By Leo Igwe
On October 23, 2018, I addressed a stakeholder meeting, the Academy of Nations, in Munich in Germany. This meeting brought together representatives of the police and the regional government, social workers, religious organisations, and other governmental and nongovernmental agencies. They discussed the issue of human trafficking and forced prostitution in the region. Some of the victims were Nigerian women. I made a ten-minute speech that included a short video. And here is what I said:
Thank you Georg Falterbaum and Mattarei Norma for the invitation to address this important meeting on human trafficking. And thank you, the Bavarian government for the commitment to tackling the problem of human trafficking and forced prostitution. Trafficking in human beings has been described as a form of modern-day slavery in our contemporary world. So, it is important to use occasions such as this to have an open and frank discussion on this issue and to explore ways of eradicating it.
At this point I played a short CNN video clip, The Paris park where trafficked women sell their bodies. The report highlighted the case of Nigerian women who were trafficked and forced into prostitution in Europe. One of them, Nadesh, noted that most of these women from Nigeria were sex slaves. According to the report, these Nigerian women gave all that they earned from sex work to a trafficking network. The report also noted that the women took an oath at a shrine before leaving Nigeria. And this oath bound them to a juju, a traditional West African belief system. “Imagine you taking an oath, you lie down inside a casket or coffin”, Nadesh said. “Which means if you break the rules, you will now come back to this coffin”. “It is so powerful”. She added. The report further noted that the women were physically branded with scars that were used to identify them back in Nigeria.
After the CNN report, I continued with my presentation:
I come from Nigeria. And as you can see, my country is internationally linked to the problem of human trafficking and forced prostitution in Europe. According to a CNN report, the number of Nigerian women who arrive in Italy through the desert and end up in forced prostitution has continued to increase. The number has risen from 1,317 in 2011 to 11, 009 in 2018. In Nigeria, the issue of human trafficking has worried and embarrassed the government at all levels especially when reports and documentaries are published revealing the horrific abuses of victims, tracing the routes of human trafficking to states and cities in Nigeria. I have contributed to local debates and efforts to understand the issue of human trafficking and forced prostitution especially the alleged link to local religious and occult beliefs. If we must get to the root of this problem, some urgent questions need to be asked and be properly addressed. First, what kind of document do trafficked women use to enter Europe? Do they all come in through the Sahara desert? Even if they do, who stamps them in and as what? Do some of them arrive as visitors, tourists or refugees? If yes, who issues them visas and for what purpose? When do these women become victims of human trafficking and forced prostitution? Is it at the point of entry? Or when they are caught by the police? Since commercial sex work is allowed by law, at least in Germany, is the problem linked to the lack of documents to legally work in the sex industry?
There have been several reports that have associated forced prostitution by Nigerian women with the traditional belief in juju. I told the audience in very clear terms that, from my own point of view as a Nigerian, this much-publicized connection was baseless, senseless and absurd. As a women’s rights activist from Northern Nigeria rightly noted: “There is no juju. The people who are trafficked know that too. Many of them want to travel to Europe and willingly partake in prostitution”.
Unfortunately, many western individuals and organizations that are working and campaigning to combat human trafficking and forced prostitution do not agree with this. They seem to be fascinated by the juju scare narrative. They find it useful not only because it fits into the stereotypic notion of Africans as childish in thinking, fetish and magically minded, it gives them a special job of managing this ‘people’ and their peculiar problems. Some European anti-human trafficking campaigners have continued to peddle and valorize the Nigerian juju connection as if that is the main reason why Nigerian women are trapped in forced prostitution. They have refused to pay critical attention to the underlying socioeconomic reasons that force Nigerian women to travel thousands of miles to prostitute in Europe. Indeed some western campaigners think that it is insensitive not to acknowledge the powerful hold of the juju fears on the minds of these women.
Definitely, the role of the Nigerian juju narrative in human trafficking must be acknowledged for what it is- a useful device to secure asylum and support that would otherwise, have been denied. Many Nigerian prostitutes come into Europe as illegal immigrants and they live in constant fear of deportation.
So Nigerian women who fear returning to Nigeria have other reasons than the juju or the oath that they claimed to have taken.
Look, no one denies the fact that human traffickers deceive and promise their victims a better life in Europe. Again, it is not disputed that those who are trafficked are exploited, raped and sold into sexual slavery or that victims of human trafficking and forced prostitution need support and assistance. But to attribute their unfortunate situation, their entrapment in forced prostitution to fear of powerful Nigerian juju is pure hogwash.
Leo Igwe is a Public Policy Analyst.