Dropping out of Obiaza Mixed Secondary School in Ubiaja, Edo State, in 2016 did not come as a surprise to Evans Fredrick. At 16, he lost his father and the breadwinner to diabetes, leaving behind a young family without a stable source of income.
To eke out a living and support his mother and siblings, he embraced farming in 2020. Like other youths in his community, he obtained a loan of N300,000 to buy seedlings and fertiliser with the hope of recording a bountiful harvest and repaying the loan. But everything went down the drain after a flood swept through his community during the 2021 rainy season and destroyed his farm.
Frustrated by the misfortune incident, he mulled over the idea of migrating to Europe. He planned to leave Nigeria through Libya, enter Europe and return as a ‘big boy’ a few years later.
“I decided to leave Nigeria for Europe through Niger Republic when the financial challenges became too much for me to bear,” Fredrick, now 25, told our correspondent.
However, his thought of migrating through the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean petered out during a sensitisation programme in Ilushi organised by a non-governmental organisation. After a conversation with a Libya returnee, Fredrick didn’t think the trip was worth the risk.
“I changed my mind when I met a returnee, Brown Okojie, who told me what he went through on his way to Europe; he didn’t even go beyond Tripoli in Libya. He showed me the scars on his body and videos of some Nigerians who died in the Sahara Desert. Some of those that died were from my community, so I joined the campaign against irregular migration. I don’t have a stable job now and the challenges are many but I’m hopeful that I can make it in Nigeria,” he said.
Like Fredrick, Osita Ehimhen, a bricklayer, had his eyes on Europe. At 27 and with a job that could not pay his bill, Ehimhen felt his life was directionless.
My parents are poor and could not pay my school fees. When I saw how some of my peers living in Europe were sending money home and building houses, going to Italy in 2019 became my next target,” he said.
However, had a rethink when he saw pictures of people stranded in the Sahara Desert and heard the testimonies of people like Okojie who narrowly escaped death and managed to return home.
He said, “What would I have gained if I was caught and put in prison or even killed? So, I decided to remain here (in Nigeria); I am a bricklayer now and I’m managing.”
Okojie could not have asked for a better way to disabuse the minds of youths in Edo State. The 35-year-old university dropout who abandoned his wife and kids in 2016 in search of greener pastures in Germany, said traffickers roamed agrarian communities in search of soft targets.
“People from Uromi believe in migrating through any means. In 2017, a childhood friend who returned to Nigeria from Europe saw me on the streets and asked me what I was doing in Nigeria. He had three houses in my community and had businesses. He told me I would not have to travel by air but by road, through a shortcut,” he said during a chat with our correspondent.
“I discussed it with my wife, parents and pastor but they did not support the idea. But I was optimistic and I decided to take the risk but it almost turned to suicidal mission. I was caught by Libyan security forces, stripped, beaten with an iron rod and left for dead. I am lucky to be alive and that’s why I talk to younger Nigerians about the importance of migrating through the right way because I don’t want them to face what I went through,” he added.
Happy Otiode, a 33-year-old hairstylist and returnee also had a sad story to tell. Going by his appearance, Otiode easily passed for a newly-ordained cleric – fresh from a Bible school and burning with the desire to rescue souls from the clutches of the devil.
Occasionally, he clutched a microphone, prancing at market squares and street corners of Old Agbor Road, Idumonza, Taxona, Ivue, Uwalor Road and Afuda in Uromi, Edo State, with a jeremiad, warning curious teenagers about desperate journeys to Europe considered by many Nigerian youths as an El Dorado.
With the rising number of unemployed youths in Nigeria and the country becoming too tough to live in, dissenters of Otoide’s gospel believe they have reasons to stick to their guns.
But unlike them, Otoide knew too well what migrating to Europe from Nigeria by road meant. He had barely managed to raise $793 out of the $1,586 he needed for the trip. However, his plan to move to Italy landed him in a Libyan prison four times. It all began in 2017.
“I thought my search for greener pastures in Italy would be better than the one in Nigeria but I did not know that I can’t reap where I did not sow,” he said while narrating his experience during a chat with our correspondent.
“I did not have the right information; I thought some of my friends living in Italy were doing well but I was wrong. I wanted to go to Italy but I never went beyond Libya. When I got to the Sahara Desert, the vehicle that conveyed me and some other Nigerians broke down.
“We were stranded, tired and hungry as there was no food or water. People who could not withstand the heat started dying. One of the men who followed us from Uromi died in the desert. He was a member of the Man O’ War in Uromi and was well-built. But before he died, he confessed that he stole a motorcycle, sold it and used the money to embark on the trip. We were later taken to a camp in Libya.”
At the camp, days rolled into weeks and then came the opportunity he had been waiting for. He was eager to risk it all by crossing into Europe through the Mediterranean.
“I was in Garian prison. I went to prison four times. Being in prison in Libya is worse than hell. The Arabs value their dogs more than the lives of Nigerian migrants. If any of us were unlucky to be singled out by them, the rest of that day would be full of pain because they tortured us as a pastime,” he recounted.
At the prison, communication among male and female Nigerian prisoners was highly prohibited as their captors laced into anyone caught. Those who succumbed to the injuries sustained had their vital organs harvested and sold by their tormentors and their mutilated bodies discarded, Sunday PUNCH learnt.
“The sale of human organs by the Arabs at the prison where we were kept is normal. Those people are just heartless. We were not allowed to interact with the women among us. Any Nigerian man caught talking to a Nigerian woman would be brought out of the prison and killed with an acidic substance. There was an African collaborator among the Arabs who usually joined them in flogging us,” said Otoide.
Luckily, succour came his way in 2018 when he was rescued after some journalists visited the prison and published reports about the pathetic life of migrants in Libya.
“I regretted my action; I wasted N650,000 which I raised through my savings, family and friends, on the trip and had to start from scratch when I was lucky to return to Nigeria,” he said.
Otoide was lucky to have survived the tortuous journey and returned home safely but Tope, a 26-year-old from Sagamu in Ogun State, wasn’t. At 21, she aspired to earn a degree in Business Administration and Entrepreneurship at the National Open University and go into business. But that dream crashed when her dad could not bear the burden of catering for his five wives and children. In 2015, she dropped out of school.
Frustrated by her inability to secure employment after dropping out of the university, she received a tempting invitation from her mother’s friend, identified as Yetunde, to move to Libya in search of a new lease of life with open arms. But that move in 2015 destroyed an important part of her life that has remained irreparable.
“My mother’s friend who was like a mentor to me told me I would work as a house help for four months to enable me to start a business of my own. Since she was my mother’s friend and like a mother to me, I believed her. But when I got to Libya everything changed,” she explained.
Tope’s voice quivered as she recalled how, on arrival in Tripoli, Yetunde allegedly ‘sold’ her to a Ghanaian for an undisclosed sum, changed her name to Aishat Braimoh and gave her a fake Ghanaian passport.
“She told me I would work for the man as a house help for one year. I lost my freedom, my right to worship as a Christian and watched my life wasting. That experience taught me not to trust anyone in this life. The Ghanaian even gave me away as a bride price when he wanted to get married,” she added.
After more than three years in servitude, she narrowly escaped from the home of her ‘owner’ and rushed to the Nigerian Embassy in search of help. After successfully registering for repatriation to Nigeria, she said she was kidnapped, objectified, serially raped and exposed to sexually transmitted diseases while preparing to return home.
She said, “I was kidnapped and taken to a prison in Tripoli. I and other female inmates were sexually molested. I was raped by different men; I was forced to sleep with as many as 10 men per day. It felt like the end of the world.
“It was in March 2018 that I succeeded in returning to Nigeria. I had to sleep at the embassy for two weeks to make sure that nothing stopped my return home. My journey to Libya left me traumatised. I am a single mother now but I use my life as a reference point when I counsel girls to avoid making the same mistake I made.”
Nigeria’s unemployment rate rose from 27.1 per cent in the second quarter of 2020 to 33.3 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2020. This, according to the Nigeria Bureau of Statistics’ report translated to 23.19 million unemployed people.
Fueled by the search for better economic opportunities, many Nigerians journey through the Sahara Desert, renowned as the largest hot desert in the world, trapped in the web of human trafficking which grosses about $150bn annually according to the International Organisation for Migration.
Nigerians are among the over 29,000 migrants who have entered Europe through the Mediterranean Sea in 2021 alone.
Out of that figure, at least 761 migrants perished in the sea within the period, said IOM Nigeria’s Chief Mission, Franz Celestin, who added that less than five per cent of the migrants made it to their preferred destinations as the vast majority were left stranded in Africa.
“A combination of unemployment and underemployment is pushing people to migrate. In 2021, 29,000 migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa have migrated to Europe through the Mediterranean. Traffickers make a lot of money and they would continue to do it until a coordinated response evolved to stop them,” Celestin said in July.
More than 21,000 Nigerians have been repatriated back to the country through various interventions including the Assisted Voluntary Returnee being coordinated by the International Organisation for Migration, Nigerian embassies in Lebanon, United States of America, the United Kingdom, Germany, Niger Republic and others.
Thirty-four-year-old Obinna Udekwe, a returnee from Anambra State, was among Nigerian migrants who could not reach the promised land. As is the case with many graduates in Nigeria, he could not secure gainful employment after completing his service year under the National Youth Service Corps in 2014.
In June 2016, he strapped a bag to his back after a call from one of his cousins in Europe and headed for Norway without valid documents. He planned to get into the Schengen zone through Italy but his encounters in the desert in Niger Republic coupled with the chthonian lifestyle in Agadez dashed his expectations.
“I saw my cousin as a God-sent who wanted to change my situation but unfortunately, he only told me about the beautiful life in Europe, not the hell one would have to pass through when travelling by road. He was told to raise N350,000 for the trip and N50,000 for any emergency that might occur either on the road or when they get to destination. But the whole thing dawned on me at Agadez in Niger Republic.
“When I got there, I saw about 1,000 people in one big compound. I noticed the lawlessness and the immoral lifestyle they were living. I saw people bearing guns and knives. That was when I started having the suspicion that I had got myself into something dangerous,” he said.
Udekwe, a graduate in Music from the Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Anambra State, told our correspondent that he stared death in the face as he journeyed through the Sahara Desert. In less than 48 hours into the trip, he had not a single drop left in the 25-litre jerrycan he had filled with water to sustain himself.
“We were 30 in the vehicle when we left Agadez but in less than 48 hours, only 21 left; nine people had died. There were lots of dead bodies in the desert, a lot of bones. People around died gradually. I almost died. I had to drink my urine to stay alive.
“We got to a place in the desert called Dirkou and saw a big well and rushed to it to fetch some water. We saw a corpse inside it but we had no other option but to drink the contaminated water; in fact, it was like milk to us. It was a nasty experience,” he recounted.
Sunday PUNCH learnt that while the journey lasted, male migrants who could not complete the payment of the fee charged for the trip were tortured repeatedly while the women were raped.
“This is Pikan Boris. He works with smugglers in Sabha; he tortured me and my fellow travellers for three months. We later met in Tripoli and lived together. Forgiveness is important in life,” Udekwe said as he showed our correspondent a photo of him posing with a dark young man.
“I had to contact my family to send N220,000 to me before I was released at Sabha. From Sabha, I went to Tripoli and worked for a while before I was arrested and thrown into prison when I attempted to cross the sea to Europe. I spent five months there and was almost shot dead by one of the policemen guarding the prison; the bullet grazed one of my legs,” he added.
There seemed to be no end to Udekwe’s misery. Like Tope, he was sold for 2,000 Libyan Dinars (N177,160) to a Libyan woman who sexually exploited him and threatened to kill him if he tried to escape. Like a beast of burden, Udekwe was used for menial jobs but the proceeds never got to him. His life as of that time could not have been more infernal.
“That woman turned me into her sex slave. She was an old woman but that did not stop her from sexually abusing me. When she had a misunderstanding with her husband, she poured her anger on me,” he said.
The Edo State Government said it suffered a bad reputation before 2015 when the state was synonymous with human trafficking as “Benin City was referred to as the capital city for prostitution”.
“For every boat that capsized, there was one Edo person there and every Edo girl that tried to travel was a suspect. Edo had about 30,000 of its citizens in Libya trying to cross to Europe. Our young people were in a hurry to leave the country and it became a problem for my administration in restoring the hope of Edo youths,” the State Governor, Mr Godwin Obaseki, said in a statement on Monday.
Obaseki, however, said his administration’s job creation initiatives and entrepreneurship programmes had helped the government address the scourge of illegal migration and human trafficking among youths in the state.
However, findings by our correspondent showed that many returnees have taken up the challenge of becoming change agents, championing different public enlightenment programmes, through various non-governmental organisations.
The South-West Coordinator of the National Emergency Management Agency, Mr Ibrahim Farinloye, told our correspondent that returnees have been playing vital roles as agents of positive change to their peers and other people who are ignorant of problems associated with irregular migration.
“NEMA and other development partners have been training most of the returnees in various skill acquisition ventures for reintegration into their community.
“Most importantly, many of them are voluntarily giving information on their personal experiences for use in the media,” Farinloye added.
Otoide, now a hairstylist in Uromi, uses his ordeal in the North African country to enlighten other Nigerians about the pain, suffering and the risk of death that comes with leaving the shores of one’s home country through unofficial channels.
A beneficiary of his effort, Greg Imiefoh, said he would have taken his chances if Otoide didn’t advise him to stay back in Nigeria.
“My brother, Nigeria is tough. I learnt how to repair refrigerators for some months but I don’t have the funding I need to open a workshop. I have friends in Europe urging me to come over but it’s too dangerous,” he said.
But campaigning against this social problem among gullible unemployed Nigerians, who have acculturated to such a venture, is onerous.
“Since I returned, I have been using myself as an example to discourage young Nigerians in my area from travelling through the wrong process. I tell them that though migration is their right, they still need to know why they want to travel and have the right documents, a visa and a flight ticket,” Otoide told our correspondent.
“One thing I noticed about Nigerians is that we always want to see examples. When I returned and started a campaign against irregular migration, most of the people we talked to told us we were preaching against it because we did not succeed in getting to Europe. I remember that some of them became confrontational, used swear words and threatened to deal with me if I didn’t leave their presence,” Otoide said.
“It was hard convincing anyone when I started. But now, we are making progress; I go to schools and churches to talk to teenagers about the dangers of taking desperate actions just to migrate to Europe so they won’t fall into the hands of human traffickers. A young man who wanted to migrate the way I did now learns a skill as a hairstylist,” he added.
A psychologist, Dr Martin Agwogie, said though open awareness creation by returnees would strengthen the activities of relevant government and international agencies, they would require constant professional guidance.
Agwogie said, “Awareness would help to discourage others from embarking on the same journey, especially because many youths are deceived into believing that they are moving to greener pastures and things like that. But in campaigning, they would require professional guidance.
“It’s not something they can do on their own without adequate supervision. They need some level of coaching by the National Agency for Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons to build their capacity.”
But with the poor state of the Nigeria economy and the increasing desperation among idle youths, dissuasion may be difficult to achieve, said Kolawole Balogun, a professor of psychology at the University of Ibadan, Oyo State.
“I doubt if such a campaign would work in the present situation Nigeria has found herself. Desperate situations call for desperate measures and many are desperate to escape the serious economic downturn facing Nigeria. To them anywhere is better than Nigeria,” Balogun, an expert in perception and attitude, explained.
“There is this hypothesis of ‘it-won’t-happen-to-me syndrome’ believing in self-delusion that the other person was not smart enough, hence the negative experience of such people. There is cognitive dissonance or consonance theory of attitude change.
“Depending on the value of each cognitive element (which is the target of the campaign message), the campaign may work or otherwise. But the messenger and the medium quality are important in doing so,” he concluded.
Considering how deeply-rooted human trafficking syndicates are in society, a professor of criminology at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Kaduna State, Prof Emmanuel Gyong, said volunteering to campaign against a criminal activity as a victim showed courage.
“It is actually patriotic for someone to campaign against what is illegal,” he added.
However, the IOM said the impact of returnees-led campaigns against irregular migration and human trafficking could not be overemphasised.
It also said it was supporting returnees through capacity-building designed to help them use their experience to address challenges of migration in their local communities, including finding home-grown solutions to solve irregular migration and trafficking in persons.
“The impact of returnees-led campaigns against irregular migration cannot be overemphasised. This was the reason behind the Migrants as Messengers project which is led by returnees themselves across seven West African countries,” it said while responding to an enquiry from our correspondent on Thursday.