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A cheese sandwich

Nigeria is a source, transit and destination country for trafficking women and children to Europe, the Middle East and other countries in Africa for forced labour, domestic servitude and sexual exploitation.  

Despite this, the government is not ‘complying with the minimum standard for the elimination of trafficking.’ Since the anti-trafficking law was passed in June 2003, no-one has yet been prosecuted. Nigeria, unlike some other countries in the region, does not have a shortage of resources to fight trafficking, yet the government commits ‘inadequate funds and personnel’.

A 2007 joint report on trafficking in Nigeria by the Danish Immigration Services and Britain’s Home Office found that despite Nigeria being one of the African countries deeply involved in trafficking, the government’s attitude was nonchalant towards the prosecution of human traffickers. The National Coalition Against Trafficking in Persons (NACATIP) reported that although it did its best to carry out its duties, the Nigerian criminal justice system and other associated government institutions were a major stumbling block to addressing trafficking in the country.

‘Fapohunda (Legal Resource Center – LRC) explained that his comment was not based on any consideration of returns either on an individual scale or large scale, but on an appreciation on what is the reality on the ground. The reality of the Nigerian criminal justice system is that it offers little or no protection for victims of crime. There is presently a bill before the parliament on this matter but this is not priority. Also it was Fapohunda’s (LRC) view that quite apart from legislative limitations, the resources allocated to the NPF and NAPTIP is neither sufficient or adequate to offer the kind of protection (even on an individual basis) that will, at the very least, meet minimum international standards. Nigeria has not invested in its justice system; the casualty of this lack of investment is essentially poor justice institutions. Fapohunda (LRC) added that NAPTIP is a government body within the Federal Ministry of Justice.’

There is also evidence of corruption and compliance with traffickers by the Nigerian authorities.

According to the report, in 2003 Nigerian immigration authorities rescued 400 Beninoise children – 400! The children had been enslaved in rock quarries in Western Nigeria. Six traffickers were arrested but later released after the intervention of a local traditional ruler. There is also further evidence of the complicity of Nigerian security personnel in trafficking.

I find none of this surprising, particularly where children are concerned. Nigeria has a history of domestic servitude and like in many countries in the Global South, child labour in Nigeria is widespread. While child labour is driven by poverty and the associated factors, what is of great concern is that child labour in general and domestic servitude in particular is not seen as a problem by the Nigerian government.  

People do it openly – it is acceptable to take children as young as five to work as domestics. The children often work 16, 18 hours a day, seven days a week doing the kind of work well beyond their years. They are mistreated, beaten, abused mentally and very often sexually as well. So the fact that the government is nonchalant is hardly surprising.

Some years ago I read an interview with Romeo Dallaire, the UN commander in Rwanda at the time of the genocide. The interview mentions a journalist called Philip Gourevitch, who wrote a book about his experience in Rwanda at that time. He describes an encounter with an American military intelligence officer just after the genocide:

The American tells Gourevitch that he has heard that Gourevitch is interested in genocide and he says, ‘Do you know what genocide is? A cheese sandwich. Write that down,’ he tells Gourevitch, ‘Genocide is a cheese sandwich.’

Gourevitch asks him what he means by that. ‘What does anyone care about a cheese sandwich?’ the man responds. ‘Genocide, genocide, genocide. Cheese sandwich, cheese sandwich, cheese sandwich. Who gives a shit? Crimes against humanity? Where is humanity? Who is humanity? You? Me? Did you see a crime committed against you? Hey, just a million Rwandans.’

‘Did you ever hear about the genocide convention?’ he asks Gourevitch. Gourevitch says that he has. ‘That convention,’ the man says, ‘is good for wrapping a cheese sandwich.’

Child servitude – the crime is not against your child; it’s against just an African or Asian child from nowhere – a cheese sandwich. I mentioned this to a friend of mine, Modupe Debbie Ariyo, who is the director of the UK-based AFRUCA (Africans Unite Against Child Abuse ); she has recently visited Nigeria on an up-to-date fact finding mission on child abuse, including domestic and other forms of child labour. This is what she wrote in response to my ‘cheese sandwich’ analogy:

‘Child Abuse as cheese sandwich! Thought provoking concept and I totally agree. Every Nigerian child must matter. People don’t care because its not their own children being abused, trafficked, harmed. I really want to see if we can start by helping to change that terrible, selfish mindset. It’s the first step in all of this. What is really painful is the use of children as servants, as you pointed out. I feel personally distressed by what I’ve seen so far. What is most distressing is how someone who is ordinarily a very religious person does not see anything wrong in keeping an 8 year old child as a slave. It’s the most baffling thing – how religion is divorced from this whole concept and reality of child abuse. How religion at least encourages and at worse is a perpetrator of child abuse.’

Nigeria just completed its 2011 federal and state elections. Nowhere was the issue of children’s rights – or any other rights, for that matter – discussed, and the issue remains marginal in the nation’s consciousness. Religious institutions are themselves part of the problem: for example, the brutalizing of children accused of witchcraft by the Liberty Foundation Gospel Ministries in the Akwa Ibom state, where even the state government is either too frightened or unwilling to intervene. Those like Leo Igwe of the Center for Enquiry in Nigeria, who have tried, have been intimidated and even arrested.

As Modupe says, there are no large influential charities to push children’s rights, but

‘It is really possible for the government to act if it wants to. It isn't doing much because there isn’t enough “push”. Plus different parts of the country want different things. In the north, very few care about child abuse or child protection issues such as child marriages are not seen as problematic and in fact most, if not all, the northern states have refused to sign the children’s act into law because it “violates” their religion/culture. Again, I really want to see if we can build AFRUCA into an entity that can help to fill this gap… although that is not going to happen overnight.’

I hope Modupe will be able to extend AFRUCA to Nigeria and begin to give a high priority to the protection of our children.  

For more information: AFRUCAs work, Leo Igwe and Stepping Stones Nigeria

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