West-Africa | Behind the scenes of an undercover report

“So there are signs to warn against human traffic all over on the side of the road from Lagos to Cotonou?” I ask colleague Idris Akinbajo.  “This means that they know?” Akinbajo is here, in 2011, investigating networks of illegal migrants in Amsterdam and the conversation has turned to women being trafficked from Nigeria for sex work in Europe. I have asked the question because of the many newspaper reports, in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe, that say that women from Nigeria and other ‘feeder’ countries are forced into prostitution upon arrival here. That they have been told to expect work as babysitters and chamber maids in hotels.

Akinbajo hesitates. “It is theoretically possible”, he says, “that they would not understand the signs. If they are illiterate maybe. But then there are also radio broadcasts all the time. And if they don’t want to go into prostitution, I think they could always get off as soon as they reach Cotonou. That town is in Benin, which is a different country, but it is only 100 kilometers from Lagos. Maybe you should come to Nigeria and ask the women there.”

I do not manage to get to Nigeria in person, but the conversation, later on, by email, turns to the possibilities that Akinbajo’s newspaper, Premium Times, will conduct such an investigation. It is on the 14th of May 2013 that I receive a message from him that Premium Times has assigned a reporter to investigate why so many women go with human traffickers.  The resulting story will be published both by ZAM Chronicle and Premium Times. “Her name is Tobore Ovuorie and she is all good to go.”

African women are not naive

In the following days we talk on email: Premium Times editors, Tobore Ovuorie and I. I put the story plan to her. Can she interview women who are targets of human traffickers?  Go on a border road trip with a consignment of trafficked women from Lagos to Cotonou?  We have a colleague in Cotonou, health reporter Reece Adanwenon, who could meet her there and arrange for transport back.  “Definitely, I am excited and quite interested in being part of this”, Tobore says.

I mention the key question.  Are the traffickers forcing the women into prostitution or are they merely smuggling them with their cooperation? Do the women know what they are in for? Tobore answers as if she already knows some who consider, or have considered, being trafficked (I will later learn that this is true). “(Ignorance) is not the whole truth. African women, especially girls, these days, are not naïve; they are smarter than themselves!”

We conclude provisionally that that image of very naïve, ignorant women may do a disservice to willing sex work migrants.  It may play right into the hands of the trafficking syndicates, making women, if they went into prostitution willingly, feel guilty and complicit -and therefore more dependent on their traffickers. “Legalizing sex work is a good debate”, says Ovuorie, adding that it is a difficult one in Nigeria because “we are such a pretentiously religious nation!”

Risk analysis

Tobore and I then talk to Reece Adanwenon in Cotonou, who is also excited about the story. “It would be great if we could interview the women Tobore will be travelling with, even if anonymous. I am interested, too, to know if they are forced or if they travel willingly.” Reece has done stories about sex workers in Cotonou’s red light district before and is aware that there is a lot to interrogate and discover. She undertakes to be on call to help extract Tobore from any Lagos transport that she is taking. According to Reece, there are probably several such transports every single day.

Which doesn’t mean that going on such a transport won’t be risky. Now that the reporters and the story idea are in place, we need to discuss risk analysis. On 23 May I write to Idris Akinbajo, now investigations editor at Premium Times, to suggest that we put a safety net in place, with telephone contacts, emergency money, physical help, etcetera, close to wherever Tobore may find herself. Knowing that Premium Times reporters live and work in Nigeria, where journalists are often threatened by violence, and that Idris and his team are quite used to this, I add: “Maybe I am overly worried. But it is the first time, I think, that a female journalist goes undercover as a prostitute?”

Idris responds on the same day. “I understand your fears and they are genuine. I've discussed with Tobore on her proposal and the risks inherent. Truth is, there is hardly any other way she could get the information needed for the story.  Tobore is a determined lady.  We will do all we can to minimise and hopefully eliminate the risks.”

Fumes and tabs

In the next few months, whilst Tobore walks the streets of Abuja dressed up as a call girl, infiltrating the milieus where the traffickers operate, Akinbajo and his chief editors, Musikilu Mojeed and Dapo Olorunyomi, make efforts to get her some protection. After much discussion they decide against involving Nigerian security agencies for fear they may have been infiltrated by criminals–as many Nigerian state institutions have. But they do alert some trusted individuals in the security sector to keep tabs on Tobore.  Additionally, Tobore knows that she mustn’t be alone with traffickers and ensure that she stays with the group at all times.  As soon as she goes on the transport, Idris Akinbajo and his fellow editors will keep their phones on 24/7 to ensure they don’t miss any call for help.  And in the end, I tell myself, how much can happen during a minibus trip between Lagos and Cotonou?

On the 10th of October, I receive a Facebook message from Tobore saying that she has been hospitalised “during the course of attending a party organized by some of the pimps last week Sunday.”  Shen tells me that she “inhaled so much cigarette fumes and other banned substances”, that she had an asthma attack and that she was on “oxygen, nebulizer, drips and injections in the hospital until Wednesday afternoon.” 

After her discharge from hospital Tobore goes back to her work in the streets, waiting for ‘her bosses’ at Premium Times to give her the go ahead to join a Cotonou transport. “I am really eager to get this story done”, she says a number of times, implying, with frustration, that her bosses seem to be dragging their feet. She is passionate about doing this. Maybe too passionate.

Women in burka

We finally meet in person at the African Investigative Journalism Conference in Johannesburg on 28 October. Standing in the doorway to Wits University’s restaurant the Origins Centre, thin as a reek, poised, made up and serious, with glasses, she is very different from the happy, cheerful pictures she posts on social media.  Based on the girlish, jolly poses –with friends, at parties, next to a fountain- , she likes to adopt, the pink and orange summer dresses and all the laughing, I had feared that she, even if passionate, might be too lighthearted and reckless to fully understand what she was getting into.

But in the Origins Centre, Tobore talks of a woman she has interviewed, recently returned from brothels in Algeria, suffering from Aids as well as anal gonorrhoea.  Of a man who has been sexually abused so severely in Russia that he has suffered intestinal damage and is now vegetating back in his village. She tells me of the ‘hypocritical religious communities’ where doctors refused to treat those who have been ‘bad girls and boys’. Of women in burka, who ply their trade on the road to Kano airport in the north.  “It’s not always poverty, but families are greedy. They will encourage their girls to do this, whilst pretending to the outside world that they are the purest of the pure.” Of a close friend who died of Aids after a trafficked stint in Italy, and highly placed officials, who can be seen in church every Sunday, but who are clients of prostitutes, even of little girls and boys.

This Tobore Ovuorie is not a happy-go-lucky young journalist, merely excited about a challenging assignment. She talks and talks, quietly, denouncing, unhaltingly, as if she wants to say everything now already, just in case. It’s not the prostitution that makes her mad. It is the abuse, the powerlessness, and, most of all, the hypocrisy. The monsters at the top of the syndicates, the officials in power who work with them.  She shakes her head when I tell her, once again, that she doesn’t have to go through with this. With a quiet, steely, anger, she says she is going to.
At this point –maybe it is also the olive green suit she is wearing- she reminds me of the guerrilla students I interviewed in the eighties in Central America: youngsters equally determined to take up arms to fight the dictatorships whose death squads terrorized the population. But is this journalism, or activism?  “Maybe I am an activist journalist”, she says. “But they need to be exposed. And that is what I am going to do.”  Our colleague, Ghanaian investigative journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas, also sitting at our table –I wanted the two to meet- nods. He knows. He has been in confined spaces with armed criminals, too.

Shaved and beaten

A week later, Tobore texts us that she is about to go with the syndicate to Cotonou. First, the message reads, she is to go for ‘pickpocketing training’, but then the transport will leave. That is the last I hear of her for another maddening three days.  (I later understand that she has had no internet access, but has been in touch, via SMS, with her editors in Nigeria.)

Three days. It doesn’t take three days to get to Cotonou. I contact Reece. Nothing. 

It is the 9th of November when Reece contacts me on Facebook. “I am with Tobore.”  I call and hear that Reece and Tobore are together on the other end, but the connection is bad and I can’t hear what they say. We revert back to Facebook. Reece has put Tobore on. “Morning. My hair was shaved yesterday by a native doctor. Right now I have no hair on my head.” I smile, assuming that shaving must be part of the strange voodoo rites that trafficked women in Nigeria are subjected to, to impress obedience on them because ‘if they talk, the demons will get them’. We have heard quite a few such stories.

I suggest a wig, new clothes. If the pimps are after her, she should disguise herself.  As I am typing, she continues to type too. About her escape, about the native doctors, about having been accused of harbouring a ‘bad spirit’. I am still smiling, thinking that even if she is bald, she is alive and talking and reporting, so all is probably well.  I type in some extra advice, trying to impress on her that she is not safe yet, that the criminals will have friends in Cotonou, that she may be followed. I don’t see the new message that appears. “The madam turned out to be a ritualist. Also deals in human sacrifice.” I miss it because I am typing, rattling on about the wig she should buy.

She doesn’t bring it up again in the following days. She only mentions that the witch doctors beat her. Reece has taken her to a doctor, and she has been prescribed pain killers and sleeping tablets.  A few days later, Reece and some friendly Beninese officials help –informally- to get Tobore back to the border, where she crosses, again illegally, and takes a taxi back to Abuja, where she is met by Dapo Olorunyomi. I feel terrible about the shaving and the beating, but am also mightily relieved that she is safe.  And, apparently, also in good spirits. “The criminals know my name because they took my passport, but I still want to publish under my own name anyway. I will need to go underground for some time.”  “I salute your courage”, I write, still not knowing exactly how much courage it is that I am talking about.

What does ‘slaughtered’ mean?

I’ll find that out when, on 28 November, the attachment –Tobore’s story- lands in my email. I read with fascination until I get stuck at a sentence. “There are screams as the two are slaughtered in front of me”, it reads. ‘Slaughtered?” What does she mean slaughtered? I send her an email immediately. “Do you mean beaten”? No”, the answer comes. “Beheaded and slaughtered, murdered. For the sale of their body parts. For rituals.”

They had pointed at Tobore first. Tobore could have been beheaded, cut up, murdered. But the story explains that one of the witch doctors apparently told the traffickers that a powerful spirit was protecting her. That she should be sent away. What is going on with these witch doctors? Did they check Tobore's background and decided that she was, in fact, 'protected'? We still don't have answers to these questions even now.

It is only then that I slowly start to understand how it works. How the syndicates will make money out of people, be it from sex work, bank fraud, drugs, or body parts. How they work together, different specialities, same network. How they link with the criminally infiltrated Nigerian state, how witch doctors, putting fear of 'demons' in the hearts of adventurous young people, are on their payroll. How sex workers have been driven into their nets because they provide the only way out of Nigeria. How they provide the clients, the brothels, the routes.

This is what Tobore has been saying all along. Criminalisation of women whose only crime is to look for greener pastures, are made dependent on monsters who expose them to unsafe sex and send them home to die, who simply cut them up if they happen to be worth more dead than alive.

These are the criminals Tobore has been so hell bent in exposing, and she has done just that. This little sprig of a thing with her orange dresses and happy poses on Facebook.

Nervous breakdown

Shortly after writing the story, holed up in a safe house, she has a nervous breakdown. It is no surprise, of course. But during her sleepless, nightmarish days, and nights, where she tries to recover, we keep writing to one another. I nominate her for all the awards I can think of. Premium Times sees to it that she is shielded and gets treatment. She gets better, slowly, and responds elatedly when she hears that other international media (in South Africa, Netherlands and Belgium) are co-publishing the story.

It is during this period that a progressive weekly in another western country refuses to carry the story because the part about murderous witch doctors 'may confirm cliche's about Africans.' Tobore can’t believe her ears. “Surely the fact that some persons were found (doing this) does not apply to all Africans? Just like families have a potpourri of the good, bad and ugly, so do societies, be they European or African.”

After the rush is over, I ask her if she has no regrets. The answer comes within an hour:  “It’s true that it was risky. But I am grateful that I did it. I just can’t stand by while these things happen in my country. My sisters and brothers are dying and I had to do something about it.” Was signed: Tobore Ovuorie, investigative journalist in Nigeria.

Tobore Ovuorie’s expose led to a Nigerian government investigation and to questions in the European parliament. The story is also the subject of a case study by an institute of journalism training in Nigeria and has formed the basis for a new cross-border investigation into trafficked sex workers in Europe, in which ZAM and Premium Times are participating. 

Evelyn Groenink (1960) is ZAM Chronicle's investigations editor.