestic servitude, mining, stone quarries, agriculture, and begging.” All of this had made the Federal Government to enact the Trafficking in Persons (Prohibition) Law Enforcement and Administration Act, 2003, which also created the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons and Other Related Matters, NAPTIP. What has it solved? There are pictures on TV of arrests made, and sometimes some officials pack fancy buses at road junctions in Abuja, pretending they are preventing child labour and hawking, while they collect bribes with the aid of police officers who follow them around, when opportunities presented themselves. There is something of a reactionary approach to most of the approaches adopted to combat human trafficking in Nigeria thus far. What about a preventive approach? That should target the root of the problem, the root of a trade which, according to NAPTIP, ensures that out of an estimated 4.5 million persons trafficked internationally every year, 10, 000 are Nigerians. That is not to mention lack of adequate statistics.

UNICEF also says four per cent of repatriated victims of international trafficking are Nigerian children. The female-male ratio is seven to three. This is a profitable industry. It is the second largest criminal industry in the world, according to knowledgeable sources. The root cause in Nigeria? It is not far from corruption which ensures that what should get down to the vulnerable segment of the society is trapped in the pockets of a few. Corruption is a worldwide phenomenon, but it impacts more on nations such as Nigeria where institutions are weak and agencies that enforce rules are incapacitated. Corruption here is not only about looting public funds meant to provide quality education, and make available conducive environment for economic activities with its multiplier effects, it is also about abuse of public office. Sometimes the effect of this on human trafficking is not so obvious, especially when abuse of office as witnessed in Nigeria is considered as a root cause of the problem, and as a facilitator of same.

However, a closer study of the various stages of human trafficking – recruitment, transportation, exploitation, and laundering of the funds from it – shows this more clearly. It shows one straight, sometimes bent line, from the state governor who abuses public office and funds to the fifteen year old child that migrates to other parts of the country to work as a house-help. Policy, wrong choice of economic policy, is known to be a factor as the Nigerian experience shows. Casting a look at 1986 Nigeria, it shows the onset of a period when intellectuals fled the country for greener pastures which led to the so-called brain drain. That was the year a military administration here introduced the World-Bank sponsored Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP). That administration abandoned the policy midstream because it was not popular, but in the process, it had paved way for a generation of economic migrants – from the ivory towers to the poor child in the village. And there is no leaving out the exploitation of ignorance and greed of some parents that fall for the Greek gifts offered by organized criminals and trafficking syndicates.

Over the years, a pattern has emerged: Young Nigerian women make it to Italy, Spain, Belgium, Germany, Netherlands and the United Kingdom for prostitution. Elderly women head for the United States and UK where they are nannies. And there are known paths: From Edo State to Mali, Guinea, Algeria, Spain, Italy and to other parts of Europe. Another route is from the general West African area through Mali, Morocco, Spain, and Libya to Saudi Arabia. Internally, there is heavy movement of children and young adults who slave for others North, South, East and West of the country.

Of course, the reason the JTF official whose team intercepted young Nigerians in Kogi State won’t believe the number he saw is understandable. He is not the only person who won’t believe that busloads of children are continuously moved across the country, and he cannot be blamed. His job is to protect Nigerians from foreign enemies. Many enemies (looting politicians) are within that officials who have the responsibility to confront them won’t bother with. The story common to the kids arrested on that occasion is straightforward. There is school holiday and they want to do holiday jobs. Their intention is to earn, return home, and continue with their studies. It is what some of them said, not all. But that part of the country, Benue, Cross Rivers and Kogi axis, where many of them come from, has long been known for active supply of child labour. Many children from that part are permanently in other parts of the country without any hope of attending school. What happened in this case however is a tip of the usual migration of child labour that Nigerians who don’t live on the moon like government officials are aware of. But movement of children across the country is part of a larger, more fundamental problem, and it is there it should be tackled.

Not long ago, a state governor in the South-South region of the country said his people are known as suppliers of children who are house-helps to other parts of the country. So he built model schools and supplied books. He also announced free education for all. That is one solution. And sometimes, one may have reasons to worry that the issues being made out of child labour overlook certain entrenched positive practices in this culture. Even in advanced countries, for instance, children do things, often not out of compulsion to earn money. Rather, out of the need to let them have a feel of work ethics, as well as an appreciation of the value of hard work. Famous people in those countries have told tales of the time they were younger, a time they placed newspapers outside people’s doors every morning, for instance, before they reported to school. It was for a fee. In Nigeria, there are various initiatives in the local areas that politicians can help set up, and which orphans and other young adults who want to engage in holiday jobs can do. And such initiatives often do not take much fund to set up and maintain. It keeps children and young adults closer home, saving the nation the embarrassment of being the keeper of highest figures of everything unenviable, doesn’t it? And episodes such as this is one more reason Nigerians should become intolerant of abusers of public offices.

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