By Chimezie Anyakora
I cannot remember the last time I was so ashamed of my country. I arrived here in Bamako as an invited speaker in a conference. This is my second time in two years. During my first visit I had no opportunity of seeing much of the country. But this time around I wanted to tour Bamako. I got to know that on Sundays there are Masses for Nigerians and that was great news for me. I went with so much excitement to visit my kith and kin in foreign land and perhaps offer whatever advice or service I can to those who need it. My excitement waned when I saw these young men troop in. They were all Nigerians but most of them looked dejected. As the Mass went on I kept asking myself why somebody should leave the giant of Africa to come to this country without a profession. The day before I met a young Nigerian, who showed me his shanty barbing shop, I had to hold back tears. You mean there are no hairs to cut in Nigeria that you have to come all the way for this, I wondered.
Back to my story. Before the Mass ended a young man in his early thirties approached and asked for help. He needed 5000 CFAs for a dental procedure and he did not have it. He told me his story. He was in prison for ten years; right now he has nothing doing. Painfully I helped the much I could and escaped fast from that company because I was different, well dressed, oily and smiling face. So I stood out, most of the faces wore frustration, suffering and hopelessness. As the taxi took me back to my hotel I could not stop thinking of a generation of young men whose country has failed them. The church was packed full and over 90% of the participants are young men between the ages of 20 and 40. My first time of seeing such a large crowd of Nigerian youth outside Nigeria.
I felt the story should not end there so I thought perhaps I can be a form hope to these people. I went back to a community leader to know about my people. I wept the day before, but after talking with this gentleman I could not stop wailing for my country. He told me that most of the people that I saw were jobless. They begged for money. They are just hoping to ‘make it’ one day. He told me of all he had done to encourage these young men to go back home but they would not because they have nothing to do at home. He told me of the humiliation that Nigerians receive in the country. He told me of how most of these people left the country in search of greener pastures, and are scared of going back without finding it. For them their country offers no future, no hope but here in Mali perhaps a glimmer of hope still resides. I thought of several other African countries where Nigerians have turned to refugees. I can understand those who are refugees in America, Canada and Europe but in such a poor country.
The heart rending part is the multitude of Nigerian girls between 17 and 20 who are prostitutes in Mali. As we speak hundreds come into these countries for that purpose. There are many Nigeria ‘capo’ ladies who run prostitute rings. One of them has three thousand Nigerian girls working as prostitutes for her. Who are the customers of these Nigerian girls? They are beggars, artisan, herdsmen and all sorts of people. This is a real life story in the twenty first century. All these girls are made to prostitute until they are able to earn 1.5 million CFAs for their owners. Once they are able to pay that they are freed. After their freedom most continue in the business since they cannot think a different way of life. And I asked can’t they run. The answer is no. They are initiated into a cult and threatened with all sorts terrifying stories of the implication of disloyalty. Many of the girls came here hoping to be given jobs as waiters or hair dressers while others came in knowing that they are coming for prostitution. In some cases parents pressurized their daughters to go.
Thousands of young girls being destroyed forever because they cannot be redeemed unless there is a miracle. There has been some effort by well meaning Nigerians here to aid the escape of a few of these young girls. A few have escaped but many will not be so lucky. These escape missions are like what the ones organized for the Jews during the Second World War. The girls to be rescued are housed in a safe house until there is a trusted person who is going back to Nigeria to accompany them, otherwise they will be recaptured and sent back. These crooks have agents in Cotonou and Lagos. According to some rescued girls it works this way. The girls are sent to Lagos from their villages with a number to call when they arrive. They contact person in Lagos facilitates their trip to Cotonou and give them a number to call when they arrive. At Cotonou the contact person organizes their trip to Bamako. As soon as they arrive they are shared like commodities to the different ‘capo’ ladies who run the ring, and the rest is history.
These girls are debased, converted into sex machines. Every morning they are made to tie wrapper on their chest and sit in front of their rooms waiting and beckoning on customers. They have to make 1.5 million CFAs before they are freed. I do not know how much they are paid by their customers but considering the caliber of these patrons it must be a token. They have to accumulate this until it is up to 1.5 million CFAs. I have the impression that they will do this for ages. And there is a supply chain as people get their freedom; others are imported from Nigeria to replace them.
A big shame on our country, generations of Malians are growing up to see Nigeria as a country where cheap prostitutes are imported from. Imagine the image and the dent on our national pride. The painful aspect is that most of the people that run these rings are known. Someone told me that what he just needs is a letter from the Nigerian government authorizing him to rescue them. He is not alone, many feel the same way. They feel ashamed, they feel handicapped. I was reliable informed that the ambassador wanted to act but got little encouragement from Abuja. This article is a call for action. All of us can do something to put whatever pressure we can on our leaders. We can make it happen. These girls are held against their will and they are Nigerian citizens. More people are been shipped every day. This is modern day slavery.
The ‘capo’ ladies that run this cartel pay heavily to the Malian police to look the other way. Trust Nigerians. There should be a high level interaction between the two governments. The perpetrators should be extradited and our citizens rescued. Rebranding Nigeria should go beyond adverts and sweet talk. For the millions of Malians who see Nigeria as a country where prostitutes are imported, rebranding Nigeria should be to see it stopped. The agency responsible for stopping human trafficking should know that it is beyond staying in air conditioned offices in Abuja and give speeches and talks. You have to roll your sleeves be in the field. The perpetrators are making money from it and cannot be stopped from an air conditioned offices in Abuja. The agency has to mobilize the resources required and count on many Nigerians in foreign land who feel so ashamed and hurt and ready to cooperate in restoring the dignity of our country.
A country that cannot protect and carter for its citizens is a failed state. The confidence that you count is a great motivation to be patriotic. These girls need and deserve whatever it takes on the part of their country to be rescued them. It requires utmost urgency. These destroyed girls will eventually get back to Nigeria with all sorts of diseases of mind and body to distribute to the population. A sick population is a weak population. Our youth need to be given some hope. Many young men and women still think hope is found anywhere but in Nigeria. There is a great clamor for a messiah. Our youth want to count. The future is bleak if the youth is neglected and the sense of self worth disappears.
I believe we can all do something. Let us rescue our country from shame. I have moved around this city for days with great pride of being a Nigerian. I told anybody that cared to hear I am Nigerian and we are the giant of Africa. The remaining days here will be sober for me. My first reaction after all this was to hide my nationality so that I do not get associated with such shame. But on second thought I decided otherwise, I want to be the other face of Nigeria here. I want to the real Nigerian image. We are not all refugees.
Dr. Anyakora is a Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Lagos. He contributed this piece from Bamako