Their story was pretty straight: Three days earlier, they had been lured from a backwoods community in Ondo State, baited with mouth-watering job offers, plus the glittery attractions of city life. All the five girls, age 15 to 19, had hitherto never travelled out of their community before let alone go as far as Lagos. In Lagos, the teenagers found themselves in a catch-22 whereby retracing their steps back home was impossible and going forward into an uncertain future the only option. Had the scheme worked out, they would have ended in Cotonou, Benin Republic, working as salesgirls in a goodtime motel that provides drinks and sex for the pleasure of men.
By noon on Tuesday, June 20, the major actors in the human smuggling attempt had been nabbed as the scheme that started in Abuja came to a grinding halt at the border control office of the Nigeria Immigration Service office in Seme, the town at the Nigeria– Benin Republic border.
Tricked from home
The girls, three of whom are minors, are all under the age of 19 and are identified only by their surnames. The most outspoken of them, Ojomo, 19, a two-year-old apprentice hairdresser, gave Saturday Sun a comprehensive recount of their odyssey.
“On Thursday, June 14, me and my friends went out and we met a man who said he wanted to introduce us to a woman, later identified as Princess. When we met her, she told us she needed girls that can help as salesgirls in her mother’s hotel. We were at first reluctant, but later agreed to go and see the place first and if okay, we would stay; otherwise, we would return back home.”
They commenced the journey the next day and arrived at 10 pm at Sunshine Hotel, located in Imeke, Aradagun axis of Badagry. “The moment the hotelier set eyes on us, she rejected us,” Ojomo said. “She told Princess, ‘These are not the kind of girls I want. They are too young’.”
According to her, the hotelier, Ijeoma Chinasa Anyanwu, insisted that the girls be returned, but Princess was adamant that if she must take them back, she must be refunded the expenses incurred transporting them down to Lagos. “We did not have money. And she refused to pay for our fare back home,” Ojomo recalled.
Baptism of fire inside motel rooms
Anyanwu had allowed the girls to stay the night at her hotel, but the next morning she would only allow two of them––Ojo, 15, an apprentice tailor and Afolabi, a JSS3 student who doesn’t know her age––to stay because they looked mature by their physique.
Princess subsequently moved the remaining three to another hotel, Homolewa Guest House, two kilometres away in Ilado, where they experienced an unsavoury ordeal over the next two days.
At their new lodging, the trio of Ojomo, Babatunde 18, and Adegoke 16, claimed Princess berated them.
“She told us this is not the kind of work she brought us here to do,” claimed Ojomo. “She called the other two aside and had a discussion with them. They later told me she asked them to do some runs.”Runs euphemistically means selling sex.
She continued: “We tried to resist, but each time she demanded we pay her N100, 000, the transport fare she spent on us.” The next 48 hours was distressful for the nerdy nubiles from a backwater community of Ondo State.
“When men wanted to sleep with us, she took money from them and asked us to go into the room with them,” they claimed.
Then the delicate question: How many men in all did she bring to you? Babatunde replied soberly: “She brought two to me and she took N4, 000 from them.” From Ojomo:“One.”Adegoke: “Two.”
All three also indicted the woman who ran the guesthouse. “The men who slept with us paid to the woman in charge of the hotel who delivered to Princess later. When the men came around, they talked to her––because Princess did not stay permanently with us––the woman bargained, collected money, supplied condoms and room where the men entered and the girl they preferred were asked to go in and meet them,” Babatunde said.
Ojomo added: “The first day that we made money, Princess took out of it and went to buy us food, but returned late in the night, by which time we had bought bread for dinner. The next day, we were given N500 to feed out of the money we realised.”
The girls were ashamed of talking about this aspect of their ordeal––even among themselves–– to the extent that the duo of Ojo and Afolabi who stayed at Sunshine hotel, did not hear about the episode until profiling at the Immigration office.
“While they were staying at the other hotel, the three were coming to our side in the afternoon. But they never told us what happened to them. We only heard of that today,” claimed Ojo.
Why they were gullible
The three teenagers woke up to yet another surprise on Monday morning with a declaration from Princess that she will be taking them to another place because “there is no job here.”
“She told us the job is not prostitution. Then she handed us over to a man, who previously came around on Sunday to sell Okrika (used clothes).”
The man identified as Emeka alias Better Person, a purveyor of used clothes, goes round motels in the Badagry axis to sell to his customers who are ‘runs girls’ in need of skimpy clothes. It turned out he owned a facility in Cotonou, Benin Republic and was eager to take on the girls as workers in his bar.
At this point, the hope of going home dimmed for the girls. “When we refused she again demanded we pay her the money she used to transport us down to Lagos,” Blessing said.
“We had no money, even right from home. Where do we now get money?” said Babatunde.
Resignedly, they followed the strange man, who put them in a Seme-bound vehicle while he boarded another at 12 in the night.
As to the wisdom or otherwise of embarking on a journey without informing their family, Afolabi offered their reason: “We thought it was a journey for one day in which case we would be back the second day. Our thought was if it wasn’t pleasing, we would go back home the next day.”
Ojo explained further: “The decision was taken at a time people had gone to farm. She told us we could come and see the place and return home the next day. That was why we didn’t even take spare clothing.”
Afolabi explained why they were easily tricked. “There is nothing bringing money in our town. There is nobody you can help to sell things, or work for, to earn a wage. After secondary school, to continue to sponsor a child further is not easy for our parents over there. That was why we all agreed it wasn’t a bad idea if we can get somewhere to work and get paid, we can save some money and be able to do something tangible for ourselves. That was how we thought it out and then decided to follow her.”
Continuing, she said: “After the woman rejected the other three, we wanted to go back home, but Princess insisted we must pay her the transport expenses. Where are we going to get N100, 000? Moreover, none of us has a phone. She refused to let us use hers, and we know no one and nowhere and can hardly find our way back home.”
As for the man who brokered the deal and connected them with Princess, they said, “We don’t know him. He spoke our language and told us his sister came from Lagos and needed sales girls. We trusted him because he spoke our language.”
Afolabi further alleged that they were not consulted about the decision to send the other three away.
“We never knew they were being taken to Cotonou. She just told us by Friday, she would take us to go and know where the other three were taken.”
The accounts of Anyanwu, the hotelier and Princess who procured the girls, were conflicting and riddled with inconsistencies. “I don’t know the children o, it is Princess I know,” wailed Anyanwu who spoke in pidgin.
“She don work for me, sell market for me. She be my sales girl long time ago before she married and then go to Benin and from there work carry her husband to Abuja where they live.”
Anyanwu, 43, claimed Princess initiated the scheme. “She called me say she dey come Lagos and wanted to know whether I need sales girls.” She continued: “When she brought them at 10 in the night, I rejected them o. I tell am dem no be the type I want. But she (Princess) said no, they cannot go because they don suffer inside go-slow. So I allow them stay in my hotel that night. I rejected those three but the other two refused to go. On Sunday, I asked Princess to comot them for my hotel.”
Anyanwu, an indigene of Imo State, gives a sketch about the fourth actor in the scheme––the man who took over the three girls. “His name na Emeka, he dey live for Cotonou with him family. Him dey go all joints that have girls (sex workers) to sell Okrika. Na there in see them, because himself has beer parlour and viewing centre for Cotonou. He came on Sunday and wanted to carry them go Cotonou, he say him go dey pay them N10, 000 monthly and also be feeding them.”
As per the agreement, Emeka was to offset Princess’ expenses and he was to compensate Anyanwu for the two days the two girls spent at her place. Princess, real name Cynthia Anthony, a 32-year- old native of Akwa Ibom State, asserted she had no prior relationship with the girls.
“I got to know them through their brother, Seyi, who is my neighbour in Abuja. He was with me when Sunshine called that her brother in Cotonou needed girls. When the call ended, Seyi told me he has sisters doing nothing in the village who can help. So we travelled down to their village.
The next morning he came with the girls to my hotel room. I asked them if they were ready to travel and they said yes. I explained to them that they would be staying with one woman who has a hotel and sell drinks. They said their brother that knows me would have to follow us down to Lagos because they don’t know me. That was how we all came to Sunshine’s place, including Seyi.”
Is Seyi really a brother to them? Her response: “I do not hear or speak Yoruba. But he spoke with them and they all seemed familiar. Seyi is an indigene of that village. I was in my hotel room when he brought them from their houses to meet me.” The girls, however, denied ever knowing the Seyi.
Princess also contradicted Anyanwu’s assertion that Emeka saw the girls at Homolewa guesthouse. “She said she was going to take two of the girls, and that she would call her brother who also own a hotel that has a restaurant and football viewing centre,” she insisted. “She called him on Saturday and the brother came on Sunday, and agreed he was going to take the other three.”
She also claimed ignorant of the sex-for-money affair at Homolewa. “I took one room for myself and another one room for the three girls. I didn’t bring any man to them. I do not give them condom, Mama called me that her brother had called and it is not what we will discuss on phone, I had to come down to Sunshine Hotel. The place is not far. If such a thing happened, I was not there. Whatever happened is between them and the woman running the place.”
Princess who claimed she earned her living as a poultry farmer and a hairdresser in Suleja where she lived with her husband, could hardly give a plausible motivation for abandoning her own affairs to travel to Ondo State on an impulsive errand for someone else to recruit sales girls and transport them to Lagos, expending time and resources in the process.
Was she supposed to be paid for her effort? “No, just the money I spent transporting them,” she affirmed.
Then why go through the stress? “She is like my mum. I had stayed with her in the past when I was in Lagos and she used to sell drinks at Agboju.”
What was the gain of the Seyi, the man who journeyed with her from Abuja to his hometown in Ondo, introduced the girls to her and travelled down with them to Lagos? “Nothing,” said Princess.
Anyanwu, however, offered a different insight into the monetary aspect of the effort: “I promised to give her (princess) the transport wey she spend if she bring them. The arrangement be say I go pay part of the girl’s monthly payment.” She also spoke of the pecuniary arrangement with Emeka. “Him go pay her their transport expenses and their hotel accommodation. Then, for the girls, he go dey pay them a monthly salary of N10, 000.”
Princess blamed Anyanwu for the imbroglio: “I wanted to return the girls but she called her brother, and after they spoke in Igbo, she said, I should wait, that the brother is coming and will take them.”
According to Adedeji Abiodun, Controller of Immigration Service in charge of Lagos State Border Patrol Command, Seme, “This is a case of Smuggling of Persons (SOP) and Trafficking in Persons (TIP).”
Citing Nigeria Immigration Act 2015, Section 65 subsection 7, he described a smuggler of person(s), as “any person who intentionally, in order to obtain a financial or material benefit from another person, engages in fraudulent acts or conducts purportedly for the purpose of procuring, facilitating or promoting the actual or intended entry or transit by another person into or across a country of which that other person is not a national or a permanent resident.”
Upon conviction, the Act prescribes a term of ten years imprisonment and or a fine of not less than One million “in addition liable to refund to the smuggled person all monies fraudulently obtained from him.”
Similar punishment is also prescribed in Section 70 (d) and (e) of the 2015 Act for “any person who aids, abets or counsels any other person to commit, or is an accessory to any act or offence under this Act or under any other relevant law, or (e) does any act preparatory to or in furtherance of the commission of an offence under this act.”
According to him the act vested the power of prosecution to the Nigeria Immigrations Service.
The suspects, he asserted, will be handed over to the zonal headquarters, Ikeja, for further investigation.
Of the victims, he disclosed, they will be “counselled and released to the appropriate quarters.”
The incident is the latest in a series of smuggling and trafficking foiled by Immigration officers at the Seme border. Abiodun cited two instances that occurred in the last six weeks. “One of the cases involved three victims and two suspects, all adults. The rescued victims were handed over to NAPTIP.”
In one of the cases, four of the victims who had valid passports aroused suspicion when Immigration officers noted that all of them––of different parentage, ethnicity and places––obtained their passports on the same day from Warri and were all headed to the same destination, Mali. That called for further questioning and during profiling, two of them confessed that the traffickers directed them to obtain their passports from Immigration office in Warri, that it was easier there than in Benin or any other places.
They admitted they were going for prostitution because they were told, “prostitution pays in Mali.”
Human smuggling or trafficking at the Seme border now is as difficult as a camel passing through the eye of a needle, he avowed, attributing the new order to the level of training and retraining that has been ongoing to counter irregular migration.
Citing three different recent training and workshop at Ibadan, Ojoo and Abuja, for a set of as- sistant coptrollers and Superintendents, he asserted: “Our officers are specially trained in handling this kind of issues, and the Comptroller-General who has zero-tolerance for irregular migration is everything possible to curb the menace.”
Citing the recently launched Passport to Safe Migration campaign, he avowed: “NIS is not discouraging migration. We are advocating safe migration. People who are most vulnerable are from the local communities; therefore, parents should be vigilant and interested in what their children or wards do. We enjoin the society to talk to our youths about the dangers involved in irregular migration.”