James Ibechi

How parents, syndicates collude to enslave children in Benue, Plateau

Families in Benue and Plateau states are offering their children to be trafficked for cheap labour in Oyo, Ogun, Lagos, Ekiti, Osun, Kwara, Ondo and Edo states among others. With over 10, 000 children taken out as child labourers from Benue State yearly, stakeholders say it was time authorities curb the dangerous practice where parents willingly railroad their children into child labour in farmhouses in remote forests. GBENGA SALAU of Guardian Newspaper, who visited Benue and Plateau states, chronicles how children are being sold into hard labour at an age when they should be enjoying parental care.

L-r: Lalong and Ortom of Plateau and Benue

Although Benue and Plateau states have domesticated the Child Rights Act, children in these two states are still being trafficked to most parts of the country to serve as domestic help, farm assistants, and sex workers.

While some parents willingly give out their children, human trafficking syndicates collaborate or trick others into giving out their children.

After coming to terms with the enormity of human trafficking going on within its domain, the Benue State government, this year, set up an anti-human trafficking task force, in addition to the anti-trafficking efforts of the Federal Government, through the National Agency for Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), which has been in operation for about a decade.

All these efforts notwithstanding, stakeholders reveal that child trafficking is on the increase in most rural communities of both states and is being fuelled by the constant displacement of families in affected communities due to conflict and the constant face-off between herdsmen and farmers. This is in addition to poverty and lack of basic social amenities in these communities, including schools, especially senior secondary schools.

Although statistics regarding the sheer magnitude of child trafficking is difficult to come by, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that 10,000 children are trafficked each year.

A 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report on Nigeria, by the United States Department of State, said that the Ministry of Labour and Employment (FMLE) reported that it conducted 9, 877 inspections resulting in the removal of 2, 996 children from potential child trafficking conditions, and officials referred 1, 067 of the identified children to the government’s social services. The FMLE did not provide statistics for 2019. Despite these actions, workers employed in the informal economy, including children working in agriculture, domestic work, and artisanal mining remain highly vulnerable to trafficking.

In Benue State, age-long practices, poverty, the lack of basic social amenities and ignorance contribute immensely to parents trafficking their children to cities. And in some cases, children in Benue and Plateau states become breadwinners from age five, serving variously as house helps, farm assistants, or sex workers in communities over 500 kilometres away from their ancestral homes.

However, many of these children, who usually leave their villages with excitement, often regret ever taking such trips, due to the ill-treatment meted to them by their “employers.”

Charity Onah Ogwuma, from Etu Ochodu Ukpa, in Benue State, who left home for Abuja, at the age of eight to serve as house-help for an “auntie,” narrated her experience: “My dad has two wives and my mum is the second wife. The bait was for me to stay in Abuja as a house help, from where I would also be sent to school. There was also the promise that I will be well taken care of. But it was all a ruse.”

All the promises never came to pass, as Ogwuma claimed that she went through hell, a development, which eventually forced her to run back to the village that she left with a lot of expectations, years later.

She recalled: “The night I was to leave the village, I did not sleep because of the excitement of going to the city. But the maltreatment started on the way to the city, with barking and scolding whenever I expressed myself about the new things that I observed during the trip.

“Since it was the first time that I would see a satellite pole, I exclaimed, ‘see light in the sky!’ I got a very excruciating knock on the head as the journey progressed. Apart from that day, every time that I stayed with her, I was maltreated. Even when her husband intervened, she never changed, but only scolded and beat me more when the husband was not around.

“Every day, I went to bed very late and woke up very early in the morning. I dared not eat food leftover by her children, or what they brought back from school, except she instructed me to do so. What I experienced was like living in hell hence my return to Benue State, but my father promptly returned me to her. However, I had to leave again a few months after when the maltreatment became worse in 2002. After I finally left, my mother’s last child was sent to live with her, and she claimed she suffered worse maltreatment than I ever experienced.”

Ogwuma eventually returned to the village to complete her primary education but was impregnated and married off before she completed her secondary education.

Faith Samuel, from Plateau State, suffered a similar faith to Ogwuma’s. She never knew her father who died when she was barely a teenager. Consequently, she and her siblings were sent out to serve as house helps.

When this reporter visited Samuel’s village, a remote community in Riyom Local Council, the 16-year-old who, at her age had served as house help and did menial jobs in Kaduna and Abuja, stood out among the other children in the community.

Samuel first worked as a domestic servant in Kaduna when she was about eight years old. She served under a certain Madam Joy, who often visited her (Samuel’s) village to railroad children to the cities for domestic duties.

After a short while, Samuel fled to her uncle’s place because she was not happy with the treatment meted to her by her madam. Since she did not find succour, where she fled to, her elder sister, who resides in Abuja picked her up as returning home was not an alternative.

Even though the high cost of living finally forced Samuel to return home from Abuja, her two other siblings who left home earlier than she did, are still serving in faraway places from their home. While one of them is in Kano, supposedly living with an uncle, the other is in Lagos, serving as domestic staff and can only be reached through her madam’s mobile phone number.

Orphaned And Farmed Out
WHILE Samuel is lucky that her mother is still alive, 14-year-old Emmanuel Monday, also from Plateau State is not so fortunate; he lost both parents very early in life. He spent only a few weeks in Kaduna State, where he was hired as a domestic staff. He claimed he ran away from the family because of serial abuse.

Francis Otoja was 14, when he left home in 2006 for Akure, Ondo State, alongside seven others from a community in Benue State, to serve as farm assistants. He had just completed his Junior Secondary School (JSS) education when his friend told him about going to the city to “hustle.” The friend also provided the link to the man who eventually took them to Akure.

Unfortunately for Otoja, a disagreement ensued between him and his boss, only weeks after his arrival on the farm, when he was allegedly accused wrongly. He left Ondo immediately while his friend stayed back and later relocated to Lagos from Ondo.

“A lot of human trafficking activities are going on in the villages. The traffickers freely move from one village to the other taking children from their parents, especially mothers, whom they promise that their children would work in the cities for one year and thereafter return home,” Otoja said.
The youngster who noted that the traffickers are
very strategic noted: “They usually come around during the long holidays,” he said, adding that illiteracy, the quest for quick money, and parents’ ignorance of the risks that their children face were some of the factors that have sustained the ignoble trade.

“On the children’s part, it is the overarching ambition to move to new environments, and experience city life that is usually too attractive for them to resist,” he said.

A community leader in Tanjol, Plateau State, Gyan Davou, who said that insecurity has compounded child trafficking in his community, lamented that families have been displaced as a result of conflicts, while children are often attacked and killed on their way to and from schools.

“Many parents give their children out for safety reasons, while also reaping some economic benefits. This is aside from the lack of basic social amenities,” Davou explained, adding that some parents do not know where their children end up, after being released to persons that could be called traffickers.

Chundun Danladi, a mother of five, falls into this category. After the death of her husband, her farmland was ravaged by herdsmen. Confused and at her wits’ end, she parcelled her five children to Kaduna and Abuja, where she hopes they are still serving as house-helps and nannies.

Poverty As The Driving Force
JOL in Riyom Local Council of Plateau State is about 42 kilometres from Jos, the state capital, but the decrepit state of basic amenities there is in sharp contrast with what is obtained in Jos. From the council headquarters – Riyom Town to Jol is about 11 kilometres, but a greater portion of the road is not motorable. It takes a very rugged vehicle to drive through.

Also, there are three narrow old bridges between Jol and Riyom Town, which is on the Jos-Kaduna Road. Right beside them is wider alternative bridges that have been under construction in the last one decade. The primary and junior secondary schools in the community are in ruins and pupils from the community and neighbouring villages travel not less than 12 kilometres daily to their schools, a development that makes many drop out and opt for city life.
Child Trafficking On Increase In Benue State

A member of the Benue State Anti-trafficking Task Force and founder, Ogedegede Community Development Foundation, Michael Awo Ejeh, revealed that child trafficking is on the increase in Benue State.

According to him, in October 2019, his organisation got a call from Adeniji Police Station, Lagos Island that a girl, identified simply as Sarah, from Igede, had been rescued from under a bridge, in Lagos, where she was living and running errands for drug users and traders.

“The Child Protection Network Coordinator for South West also called me. Our Lagos team visited and asked the girl, who was 13 years old then, some relevant questions. It was from there that we found out that it was her stepfather who gave her out as house-help at five, and she was moved from place to place,” Ejeh said.

By the time of her rescue, Sarah had served seven households, with the last ‘mama’ that she served being over 80.

Her dubious step-father who would sign a year’s contract on her behalf and collect lump sum usually visited her again after three months and instruct her to run away. He would, afterwards take the girl to another location and sign a fresh contract and so on.

“We tricked him to Lagos and got him arrested by the police. Her mother who connived with the stepfather was also arrested by the Police,” Ejeh added.

Ejeh further revealed that sometime in September 2019, a 12-year-old girl, Mercy, also from Igede, who was loitering around Oyingbo, Lagos, was identified by a young Igede woman.

“The girl was taken to Denton Police Station, Oyingbo, Lagos, after I was briefed. She identified her parents and village. She was a house-help and was sent out of the house by her madam, who was over 70.

“She had trekked for three days and had slept on the roadside for three nights before she was found. She said she was attempting to trace her way back to Benue to meet her parents,” Ejeh narrated.

“Thereafter, efforts were made to contact the girls’ relatives, and the family assigned one person to interface with my team, which came to Lagos after three weeks, identified the girl, who was eventually released to me by the police for proper care.”

Igede Children Vulnerable To Trafficking
ACCORDING to Ejeh, within Benue State, Igede children are vulnerable to trafficking, smuggling and illicit migration, and this is due to endemic poverty, lack of social infrastructure, underdevelopment, parents’ greed, the craving for greener pastures by youths, the antics of traffickers and cheap labour merchants, as well as the culturally permissive economic and labour migration among Igede people.

A wooden bridge at Uwokwu community in Oju LGA.

A community leader claimed there are more than 50 wooden bridges in Igede

He said: “The Igede people are a very small ethnic group in Benue and Cross River states respectively. The population is often manipulated to continue to render them both economically and politically subservient to the larger ethnic groups. Consequently, there is absence of necessities of life in most Igede communities, such as electricity, potable water, recreational facilities, employment opportunities and good agricultural machinery for farmers. As a result of this, families offer their children to be trafficked for cheap labour in other states. The parents negotiate wages with the traffickers, some of whom are either middlemen or big-time farmers in the South West.

“The farmers recruit over 10, 000 children yearly as child labourers. These children are kept in farmhouses in remote forests of Oyo, Ogun, Lagos, Ekiti, Osun, Kwara, Ondo and Edo states. The children work in cash and food crop farms, such as cocoa plantations, cassava, rubber plantations, pepper farms, yam and cocoyam farms. They are involved in all the processes, such as clearing, cultivation, weeding, application of pesticides, harvesting, peeling, garri-making and transportation, among others. Some of the farm owners are related to the children, while some are community members or total strangers. At the end of the year, depending on the agreement, lump sums not exceeding N100, 000 are paid to their parents, family members, or guardians. Sadly, many of these children return home empty-handed after their folks had collected their wages. Many are cheated, harmed or killed. The lucky ones get back frustrated and depressed. On the flip side, some are lucky to get paid and they get back to either get married, build a house or continue schooling.”

Government’s Role In Curbing Trend
THE Executive Director, Voice For the Girl Child Foundation, Mildred Bakwo, explained that with insecurity and poverty, child trafficking has become a norm in Plateau, as a lot of displaced parents feel that it is better to give out their children.

“It is becoming a serious issue in Plateau State, and it is something that should be looked into critically,” she said.

On the government’s role in checking the trend, she said the country has so many useful laws, including the Child Rights Act, which, ordinarily, could be a tool to check it, but that the challenge lied with implementation. So, the state government needs an agency that is saddled with the responsibility of checking child trafficking. The work could be a bit too much for the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development, even though they have the Child Welfare Department. If we get experienced persons to man the agency, people who understand the issues better, and how to bring perpetrators to book, it would go a long way in addressing the challenge,” she added.

Bakwo continued: “Before now, child trafficking in Plateau State was very minimal, but the statistics went up due to unending crises, which led to many people being displaced. Someone who is displaced with 13 children would be very glad if two or three of the children are taken off her. So, if people are increasingly displaced like what we have in Plateau State, the government can, at least, shelter them, compensate the children with education (scholarship plan). This would stop the parents from releasing their children to strange people anyhow.

“So, the government needs to take time to create awareness, especially in the rural communities, because traffickers usually comb rural communities, where people are ignorant, and some parents usually do not care as long as something is remitted back home,” she said, adding that the “government needs to regain the people’s confidence. If these basic amenities are there, the people will not give out their children for cheap labour considering that every mother wants to have her children under her care. But the truth is that poverty has eaten deep into our fabric, and people are looking for means to survive. We do not have a policy on birth control, so people give birth to children that they cannot cater for. These are critical issues that we are not paying attention to.”

She added that “community leaders have a major role to play in curbing the trend. So, if we can get people that can serve as community volunteers to keep a tab on children in communities so that once a child is not seen, or is about being taken out, the community leader should be able to ask questions as, who is taking the child? Where are they taking the child to, and for what purpose? And the community should be made to report to the local council through the Social Welfare Department, and the local council reporting to the state and a coordinating unit,” Bakwo suggested.

She stressed the need for many parents to be conversant with the many variants of child trafficking “because many of them in rural communities feel that when they release their children to any aunty who resides in Abuja, Kaduna or Lagos, they are assured of greener pastures for their children and they feel very comfortable about. Indeed, they do not know that they are committing a crime. So, people need to be informed because an informed society is a better society. When people know better, they will act better,” she said.

Both the Plateau State Commissioner for Information, Dan Manjang, and the Chief Press Secretary to Benue State Governor, Nath Ikyur, did not pick their calls.

Text messages, which were sent to them after the second round of calls equally failed to yield results.

However, while Manjang called back, and directed The Guardian to speak to the Commissioner for Women Affairs and Social Development, Rebecca Adar Sambo, for better insight, Ikyur did not reply to the text message and never called back.

When Sambo was contacted penultimate Friday, she promised to get feedback across. She never did. When reached again, she denied consenting to speak on the matter, saying she needed to consult her permanent secretary and the director on the issue before speaking. When again contacted at the agreed time, she did not pick her calls.

Categories: James Ibechi

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