Nigerian investigative journalist Tobore Ovuorie went undercover in a human traffic transport to report from within on criminal trafficking syndicates and their activities.

What she witnessed, reported elsewhere in this issue, is beyond horrific: a fellow trafficked woman and a trafficked young man were deemed to be more ‘profitable’ for their organs than as prostitutes. They were murdered in front of the undercover reporter.

When we first circulated Ovuorie’s report within our own Amsterdam-based circles, the responses were understandably shocked.  But, interestingly, rather than calling for immediate international and targeted action against the syndicates who enslave, torture and kill women, virtually all respondents expressed concern that publishing the story as she wrote it would ‘confirm clichés about Africans’. “Surely we don’t want the readers to think that Africans are savages?” was a question asked by several.

The fear of ‘confirming clichés’ was particularly strong with respect to the ‘witchcraft’ aspects of the murders perpetrated by Ovuorie’s traffickers. The problem wasn’t so much that these people were capable of murder, or even that people were killed for their organs, but that the value of the organs was their perceived magical powers. This ‘witchcraft’ element, more than anything else, was seen to ‘confirm primitive stereotypes’ and we should therefore be very careful about publishing such a story.

Though we are aware that ZAM Chronicle must not come across as a sensationalistic reinforcer of ideas of African ‘primitivity’, and that our international audiences must be empowered with contextualised information, rather than beaten into shock, we felt it would be wrong to ignore the story. We even resolved to give it more prominence than originally planned. These were the reasons.

Potions and gurus

Ovuorie’s undercover report consists of important personal observations, coupled with years of research and experience with human traffickers and their victims in Nigeria. It is not just a true account, but an extremely powerful, not to mention incredibly brave, first-hand witness report by an expert researcher on an important subject. Silencing it would confirm a lot of stereotypes about the bias of international Western-based media, who are often accused of ignoring the courageous work done by African investigative journalists.

That there are people who believe in magic is not a racist slur; it is a true phenomenon of all ages, places and times. In pre-industrial nations the manifestations are generally similar to the witchcraft in Shakespeare’s plays: witches with cauldrons, potions with magical ingredients (see also our essay ‘Macbeth in Cameroon’). In post-industrial nations, magical power is more often attached to business gurus, ‘natural cures’ for diseases and fad diets.  In countries that have been affected by (often unseen) foreign powers’ interference (white colonialists have been termed ‘witches’ in many nations,) political power has become associated with witchcraft. The 19th century socialist economist Karl Marx made the point that behaviour is determined by social being; hence, behaviour will differ according to the societies we live in and the forces we perceive to be at work inside these societies.  (See also the interview with Ovuorie here.)

Criminals will deal in everything that makes money, and the more ruthless they are, the more they will kill for their merchandise, be it mail order brides, drugs, weapons or organs. In Kosovo, criminals shot people through the head before harvesting their organs inside a clinic for sale as medical transplants. This confirms true stereotypes about ruthless criminals; not about people from Eastern Europe.

Criminals and sex workers

Most importantly however, stands the fact that if any global action should be taken against the criminal syndicates that commit such horrific acts, the international community should base its actions on well-researched information, including well-researched information from journalists who hail from the places where these crimes take place. They are placed to be the best informed, particularly when of the calibre of Tobore Ovuorie’s paper, the Premium Times, which receives regular international awards for its committed investigations and exposure of the criminal syndicates that, regrettably, hold a lot of power in Nigeria. Ovuorie herself was recently awarded a Wole Soyinka prize for her tracking of mafias in the field of official document forgery and defective malaria nets.

When someone like Ovuorie tells us that the problem is not a lack of ‘awareness’ (and that therefore many ‘awareness campaigns’ are a waste of money) since all the women she interviewed went into cross-border prostitution willingly, we need to listen. It is us who need to be made aware, by her and her team, that a much bigger problem is the syndicates’ power over aspiring ‘sex work migrant’ women, and the fact that these syndicates have branched out into all forms of crime, including organ traffic. Equally importantly, the international community needs to be made aware of the fact that the criminals have infiltrated government to such an extent that their power now reaches into embassies as well as departments that are supposed to fight human traffic.

Ignoring her report would be a disservice to Nigerian and other trafficked women and the only organ owners we would be helping would be ourselves and our own bleeding hearts.