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Nigeria and the scourge of modern slavery

  –  The Punch

 MORE than two centuries after the obnoxious trade in human beings was officially abolished in the British Empire in 1807, many who believe slavery no longer exists beyond the history books will be shocked by reports that it is thriving in different forms in practically every country of the world. A recent report by Australia-based Walk Free Foundation does not only show that there are about 29.8 million people entrapped in what is called modern slavery, but also identifies Nigeria as the country with the fourth largest number of slaves in the world.

 The mention of slavery is likely to conjure up images of people manacled in the wrists or ankles, or even both, working on plantations or mines, which used to be the case during the slave trade. But what is referred to as modern slavery goes beyond just working the plantations and involves a related concept of being treated like a property that can be “bought, sold, traded or even destroyed.” It also involves people being forced to work or bringing them, through deception, threat or coercion, into forced labour or other forms of severe exploitation, usually referred to as human trafficking. A broad definition also includes the practice of forced marriage, debt bondage and child exploitation.

 According to the report, India, the second most populous country in the world, with about 1.2 billion people, leads the rest of the world in the practice of modern slavery, followed in distant second and third positions respectively by China and Pakistan. The report, which claims to be the most comprehensive, estimates that there are about 14 million people living as slaves in India, while China, Pakistan and Nigeria have 2.9 million, 2.1 million and 701,000 respectively.

While it has been established that modern slavery exists in most countries of the world, it is estimated that the top 10 countries, which also include such African countries as Ethiopia and Democratic Republic of Congo, account for three quarters of the global total. In fact, another African country, Mauritania, which only officially abolished slavery in 2007, has four per cent of its entire 3.4 million population as slaves, making it the country with the highest prevalence of slaves.

Although slavery dates back to the earliest of times, this form of gross human rights violation has continued to fester, especially in Nigeria, mainly because of the religious and cultural beliefs of some of its people, as well as the rampant poverty brought about by failed government economic policies. In some parts of the country, children are forced into early marriage, which deprives them the right to education and abridges their ability to climb the social ladder.

Also, many children, for economic reasons, are forced into hawking and prostitution to be able to make ends meet. In many cases, they are farmed out to distant relations in cities, where they end up being exploited and denied decent upbringing. Worse, children are both trafficked internally and externally, with the promises of the good life, but end up in forced labour and, in the case of female children, prostitution.

It is even horrible in certain parts of Nigeria; parents are the ones forcing their children into this form of slavery. Deluded into believing the streets of Europe are paved with gold, they deliberately encourage their children to go into prostitution in foreign countries with the expectation of regular remittances from them. The Nigerian Ambassador to Russia, Asam Asam, was quoted in a recent interview as saying, “I spoke to the mother of one of the (deported) girls and she said her daughter should remain in Moscow and try to survive the ordeal.” Thus, Nigeria not only harbours a large number of modern slaves, but is  also a major exporter to other parts of the world.

As a result, Nigeria has gained notoriety for human trafficking, exposing many of her young girls to sex slavery in many parts of the world, including Africa. Asam put the number of Nigerian girls trafficked to Russia for prostitution at no fewer than 200 monthly. “Some are thrown out of the window and treated harshly; there must be a way of stopping this racketeering,” Asam, who claimed that over 240 girls had been deported from Russia since last year, said. Nigerians are also said to be dominating the sex trade in Italy. In 2002 alone, the then Comptroller-General of the Nigeria Immigration Services, Uzoamaka Nwizu, reportedly put the number of young Nigerian boys and girls deported over the years from Europe and Asia for prostitution and child labour at 250,000.

Without doubt, slavery remains an extreme violation of human rights and dignity, which are protected under the 1999 Constitution and the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which Nigeria is a signatory. Nigeria is also a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a legally-binding instrument for the protection of the rights of the child, and to the African Union Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.  Both of them form the basis for the Child Rights Act enacted in 2003, which, unfortunately, has still not been domesticated by many states. UNESCO describes “slavery and slave trade as a crime against humanity,” punishable by international law.

Needless to say, there are sufficient instruments that can be deployed to stamp out slavery in our society. But making laws alone will not bring about a free and egalitarian society; it is the duty of the government to make sure that the laws are adequately enforced for the benefit of the citizenry. The National Agency for the Prohibition of Traffic in Persons and Other Related Matters remains Nigeria’s recognised agency in the fight against trafficking in persons, but this is a fight NAPTIP alone cannot win. The government must come up with policies to reduce poverty and create jobs. This will go a long way in discouraging human trafficking. Coupled with advocacy by the government and civil society groups about the evils of modern slavery, those caught in the act of trafficking in persons must also be made to face justice.

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