Nigeria must stop voodoo sex trafficking gangs smuggling young girls to Europe

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Earlier this month, Nigeria’s National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) was forced to deny allegations it had hired witch doctors to help prevent young women being smuggled out of the country to work as prostitutes in Europe. While admitting the agency is attempting to engage with as many sections of society as possible in order to gain a better understanding of the role they play in the country’s massive problem with human trafficking and modern slavery, NAPTIP head of press Josiah Emerole claimed the organisation had merely spoken with witch doctors in an effort to dissuade them from placing voodoo curses on people smugglers’ victims. Juju oaths are routinely used by traffickers to make their victims believe they or a member of their family will come to some sort of serious harm or die if they fail to comply with their captors’ demands. Where the NAPTIP once arrested priests known to have carried out these types of rituals, the agency now seeks to “sensitise” them to the harm they cause by brainwashing trafficking victims, Emerole said. Whether or not this new approach will be of any benefit whatsoever remains to be seen, but what is clear is that the Nigerian government’s attempts to stop vulnerable young women being trafficked out of the country after being put through juju rituals have so far failed spectacularly.

For years now, law enforcement authorities across Europe and beyond have reported rescuing petrified young Nigerian women who have been put through horrific juju rituals before being smuggled into brothels and forced to sell their bodies for sex. Rather than declining, evidence suggests the rate at which traffickers are abusing these women is on the rise, fuelled in no small part by the ongoing Mediterranean migrant crisis. Only last week, police in Spain and the UK said they had arrested 12 people suspected of being members of an international human trafficking network that used juju magic to control the young women it exploited. The gang is said to have pulled out victims’ pubic hair and forced them to eat raw chicken as part of voodoo rituals before trafficking them to brothels mostly situated in Italy and Spain. No more than a few weeks earlier, Spanish police rescued 16 Nigerian women who had been trafficked into the country before being forced to work as prostitutes. Prior to being taken from their home country, the women were reported to have been put through ritualistic juju ceremonies, during which they were made to believe they would suffer death, insanity or serious illness if they disobeyed their captors, refused to sell their bodies or went to the police.

The fear these voodoo rituals instil is so strong and pervasive that victims have been known to escape protective custody after being rescued in a bid to return to their captors, petrified that breaking the oath they had sworn would damn either them or their close family members to death. The hold the curses have on victims can also make it incredibly difficult for police to build a case against members of people smuggling gangs, who use juju magic to convince the vulnerable young women they exploit that cooperating with authorities will result the oath they have sworn being broken. As a consequence, it is rare for members of Nigerian trafficking gangs to be brought to justice in Europe and other parts of the world in which they operate.

In a rare example of juju traffickers being successfully convicted, a UK court jailed two people smugglers for a total of 10 years for forcing their victims to work as prostitutes in November 2014. Lizzy Idahosa and her partner Jackson Omoruyi were found guilty of inciting prostitution and money laundering at Cardiff Crown Court. One of the pairs’ victims explained how she was cut with a razor, forced to drink dirty water and made to eat snakes and snails during a juju ritual designed to make her believe she would suffer illness, madness, infertility or death if she failed to comply with her captors’ demands. In August 2016, a Dutch court sentenced a Nigerian-born man to seven years behind bars after convicting him of leading an international prostitution ring that used voodoo magic to control its victims. Peter Kwame S and his associates trafficked underage Nigerian girls to the Netherlands after putting them through voodoo rituals in Nigeria to make them swear an oath that they would not go to the police.

The infrequency with which members of Nigerian juju trafficking gangs are brought to justice in Europe and beyond sadly makes these examples remarkable, and in no way indicative of the scale of the problem. In 2016, the International Organisation for Migration estimated that 80% of Nigerian teenage girls and young women who arrived in Italy that year were victims of sex trafficking and exploitation. It is likely many of them were destined to be transported onto brothels in other EU countries. While European law enforcement agencies work hard to safeguard young women and girls unfortunate enough to fall victim to these gangs, the very nature of the “curses” placed upon them make it very difficult to bring traffickers to justice. As such, it is now vital that greater efforts are made to stop the problem at source. Instead of attempting to “sensitise” witch doctors to the harm they are causing by placing juju curses on traffickers’ victims, Nigerian lawmakers should concentrate their efforts on pursing the prosecution of everybody involved in this barbaric trade at their end.

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