Friday, April 23, 2004

For the Love of Money

Here's an Economist article detailing a trend that highlights the degree to which the worship of financial prosperity, however ill-gotten, has come to dominate many aspects of Nigerian life.

THE market in Benin City sells just about everything: ladies' pants and bras, plastic bags, padlocks and second-hand clothes known locally as “fairly used”. But this city in south-eastern Nigeria also thrives on a less wholesome trade: people-trafficking. Those who are trafficked are mostly young, female and destined to work as prostitutes in Europe.

No one knows how many are shipped out each year, but everyone in Benin City knows someone who has gone. The most popular destination appears to be Italy, where Nigerian girls in tight jeans can be seen lolling on many a street corner.

It is an organised and lucrative trade. The girls are recruited by local “sponsors”, who pay up-front for transport. The girls therefore start out thousands of dollars in debt. Before they leave Nigeria, they are taken to a witchdoctor and sworn to repay their debt and keep quiet. The shaman typically keeps a lock of their hair or some toenail clippings, and warns them that they will die if they break their oath.

Some are tricked: they believe they will work as hairdressers, or further their studies. Others know they will have to sell themselves, but are seduced by the prospect of more money than they could ever earn swabbing floors or tending yams back home. They leave Nigeria along well-established trading routes, often by road across the Sahara. Some end up in other west African countries. Others make it to Europe or Saudi Arabia.

A striking aspect of this dirty business is that it provokes so little moral outrage in Nigeria. On the contrary. Rita, an articulate young woman, was 16 when her mother sent her away to “work in Canada”. She found herself in Gabon (one of Africa's richest states) instead, where her sponsor, who said she owed her $45,000, ordered her to prostitute herself. She escaped and fled home. Her mother was furious. “She said I didn't want to make money for her. She said other girls go for three months and buy cars for their parents.”

It is a common refrain. Girls who repay their sponsors often do return home with cash to spare, which wins them the admiration of the community. “Everyone respects them,” says one 15-year-old girl in Benin City. “They have the best houses and the best cars; they are on top.”


The Nigerian government admits that human trafficking is a problem. It banned it last year, and set up an agency to curb it. Local charities, some with help from outsiders such as Unicef, try to pitch in. But it is not an easy task. Laws in Nigeria are laxly enforced. Officials are often ignorant, or can be bribed to turn a blind eye. Most important, it is hard to stamp out a practice when so few Nigerians think it wrong. It seems that the country's get-rich-quick culture, fuelled by a generation-long oil boom, has trickled right down to the bottom, unlike the oil money itself. (emphasis added)

One thing that needs to be mentioned is that while this article talks about the phenomenon of foreign prostitution as if it were a Nigeria-wide issue, I'm extremely doubtful that this is true; for instance, whatever the other failings of the northern Hausa-Fulani, I'd bet that hardly any of the women to be found on the streets of Italy are from that part of the country. In fact, both this article from South Africa's Sunday Times and another from a source I'm currently unable to pin down suggest that the overwhelming majority of these young women are actually of Edo* origin, leading to the suspicion that there might be Edo cultural peculiarities at work here. Still, that a mother should condemn her daughter for refusing to engage in prostitution is rather shocking, whatever the ethnic background of the family involved.

The Economist's correspondent is guilty of over-generalizing when (s)he claims that "few Nigerians" think having their women go abroad to serve as prostitutes is wrong; at best, one might say that few of the Edo seem to think it shameful, and even that would be doubtful outside of the urban areas. Where the correspondent is correct is in stating that Nigeria is saturated by a get-rich-quick mentality, and that this mindset owes largely to the oil-boom era of the 1970s, when billions were made without effort, and even less effort was put into seeing the money spent wisely. As staggering a sum as the $87 billion George W. Bush budgeted for Iraqi reconstruction might seem, what is even more mindboggling is to consider that Nigeria has earned over $260 billion in oil revenues over the years, and yet the average Nigerian is actually worse off today than he was just before oil exports took off, thanks mostly to the greed of the political class.

It is that sort of unrestrained self-aggrandisement by the political elite that has made it acceptable in the minds of so many Nigerians to engage in criminal activities in the pursuit of wealth, especially in an era in which there's a lot less loot to divvy up, even though the short-cuts taken will vary with the ethnic group under scrutiny. The Hausa-Fulani, and to a lesser extent, the Yoruba, need not seek abroad for their ill-gotten gains, given their access to the Nigerian treasury; the Igbo, losers both in the Nigerian civil war and in politics thereafter, resort to international drug-pushing and the swindling of greedy foreigners; the Edo, it would seem, have hit upon sending their daughters to Italy to serve as prostitutes as the road to financial success. What was that about oil being some sort of blessing again?

*The ethnic group that constitutes most of the populace of Benin City (from which the Economist journalist was writing) and its environs.