When Florence Abu, a hairstylist, left the shores of Nigeria in 2012 for Russia, she thought she was moving to the proverbial greener pastures. She thought the trip would be the key to unlocking a better life for her and her family. But things did not turn out as she expected.
Ms Abu, an indigene of Edo State, soon realised that she had been trafficked to work as a prostitute in Russia.
She alleged that she was lured to travel abroad by Endurance Ehioze, an assistant pastor with Heavenly Ambassadors Ministries, her local church, who claimed that he saw a vision of her prospering outside the shores of Nigeria.
Human trafficking is a global menace and the disturbing trend is not new.
According to a 2016 UNESCO report, poverty is the major reason women and children are vulnerable to being trafficked. Another report in 2018, by the Global Slavery Index, ranked Nigeria 32 out of 167 countries where persons are trafficked from.
All that it took to convince Ms Abu, like other victims, was the allure of a better life abroad.
Before she left for Russia, Mr Ehioze allegedly told Ms Abu to give his mother, Vivian Ehioze, her pubic hair and fingernails, which would be used for a fetish oath to ensure she does not abscond on getting to Russia.
Later she was told to pay $46,000 to regain her freedom from the prostitution syndicate she was lured into or be killed if she tried to be “smart.”
“I, first of all, refused the offer but he now told me that I don’t have a choice because God showed him in a revelation that my destiny is not in the country, that my destiny is outside the country and for me to achieve that aim, I need to leave the country so I can earn better money and also help my family and take them away from poverty and for me to also have a better stay.
“When he said that, I was like okay, but I don’t have the money to leave, how am I going to leave, and he said that not the problem, and that they are the ones that are going to fix the bills to leave.
“The only thing they will request from me is for me to go and look for money to do my international passport, that if I can do my international passport, then the rest of the things they are doing is on them.
“The pastor told me that that’s the only form of guarantee that I should do it. So I don’t have a choice I had to give her what she requested for; hair from my head, my armpit, pubic part, and my fingernails. So I gave her those things, then she now asked me to leave.
“That was how I left, I gave it to the mother of the pastor and the mother of the person I’m going to meet in Russia.
“They told me that after my payment, I can decide to do my hairdresser work, do my dancing or my singing that I can go ahead with that but for the now, the only thing I can do is to see how other girls are hustling on the streets. That’s how I’m going to sell my body as a prostitute to also pay her money until I finish paying the $46,000, but if I want to form that I’m a very smart girl, she might even kill me here (there),” the hairstylist said.
‘I went through hell’
Ms Abu said sometimes she was forced to be on call with different “clients” for more than 24 hours at a time.
The stylist said when she complained to her handler how dangerous some of the clients were, the ‘madam’, as they are often called, did not care and only requested for the proceeds from her prostitution.
“My life was like 24 hours. I go to work, sometimes I go for a week. I’ll go to work, I’ll have bad clients, some will carry a gun, sometimes I’ll use nakedness to run out of the house, day time like this, broad daylight running for my life,” she said.
“When I will still call my madam, see wetin happen, she go say that one nor concern am o, work just dey as we dey talk now, make I just find one place wear my cloth make I dey go another work. Something like that, many things happened.
“I even went to work one day and they threw me from a three-storey building, I broke my hand, I was at home for two months, she was like she won’t be the one feeding me so I should use that same broken hand and go to work until I finish paying her money,” she added.
Ms Abu was repatriated to Nigeria after she came down with a mysterious illness that defied treatment.
‘Victim turned activist’
Since she returned to the country in 2017, after spending five years in Russia, Ms Abu has been working hard to re-establish her hairstyling business and collaborating with different groups to increase enlightenment on trafficking and irregular migration.
“I spent five years in Russia, I have been here now since three years plus because I came back in 2017, February 2017,” she said.
“What I’ve been doing, I’m a hairstylist but I don’t have a stall now. I’m planning to have a store, which is I’m looking for support so that I can be able to set up my business and what I have been doing for the now.
“I was working with Mr Okoduwa (national coordinator, Initiative for youth awareness on Migration, Immigration, Development and Reintegration (IYAMIDR)) maybe just going for sensitization programmes, letting people know about the root against illegal migration, and something like that, speaking against this because when I can, I never fold my hands, I made sure I caught my trafficker, I made sure I exposed my trafficker, you understand.
“I never said because I am afraid of them even with the threat and everything, I said I can’t let them go because I know what I suffered back there in Russia and this person told me that my life is in her hands so I let her know that God that brought me here, he didn’t just bring me here for a purpose and I can’t see other girls also wasting their lives,” she said.
‘Pastor who trafficked Abu facing charges‘
Solomon Okoduwa, national coordinator, IYAMIDR, said all those who were implicated in trafficking Ms Abu are being prosecuted.
In 2017, Mr Ehioze and his mother were arrested following a tip-off by IYAMIDR, which is based in Edo State.
They are being tried for human trafficking-related charges at the Edo State High Court.
Okoduwa expressed dismay that it is taking too long to convict all those who played roles in the trafficking of Ms Abu.
“The case is still ongoing; the trafficker, the mother, the pastor, all the culprits involved have been arrested, and they are currently facing the charges filed by the federal government through the NAPTIP office, that is what is going on right now.
“Florence is very healthy, though not economically healthy, so we pray that through this interview, people that hear her ordeal, hear her speak, see her courage, see her determination to see that yes these people are brought to book will also come to support her,” she said.
‘Ignorance, illiteracy aiding trafficking’
Julie Okah-Donli, director-general of the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), said that besides poverty, ignorance, illiteracy and deceit are aiding the trafficking of people out of the country.
“First of all it is ignorance and then deceit and then, of course, illiteracy plays a major role. I mean because when somebody tells you that you are going to be given a good job abroad, you don’t have a work visa, a work permit, you don’t have a stay; how are you going to survive in a place like that? And that’s why because of their vulnerability, by virtue of their status, they are easily trafficked.
“So these are the major factors. I’m not ruling out poverty, in the sense that they approach the parents and tell them, okay we are going to take your daughter somewhere to work, you know she’s going to have a better life and send you money and all of that, but trust me 80 percent is ignorance, illiteracy and deceit,” the director-general said.
Ms Okah-Donli said over 16,000 victims have been rescued from human traffickers.
“We have prosecuted over 12,000 (traffickers). We have secured about 425 convictions and we have had over 1,000 cases spread across Nigeria.
“We have rehabilitated quite a number of victims to the extent that they pass through primary-secondary school and university courtesy the NAPTIP,” she said.
This story was written by Osaruonamen Ibizugbe, a 2020 Civic Hive Media Fellow.