I thought I would stay away from writing on the modern-day slave trade/human trafficking tragedy that the world has belatedly woken up to, because sometimes, you want to keep your anti-tidal views to yourself.
But my conscience and itchy pen will not let me be. Squared against a weaker opponent, the stronger party is almost always guilty/wrong in Nigeria, so it is understandable that governments, both at the federal and state levels, have been at the receiving end of the caustic tongues of Nigerians in the traditional and social media, and it is impossible to exonerate the government, past and present.
The handling of the problems that culminated in the crisis and the crisis itself, and the management of information by the government have been very unsatisfactory.
But let us go back to how we got to this pathetic state. Prior to 1986, Nigerians had no business going to Europe through Libya. We flew directly to Europe either with or without visa. When our economy started faltering, instead of standing firm and fighting the people and reasons responsible for this slide, many of us took the easier option: fleeing from the worsening economy.
As we fled, it became obvious that some of those fleeing were actually part of our problems back home. They took along with them prostitution, drug trafficking, fraud and other crimes. As their numbers increased, so did their atrocities. Our hosts tightened the noose and it became increasingly more difficult to legitimately travel to these countries.
As the Nigerian economic situation got worse, Nigerians became more desperate and those with crooked minds veered into illegal ways of getting to Europe. Some of those who made it to Europe came by sudden wealth and like sharks that have tasted blood, our people went into frenzy. Welcome to the Libyan route to Europe, via the hazardous Sahara Desert.
These overnight wealthy migrants made many Nigerians and their families to believe that their only ticket out of poverty was to have a member of the family in Europe. Edo State is one of the most affected states. A friend likened the situation of Edo State to the South East of some years back where every family wanted to produce a Catholic priest.
Many families in Edo State wanted one of their own in Europe, Italy being the favourite destination for the ladies. Family lands and houses were sold to fund these trips. Where there was no land or property to sell, money was communally raised by taxing family members. Some families borrowed money from usurers at cut-throat interest rates.
Fathers and mothers sent their daughters to Italy, some men even sent their wives! Sons were sent to all destinations in Europe to hustle. Soon powerful prostitution and human trafficking rings sprang up all over Edo State and other parts of Nigeria to fulfill the yearnings of Nigerians to travel to Europe by hook or crook. The government and influential Nigerians, like the highly revered late Oba of Benin, Erediauwa, advised against these hazardous migrations, but their appeals fell on deaf ears. Only one thing could have stemmed the tide: a much improved economy.
Then we started hearing stories and seeing images of Nigerians dying and being killed in the Sahara Desert, on their way to Libya, and migrants dying in their hundreds in the Mediterranean Sea. This too did not scratch the surface.
Then stories of Nigerians who are stranded in Libya started filtering in. They were not only stranded, they were being dehumanized, sold as slaves, raped, tortured, killed and their body parts sold. CNN did a documentary and it became an outrage and we all became fully awake. I guess that, as the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, which was celebrated on December 2, drew near, the world started paying more attention to what was happening in Libya.
The images we have been seeing are gory and the narratives, shocking. But this tragedy might just be a blessing in disguise. There can be no better advocates and campaigners against the foolish, rash and ill-advised suicidal and illegal travels to Europe than these returnees. Some of them should be trained and employed in the National Agency for Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) and other such government agencies. After hearing their stories, other youths will advise themselves against embarking on illegal migrations.
Also Edo State said that rather than drive the human traffickers underground, they will focus on their potential patrons and gradually drive them out of business with zero patronage. It is a long shot, but a great strategy. The full force of the law should, however, be visited on those who are caught.
Second, Edo State has started training and providing financial and material assistance to the returnees to enable them settle down to productive economic lives. This is a great move, but the state needs to build more capacity to cope with the increasing number of returnees. I expect the returnees to pursue their economic activities with the same vigour and determination they used to accomplish their illegal migration to Libya.
If they do, there is no way they will not be successful. Nigeria is riddled with problems and needs. Surely some of these returnees can create value by solving some of these problems/meeting some of the needs and earning a decent income in the process.
Three, bad governance fuelled the economic slide that put us in this mess. These returnees now know that they cannot be politically aloof. They must join other Nigerians in holding governments at the local, state and federal levels accountable. Those returnees who are politically inclined should go into politics to become change agents.
They should not allow unscrupulous politicians use them to rig elections and subvert the will of the majority. We need a new order. At least now, we all know that government matter is everybody’s matter. We all benefit from a good government and a bad government is everybody’s tragedy, including those currently enjoying ephemeral government appointments and patronage.