Scandalised by the increasing number of Edo indigenes being freighted home from Libya as stranded illegal migrants to Europe, Edo State governor, Godwin Obaseki has worked out measures to deal with issue frontally. Kingsley Alu writes.
In the 1990s, many Nigerians especially Edo women got obsessed with migrating to Italy for greener pastures. The migration soon birthed high-wired trans-Atlantic cartels rings whose merchandise are unsuspecting ambitious youths, who are ferried across the Mediterranean Sea for rackets that are mostly prostitution, drug trafficking and household slavery.
Some of the youths came back from Italy loaded with cash and erected mansions in their communities to the applaud of their parents. Some other parents even went as far as selling their properties to ensure their daughters were trafficked abroad, while some victims willingly went to native doctors to swear allegiance to their sponsors. Italy to them became the Promised Land, and Europe, where the streets flowed with milk and honey and money available like grass.
On the flip side those sojourners often have to deal with debilitating diseases, jail terms, regret, and untimely death. Just last November, the bodies of 26 Nigerian women and girls were recovered from the Mediterranean Sea, dead, as they tried to make their way into Europe, said the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). According to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC), more than nine in 10 Nigerian women smuggled to Europe come from Edo.
But this trend is changing, as Governor Godwin Obaseki recently, in an unprecedented show of compassion approved N150million and 100 hactares of land to be made available to a crop of Libya returnees, who had undergone skills acquisition training in agriculture in Benin city.
Organised by the state government, such training for indigenes of the state is a novel strategy to reintegrate back into society. The programme is to be anchored by the Benin Owena River Basin Authority and the State Agricultural Development Project, assuring that it is a model built to last. This is a product from a journey that started in May, 2017.
Facing the Monster
In May, the Government of Edo State hosted the president of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, Laura Boldrini at a seminar in the state. The occasion was part of the government’s effort to seek collaboration with the Italian state in the fight against human trafficking. Governor Godwin Obaseki has been blunt about the issue of human trafficking and has been confronting it squarely. “My government takes the issue of human trafficking very seriously,” he told delegates at the May seminar. “For us it is a major crime, it is the modern day slavery. This is threatening the survival of our people when the people who benefit from this trade are not from Edo State but they have a well-developed worldwide system to exploit innocent people.”
According to the state government’s data, about 37,000 illegal immigrants were arrested in Europe and about 15,000 of them were from Edo and Delta, a neighbouring state. That’s almost half of immigration criminals, more than enough to earn the region a notorious reputation as a breeding ground for rogues.
“So I think it is an issue we can no longer trivialise,” Obaseki said. “This is an issue that has to do with the survival of our people, it is an issue we must deal with urgently. So I am not afraid politically to talk about it, it is not a political issue any more, everybody is affected. The greatest challenge is to deal with the godfathers of trafficking and this is where we need the help of the international community and security agents to help us. These are business people, they have bank accounts in Europe, they have agents who come here to recruit people, we should be able to establish who these people are and prosecute them.
“We in Edo state are prepared to give our best to fight this wicked act. We are going to domesticate the law so that we will make it effective that human trafficking is as bad as kidnapping if not worst. And for those who survived it we will give them opportunity to be rehabilitated. We are going to strengthen our institutions to work with the federal government on this issue.
“At the political level we will do what we need to do and make the relevant appointment. We will train these victims, rehabilitate them and integrate them into the society. And the Edo state government is ready to pay the money which these so called traffickers have demanded from their victims so we can free them.
“Trafficking is a threat that I think we all must deal with; it is not something we should be ashamed of anymore. Those victims will be first priority in our job creation initiative. Religious institutions and traditional institutions must now rise up to be part of this. When religious institutions are praying for people to get visas to Europe, we thought it was a right thing to do, now look at the problem it has created. The church, the mosque, royal fathers, now need to make this a priority because they know what we are talking about and we must fight it together.”
The good thing about Obaseki’s battle cry is that he followed it with actions. Months later, the Edo state government has taken giant steps in curbing human trafficking in the state through well thought out measures.
Criminalising illegal migration
In October, at the flag-off of a state-wide sensitisation workshop on human trafficking and illegal migration, the state government disclosed plans to enact laws against human trafficking as part of its measures to stop the wicked racket. Speaking at the workshop, the state’s attorney general/commissioner for Justice, Prof Yinka Omorogbe, said the government was working on a law to ensure perpetrators who aid human trafficking and illegal migration are sentenced to jail without the option of fine.
“All hands must be on deck to support this drive in curtailing the menace, which has damaged the reputation of the state,” he said.
Prof. Omorogbe is also the chairperson of the Edo State Taskforce on Human Trafficking, which is a collaboration between the government and international agencies such as the European Union. These kinds of collaboration is important to put an end to the illicit trade as brilliantly pointed out by Mr. Obaseki last month when he visited Italy.
Comforting the broken
This December, no fewer than 98 Edo indigenes arrived in Benin from Libya with the help of the IOM and the state government. Earlier this year, the state had received three batches of over 200 returnees, also from Libya, where they had hoped to cross the Mediterranean into Europe.
The Edo state government’s approach to these returnees have not been just to wave cardboards at the airport, ferry them to their homes and forgot about them. Instead, the government has decided to give these misguided young people another shot at life through empowering them.
Earlier this year, Obaseki approved an agricultural development scheme for some of these returnee migrants, noting that the scheme would go a long way in making them responsible; build and enhance their capacity in agro-allied business and create a template for youth empowerment. “We are focused on helping to provide exemplary standard for intending migrants and ensure there is food security as part of efforts to end severe hunger, poverty and unemployment in the state,” he said.
Secretary to the state’s Human Trafficking Taskforce, Mrs. Abieyuwa Oyemwense has also said that the government has set up different programmes to train the returnees in different skills, and those who wish to return to school will be assisted to do so. “In addition, government is also paying them monthly stipends for three months,” she disclosed, while receiving the latest batch of returnee migrants.
To see that this relief project is not botched due to the lack of funds, Mr. Obaseki has also been campaigning for international support. In November, he was in Italy speaking at a conference organised by Boldrini, the Italian Chamber of Deputies’ President who had visited Benin-city earlier in the year.
“We are spending a lot to reintegrate these young people into the society and we anticipate that the expenses would be more in the nearest future,” Mr. Obaseki said. “We solicit for support from the European Union, the Italian government as well as other countries affected by this menace to be able to sustain the structures we have set up in the state.
“All parties affected by the menace of human trafficking, both the countries of origin and the destination countries stand to benefit from the system we have set up in Edo State to engage these youths, which would give them no reason to contemplate migrating illegally. So, we want to strengthen these structures in Edo State to make stay back and work gainfully in the preferred choice,” he said.
Reviving the economy as way out
Irregular migration, the kind which Edo people have engaged with vigour within the last two decades, comes down to bad economic and political conditions because no one decides to leave a prosperous home to venture into an unknown future fraught with danger. This is why the Obaseki administration’s move to develop Edo state’s economy is seen as masterstroke against human trafficking in the state. A prosperous economy means more jobs, more wealth for Edo people, a phenomenon which will no doubt eliminate the need to seek greener pastures in unknown distant lands.
Recently, the state government hosted the federal government and notable industrialists at the Alaghodaro Investment Summit, an initiative designed to attract capital into the state. “Our goal is to utilise our endowments, particularly the available energy and logistical advantage so that we can become a major industrial hub,” Obaseki said at the event.
Even President Muhammadu Buhari is in doubt that Mr. Obaseki is on the right track to restoring Edo’s glory. “I am impressed and delighted at the way the governor is going about his work. He is bringing his energy, network and intellect to bear,” President Buhari said at the summit.
More importantly, Obaseki believes in working with others to achieve a common goal. “This administration has an open-door policy to collaborations,” Obaseki told some Catholic Bishops last October. “We are willing to work with anyone that has a mission to support our efforts to improve education, social welfare and health care system. These sectors are capable of bringing about desired social change in the state,” he added.