When Abuja Follows You To Abidjan

Their Ivorian dreams had already failed - then the Nigerian Embassy turned them into nightmares.

“Sir, I have spent many years here and if I open my mouth to tell you what is going on here. More than 2000 Nigerian girls between the ages of 17-25 are in jail over here. Thousands of Nigerian girls here are into prostitution. They were promised a job here, but when they get here they are forced into prostitution. But the prostitution part and their madam is a story for another day.”

It is Thursday February 4, 2021 and I am in a canoe.

The exact sequence of events and decisions that have led me to this point would read like a convoluted Nollywood movie storyline, but all events and characters described in this story are as real as the water slapping the sides of the tiny vessel. The canoe itself is a small, creaky contraption that is only large enough to hold two people at a time. While a wiry old man stands over me and paddles silently, I shut my eyes and sit still, trying not to think about the fact that I cannot swim to save my life.

It occurs to me that if the paddler makes any noise while rowing, we could be welcomed at the shoreline by a line of hostile AK-47 wielding, Francophone gendarmes. This is after all, technically an illegal border crossing from Ghana to Cote d’Ivoire, and suddenly it no longer feels like the brightest idea I have ever come up with. It is barely 25 hours since I have arrived in Ghana enroute Abidjan with the objective of scoring a John Allan Namu-style scoop of the decade.

Several anonymous tips have provided a tantalising trail of breadcrumbs which - if my mission is successful - will come together in a shocking story about human trafficking, international organised crime and Nigerian diplomatic cooperation with the West African underworld. Due to my noisy professional reputation across the region, flying into Abidjan is out of the question. It would be like announcing to the Ivorian authorities that a troublesome Nigerian journalist on the run from his government is in town to bring his trouble to them. One phone call in a tiny white room at Félix Houphouët Boigny International Airport, and I’d be Umaru Dikko-ed to Abuja.

My alternative is to take a 7-hour roadtrip from Accra to the border town of Elubo and find my way across the border in the finest, time-honoured West African tradition of undocumented travel. Upon crossing into Cote d’Ivoire, I will then do the 3-hour roadtrip to Abidjan and arrive in Francophone West Africa’s commercial capital as an anonymous nobody. My contacts have given me the names of several neighbourhoods in Abidjan where I can observe Cote d’Ivoire’s booming Nigerian flesh trade and hopefully find what I am looking for.

What this idea did not account for was that the border between Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire at Elubo is demarcated by a river. Short of a trip across the official border post which is closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, the only way into West Africa’s largest Francophone country is via a silent trip in this rickety canoe. The vessel finally brushes the muddy shoreline and the old man beckons me to get up quietly, make my way up into the shrubbery and duck while I wait for him to come back with my guide.

After what seems like an eternity spent swatting several interesting species of Ivorian insects who have busied themselves tormenting this unusual piece of Nigerian meat, my guide finally emerges from the shoreline. Maybe it is a type of euphoria, or maybe it is my journalistic instincts kicking in, but I am suddenly seized with a desire to document this moment, so I whip out my phone and take a picture in the fading daylight.

*click*

The Girl From Ibadan and What Happened Next

“The Nigerian embassy staff are in collaboration with some Nigerian touts here. They arrest girls and accuse them of trafficking then ask them to pay 4 million naira and if you don't meet up with the deadline they send you to jail. There's this popular man called Bello, this vagabond has jailed more than 2000 Nigerian girls and has made over 600million naira in this business. Some girls die in prison. They don't make it out alive. The Nigerian embassy looks the other way while Ghana, Mali, Burkina faso and so many other small countries visit their people and secure their freedom.”

There are no reliable figures for the number of women and girls who are trafficked every year from Nigeria into sex work abroad. The available figures mostly focus on the number of Nigerian women trafficked along the West African migrant route starting in the Nigerien city of Agadez and terminating on Europe’s Mediterranean coast, via a stopover in Libya.

According to International Organisation for Migration (IOM) records, the number of sex trafficking victims from Nigeria arriving in Libya in 2016 topped 11,000. What often goes unreported is the amount of Nigerian sex trafficking that targets West African markets. For the pimps and madams involved in the sex trade, relatively stable countries with pockets of wealth like Benin, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire represent a new frontier and an alternative to Nigeria’s saturated underworld.

In the Ghanaian capital Accra, neighbourhoods like East Legon’s Lagos Street, Circle and Osu are known colloquially as hotspots for Nigerian sex workers. In Cote d’Ivoire’s commercial capital Abidjan, neighbourhoods such as Treichville, Yopougon, Bracodi, Gonzagville, Abobo, Anani, Portbouet, Kpologo and Adjame are known as home to thousands of Nigerian women working in the city’s bustling sex trade.

It is not hard to see the allure, both for the gangsters controlling Abidjan’s Nigerian sex trade and the women who often voluntarily make the 1,000KM journey from Lagos to Abidjan to work in the Ivorian sex industry. The country has a per capita GDP roughly equal to that of Nigeria, a population of 25 million, a relatively stable government and many established pockets of wealth controlled by French, Lebanese, Chinese and Ivorian residents. It gives them the advantage of being sufficently far away from home as to be completely anonymous, as well as a large population of men seeking a good time with the means to pay for it.

Often, desperate Nigerian immigrant women voluntarily arrive in Cote d’Ivoire hoping to get a job or start a business, only to realise very quickly that there is only one line of work that is open and easily accessible to them. When this happens, they have the choice to either return home empty-handed or take what is offered so as to make some money to send home. Most choose the latter, reasoning that it is worse to go back to their families with nothing. Their cash-strapped families back home often understand the situation, so no questions are asked, and no answers are volunteered.

One of such women is Itunu Olajumoke Babalola. You might remember her from earlier this year when her story went viral with the #JusticeForItunu hashtag on social media. Having arrived in Bondoukou, Cote d’Ivoire as a teenager from Ibadan, she made the choice so many others before her were forced to make, so as to take care of her aged and ailing parents back home. A full summary of what happened to her is available in the screenshots below:

What would make Itunu’s sad story truly shocking was not even the actions of the Ivorian police and public prosecution, but the involvement of the Nigerian Embassy in prolonging her ongoing ordeal. While other ECOWAS states regularly get their citizens out of prison in Cote d’Ivoire - even while facing charges like murder - Nigeria’s Ivorian embassy is not working for Nigerian citizens, but rather allegedly collaborating with gangsters and hostile foreign authorities to extort and exploit them in a foreign land.

More on that later. For now, we rejoin the story at the point where my guide and I successfully crossed the Ivorian border and made our way to Abidjan.

The Curious Case of Christy Ebodaghe

"There's this particular girl's story that almost got me crying. Her name is Christy Ebodaghe. She is from Edo state. She was a month pregnant when she got here. She was promised a job and when she got here, she was forced into prostitution. After balancing her madam 2 million naira in less than two months after her arrival, she was arrested by Bello and his gang.  She was asked to pay N4M and she couldn't afford it so she was sent to jail. She gave birth there and her son is going to two yrs now. Still in jail with no hope of freedom. I tried calling the Nigerian embassy to lay a complaint, but I didn't get any useful answer so I gave up. I met her in jail during one of my visit there."

The cross-country bus we are in is only half full, supposedly due to COVID-19 restrictions. I actually paid for 3 empty seats before the driver agreed to start moving though, so that may have more to do with it. Apparently, in this corner of West Africa, the truth is whatever you make it. The gendarmes we have encountered along the highway from Elubo to Abidjan are not in the slightest bit interested in our documentation. “Assurez-vous d'avoir ta masque et cinq mille,” says our driver. (“Make sure you have your mask on and 5,000 CFA”). This combination seems to do the trick and I soon start to relax as the bright lights of Abidjan’s sprawling A100 highway come into focus.

In trying to keep my presence secret, I have not pre-booked a hotel. I begin looking at Airbnb listings in Yopougon and Treichville on my guide’s phone. I do not notice that my phone and my tablet have both slipped out of my backpack’s side pocket while it lies sideways on the floor. We arrive at our stop in Treichville, and I hop out of the front seat and start looking for a street cab to flag down. I bought a pre-registered Ivorian sim card at the border, but I do not intend to use Uber here, in case it gives away my presence to the authorities. Hold on a minute - where is my phone? And where is my tab?

A horrified half-scream comes out of my throat as I suddenly realise what has happened. The bus is already a good half kilometre down the road and fast receding. A street cab shows up, but the verb conjugation required to say “Follow that bus!” (Suives ce bus!”) does not compute inside my tired head. My Ghanaian guide speaks no French whatsoever, so all I can do is gesture frantically in the general direction of the long-disappeared bus and tell the cab driver to “Follow…! La voiture! Mes téléphones sont dans la grand voiture! Tu parlez l’anglais?”

Not only is my financial information inextricably linked to those devices, but my identity information as well as my mission summary and preliminary investigation notes are all on my tab - and visible even through the lock screen. Whoever picks up these devices can throw a bomb into my life and put me in a lot of trouble. Suddenly I don’t feel like John Allan Namu any longer. I cancel the Treichville Airbnb booking, and we flee to the Ibis in the posh part of town called Plateau. Fortunately my guide took the bus driver’s number while we were at Elubo, and the (English-speaking) hotel staff are nice enough to help us put a call through to him and explain our situation. He informs me - to my immense relief - that he has possession of both devices.

Friday is spent at the hotel’s business centre trying unsucessfully to find any online reference to Cote d’Ivoire’s Nigerian human traffickers or the names of their victims, which would corroborate what my sources have told me. So far, all I have to go on is a photo of a dead Nigerian girl simply called “Stella.” I hear she died in prison.

I also get a name “Christy Ebodaghe,” which means nothing to me right now beyond what a source has alleged. This source claims that Christy is a Nigerian woman who was lured to Cote d’Ivoire under false pretexts and forced into prostitution. After settling the “debt” assigned to her by the madam, she was then targeted by a ruthless gang of Nigerian traffickers who work with Ivorian police to entrap and extort Nigerian sex workers. More incredibly, the source alleges, the Nigerian Embassy in Abidjan was aware of Christy’s situation and was in fact cooperating with the gangsters who made it all happen.

First, a short primer in Ivorian law. Under the country’s laws, prostitution itself is not classified as illegal, though it would be a stretch to say that it is legal. Like many other African countries, Cote d’Ivoire’s laws on sex work are vague and subject to widely varied interpretations. While sex work itself is not illegal, Ivorian law heavily criminalises associated activities like soliciting, running brothels or human trafficking. On paper that sounds harmless and perfectly reasonable. In practise, this means that if Ivorian law enforcement officials so wish, they can accuse a sex worker of the (much weightier) crime of human trafficking, which may attract a multi-decade prison sentence.

Using this legal wrecking ball, the source alleges that as many as 2,000 Nigerian women like Christy Ebodaghe currently sit in Ivorian prisons accused of human trafficking, when their only offense was not being able to pay up when extorted by this cartel of Nigerian gangsters, Ivorian law enforcement and the Nigerian Embassy.

"This is Bello. The Nigerian embassy uses him to capture girls in Cote d’Ivoire, then demands for money. When the person pays, they split it into 3. The largest portion goes to the Embassy, he gets his own cut, then he gives the smaller amount to the Ivorian police. Everyone in Abidjan knows what I'm saying is true. He was arrested in 2020 by a fellow Nigerian he wrongly accused and was trying to extort money from him, but the fellow also had connections within the police. He was sent to jail but the Nigerian embassy came and freed him with diplomatic whatsoever. He is a veteran human trafficker."

It is now Saturday morning. I would love to stay in Abidjan for a week and furiously pound the streets to see what I can dig up concerning Christy Ebodaghe, Bello the gangster, and the allegedly complicit Nigerian Embassy, but I have to leave now. My identity and location are potentially compromised by my carelessness of Thursday night. The bus driver has given me a rendezvous location in front of a certain “Pharmacie Alicia” in Yopougon. After buying the cheapest Android phone I can find in Abidjan (17,000 CFA), I tell my guide to expect calls from me at 30 minute intervals, failing which something has happened to me.

Fortunately, the driver shows up alone and hands over my devices - thoroughly untampered with, as my keylogger later tells me. I gratefully count 20,000 CFA into his hands and rapidly disappear before he changes his mind. My guide and I find our way back to the Ghanaian border separately. My 48-hour attempt at being Anas Aremeyaw Anas has failed and I am slinking back to Sharjah with my tail between my legs.

On the way to Accra, I receive an email and I open it.

I should be happy, but in the circumstances it feels like a huge anticlimax.

The Corrupted Embassy - The Breakthrough

Over the next 4 months, different public officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Nigerians In Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM) provide assurances that Itunu’s case will be handled by the Nigerian government and she will be free, possibly as soon as the end of H1 2021.

April ends.

May ends.

June ends.

July begins.

Itunu is still locked up in the MAC Bondoukou prison. Despite the government’s public assurances that it is taking care of all legal issues, the Nigerian Embassy in Abidjan is saying something else in private. At a point, having been thoroughly frustrated by the embassy’s seeming sluggishness, she sends me this video, which is accompanied by a suicide threat.

Finally in July, the Nigerian Embassy finally shows its hand and inadvertently confirms the allegations made against it. While NIDCOM Chair Abike Dabiri-Erewa has publicly passed instructions across to the Embassy to facilitate Itunu’s release, an Embassy staffer Olateju Abdulrazak calls Itunu demanding that she pay him N2 million for “the lawyer.” A leaked recording of this call is exclusively available below:

When the call is over, he then sends Itunu’s relative a photo of his Ivorian bank chequebook with his complete government name on it - Olateju Abdulrazak Ayofe.

A bit of digging turns up the face of the Nigerian Embassy staffer in Abidjan who is currently extorting an innocent Nigerian citizen wrongfully imprisoned in Cote d’Ivoire of N2 million.

"The lady I told you about that put to bed in the prison was granted bail (N500k) last werk. The judge asked for Mr Bello and put up a reward for anyone who can provide useful information on his whereabouts."