Simon Ateba/just back from Ouagadougou
A trip to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, unravels the booming human trafficking business in the West African country
It was 27 December, 2014, and we were ten in a rickety Peugeot 404, a family car meant for four persons and produced by French automobile manufacturer Peugeot from 1960 to 1975. There were eight adults, an infant and a girl who sat at her mother’s feet in the overcrowded vehicle. I was, along with my Nigerian guide, Ochuko Otoba, embarking on a trip many people before us had undertaken for many decades. We were leaving Saki in the western Nigerian State of Oyo, a dusty park filled with old but sturdy vehicles that take passengers daily all the way from Nigeria to Benin Republic, and even as far as Burkina Faso, a two-day journey. It was public holiday in Nigeria, two days after Christmas, and the roads were devoid of the usual chaotic traffic snarls. But we had travelled for almost three hours already from Ibadan, the capital of Oyo State, to Saki, and were beginning to feel the pain.
Leaving Ibadan at 8.59 a.m., we thought we would reach the Nigerian border with Benin Republic three hours later. But at 11.50 a.m., we were just arriving at Saki, three to four hours away from Kenu or Chikanda in Kwara State, Nigerian border towns with Benin Republic. Our old but strong driver tore through the dusty and untarred road and took us on a journey many people would wish not to embark on. We passed many towns, including Ilesha-Baruba in Kwara State, and went off the main road at Sinawu. From Sinawu, the road, which looked like a track, was untarred and the dust was in high supply all the way to Kenu in Baruten Local Government Area of Kwara State. Having left Saki at about 12.52 p.m., we reached Kenu border at 3.15 p.m. Our car was headed to Kabo in Benin Republic, but we got off at Kenu where a few officials of the Nigeria Immigration Service, NIS, sat on a table under a tree, monitoring travellers out of and into Nigeria.
Looking at it, there seemed to be no need for an international passport to cross the border. An identity card was enough and in many cases, it was accompanied by a few naira notes. Before arriving in Kenu from Saki, we met some immigration officers along the way who suspected that two passengers in our vehicle were foreigners without proper documentation. The officers threatened to arrest them, but after much pleading, they collected N5,000 from them and gave them a laissez-passer, a paper that allowed them to exit the Nigerian territory. In Saki, we were told that a particular vehicle comes every Tuesday and Thursday to take passengers all the way to Burkina Faso. My guide had told me that the vehicle was owned by a Nigerian human trafficker living in Burkina Faso. At Kenu border, I asked immigration officers if they were aware of it and why was the border so porous. I also asked them about human trafficking, whether they were aware that many under-aged girls were smuggled out of Nigeria through their border post into Benin and then to Burkina Faso.
They told me they do their work as best as they can and screen passengers and check all travel documents and detain suspects. Even with proper travel documents, they ask all the necessary questions to ensure that no one was being trafficked. The officers offered us two bottles of soft drinks and told us they were public officials who were not allowed to disclose their identities to the press.
As we were discussing with them, a truck full of passengers came from Benin and crossed into the Nigerian territory without being stopped. “They went to attend a wedding in Benin this morning, they are just returning from there,” a senior officer said.
“There are a lot of intermarriages across this border town,” he added, “many people from there marry our people, and many of our men marry from there,” he said further as another truck full of passengers crossed into the Nigerian territory without being stopped. “It’s the same wedding they went to attend,” he said. We spent about 30 minutes at the border with them. In reality, calling it a border is an over statement as only the Nigerian flag and the few NIS officials constituted the border! It was an open, porous border that looked like a road from one Nigerian village to another. The closest international border from Kenu is called Chikanda. I asked the officials how far was Chikanda from Kenu. “About three to four hours away,” an official replied. Being at the Kenu border made us realise how difficult it is for the NIS officers there to do their job as they sat under a tree and had no office we could properly identify. We were told that there are many unmanned entry and exit points between Kenu and Chikanda. This was scary because human traffickers hardly travel by air. They also avoid conventional borders that may subject them to too much scrutiny. They look for, and eventually find, porous borders such as the ones between Kenu and Chikanda in Kwara State where they can sneak in or out undetected. Sometimes, they pass through borders that are manned by officials who understand their kind of business and profit from it.
Between western Nigeria and Burkina Faso, there is only one country; the Republic of Benin. Ordinary road travellers from Nigeria prefer to enter Benin Republic through Seme Border in Lagos before proceeding to Burkina Faso. But human traffickers, as I discovered, take a longer, tortuous route to Kwara State and travel at odd hours when the few officers who could have challenged them have long gone to sleep. With the first leg of my journey over, I travelled back to Ibadan for another seven hours and arrived in the ancient city few minutes before midnight. I returned to Lagos the next day, 28 December, exhausted, but ready for the long journey to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso for the second leg of my journey.
On 8 January, 2015, my voyage to Ouagadougou finally began.
I left Lagos at 6 a.m., passed through Seme border and arrived in Cotonou, capital of Benin Republic, in the afternoon of the same day.
My guide, Otoba, joined me in the night. But we had to spend two nights in Cotonou because the bus to Ouagadougou had left that morning and the next one would be leaving on Saturday at about 3 o’clock in the morning. After two days in Cotonou, we finally left for Ouagadougou at about 3 a.m. on 10 January. We travelled for an entire day, and sixteen hours later at about 7 p.m., we reached Nadiagou, Burkina Faso border town.
As we journeyed between Benin Republic and Burkina Faso, we met several immigration posts but the only requirements from the passengers were any identity card and some money to bribe officers. Money was collected at virtually all immigration posts and borders. About 2,000 Franc CFA (N700) was collected from each passenger at Porga border, a notorious border in the Atakora Department of Benin Republic, where extortion almost seemed to be official. Few minutes after, about 1,000 Franc CFA (N350) was collected from each passenger at Nadiagou border to cross into Burkina Faso, having exited Benin from Porga. Even after taking a first visa at Seme border to enter Benin Republic from Nigeria, immigration officers at Porga, Benin, demanded that I pay them 5,000 Franc CFA (about N1,700) to exit their country.
I refused and they let me go, not without scolding and delaying me for being stubborn. At Nadiagou border, having exited Benin Republic, I was advised not to use my international passport to avoid taking a visa. Rather, the driver of our bus advised me, I should pay one thousand franc cfa to cross the Burkina Faso border. I insisted on collecting the visa, and I ended up paying 24,000 franc cfa (about N8,000) for transit visa valid only for three days while other passengers without passports paid only a thousand franc cfa and were let in. I was told that if I must stay in Burkina Faso for more than three days, I would need to spend over 90,000 franc cfa (N30,000) for a single entry visa.
I was told that immigration officers prefer when travellers do not take visas because the money goes into their pockets while visa fees are documented and collected by the government. Officers tried to discourage me from collecting the visa but I insisted. I collected my visa and joined other travellers on the other side of the border. It was Saturday and Burkina customs officers had closed earlier that weekend. They would return the next day at about 9 a.m., we were told, to check luggage and goods in the luxury bus. About 44 passengers slept at the border in the bus while one passenger looked for a hotel around and joined us in the morning before the customs officers arrived at about 9 a.m. They did all their checks and allowed us to leave Nadiagou at 11.15 a.m. on 11 January. We embarked on another long journey of five hours. We passed through towns like Fada N’gourma and Zorgho before arriving Ouagadougou the same day at 4.05 p.m., more than 37 hours after leaving Cotonou.
Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, and the administrative, communications, cultural and economic centre of the nation, is a beautiful city full of motorcycles. Virtually everyone in Ouaga, as the capital is also known, owns a motorcycle, from the shoemaker to the bank manager. Ouagadougou’s primary industries are food processing and textiles. It is host to an international airport and has rail links to Abidjan in Ivory Coast, and a paved highway to Niamey in Niger Republic. In all, the landlocked nation shares borders with six West African countries ( Benin, Ghana, Niger, Ivory Coast, Mali and Togo).
It is those borders that have attracted human traffickers for decades, especially because from Mali, traffickers can proceed to the Sahara desert and Algeria, Morocco and then Spain or Italy by land and water. It is also those borders that give strength to lies told by Nigerian human traffickers who lure victims by promising them paradise in Europe via Burkina Faso. Human trafficking is a serious problem in Burkina Faso and the number of girls trafficked in the landlocked country is very alarming, said Ochuko Patrick Otoba, my Nigerian guide, who had told me about the phenomenon while in Lagos with two victims he had rescued from Burkina Faso and was returning them to Nigeria.
As the President and Founder of the National Association for the Fight Against Trafficking of Young People in Burkina Faso, known in French as Association Nationale de Lute Contre le Traffic des Jeunes ( LUTRA-JEUNE), Otoba has fought a long, lonely battle to draw attention to the human trafficking crisis. “More than 12 teenage girls are trafficked from Nigeria alone to Burkina Faso on a weekly basis and are forced against their volition to engage in compulsory selling of their bodies to pay the trafficker huge sums of money as ransom for their liberty,” said Otoba, who has been fighting human trafficking in Burkina Faso for seven years without much support or acknowledgment. He spent some months in detention, he told me, for trying to rescue some Nigerian sex slaves and drawing the anger of the Nigerian community in Burkina Faso. “They told me a Nigerian cannot arrest a Nigerian trafficker in Burkina Faso. One day, after rescuing some victims and taking them to Nigeria, I returned to Burkina Faso and I was arrested and accused of being a trafficker myself,” he said.
The human trafficking network in West Africa uses Burkina Faso as a route to other West African countries such as Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, and upward to North Africa and Europe by road and sea. Burkina Faso subscribes to the definition of trafficking in the U.N. Trafficking Protocol but trafficking of young girls in the country is both internal and external. “In Burkina Faso, the government, with the support of its partners, is engaged in the long-term objective of eradicating child trafficking,” Otoba said.
For Nigerian girls, it is a long journey. Girls are often lured from states like Edo, Delta and Cross River and taken to Lagos, then Saki in Oyo State, before proceeding to Kenu or Chikanda or any other porous exit point in Kwara State. From there, they are moved to Benin Republic and then to Burkina Faso with the help of traffickers and immigration officials only interested in money. From the moment they leave Lagos, they spend about three days on the road. The story is the same virtually everywhere in West Africa. The victims are promised jobs and better lives in Europe with a brief stop in Burkina Faso. But once in Ouagadougou, instead of proceeding to Mali and the Sahara desert to get to Spain or Italy, most girls are spread to the 45 provinces in Burkina Faso and used as sex slaves.
Many girls end up in places like Bale, Banwa, Kossi, Mouhoun or Nayala. Others are moved to Sourou, Comoe, Leraba and Kadiogo while many end up sleeping with men in Boulgou, Koupelogo, Kouritenga or Bam. Many Nigerian girls are also found in Namentenga, Boulkiemde, Sanguine, Sissili and Ziro. Otoba put the number of Nigerian girls being held captive in Burkina Faso and working as sex slaves to at least 6,000. He said every province has between five and twelve local government areas known as communes, and in each of the councils, there is a minimum of twelve Nigerian girls working as sex slaves in the 45 provinces. But I wanted to see things for myself and not just listen to activists.
On the cold night of 11 January, the same day I arrived, I visited Pharmacie de gare and Ali Baba in Sankariare area and came across many girls who spoke English. It was an incredible scene of a very large crowd of revellers with girls in mini skirts, tight trousers or vests standing on one side and many young men staring from the other side. They were so close to one another that it appeared as though a fight was about to break out. It all looked like a market location where selling and buying took place.
“You can all hear them speak pidgin English. They are all Nigerian girls,” said Sawadogo Abdoulaye, a Burkinabe activist and Head of Cordination Nord-Sud, a human rights organisation that fights against human trafficking, especially trafficking of under-aged girls. We approached three girls. Two of them claimed to be from Edo and Delta States in Nigeria, while the other girl refused to disclose where she came from. She spoke little French with an English accent and said phrases like “Cheri coco tu veux?” (Sweetheart, do you want?”, showing her backside.
“You can see they are all very small girls. And for some of them, the breasts have not fully developed,” Sawadogo said in French. “And they are virtually all from Nigeria, very very small girls,” he lamented. We moved behind the streets to see where actual sex took place and saw girls with braided hair, black eyeliner, garish red lipstick and mini skirts, surrounded by tall guys who acted as body guards. We asked how much it cost for a sex romp. A girl who had just finished having sex with a patron and was rushing out to get another customer replied that it was a thousand franc cfa, about N350 or $2 for a quick session.
“Twenty minutes,” she said, referring to the session duration.
Sawadogo took us to other streets full of girls, many of them speaking broken French with some pidgin English. We went around town and ended up in a club with mirrors on the walls and different lights all over the room. One girl approached us, greeted us in French but with an English accent and left. Sawadogo called another girl. “Nigeria?” he asked, pronouncing Nigeria in French. The girl replied in the affirmative. He took us inside rooms at the back of the club where sex takes place every day and we entered very small and filthy rooms with little foams on the floor.
“Can you see where they have sex,” he asked. “And there are many places like this one full of Nigerian girls. They seem to come in every week”. Otoba, my Nigerian guide and President of Lutra-Jeune, joined us with one other guy. We began discussing over drinks. “This is a poorer country,” I said, “why are Nigerian girls coming here when they can do this at home?”. Sawadogo had a ready answer for me: “Many parents do not know where Burkina Faso is. When some of them are told by the traffickers that they are taking their girls to Burkina Faso, they think they are taking them to Europe. “Others are told that they are taking them to Europe and would be given new passports in Burkina Faso.”