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Akinwale: From courtroom to fighting modern slavery with painting

Tells story of woman who supervised 380 abortions

Explains how terrorists use Nigerians as training specimens

By  CHARLES KUMOLU

FOR ages, lawyers are reputed as agents of social change globally. This truism reflects in Ojo Akinwale, founder Kick Against Human Trafficking Foundation, who is combining his training as a lawyer and artist, to fight human trafficking. In his story, you are confronted with chilling tales of trafficked girls and even men. His passion for the cause is indeed, a statement that ending human trafficking is a task not just for the authorities but everyone. He is the Managing Partner, O J Akinwale and Partner.

Drop my brush:

In 1999 when I came third in the national painting competition organised by the Italian Embassy, I dropped my brush but when someone bought my old painting, I discovered I could save humanity with it. I had to take my brush again despite the demands of my professional practice. That was how I started painting for humanity. Since then, I have been doing exhibitions to fight human trafficking. There was one I did and I realised N2 million. I called the girls we rescued who live in Ibadan, Ogun, and Lagos states and gave them money to start businesses. I also sent to those outside Lagos. I did the painting but the money realised was not mine because I had dedicated the proceeds of my painting to saving humanity.

Ojo Akinwale,

Law and painting

I studied Fine Arts and even taught Fine Arts before studying Law. While studying law, I participated in the national painting competition. Because of the workload associated with being a lawyer, I dropped my brush. In 2016 I discovered that most platforms in this cause are after  money. Since I didn’t want to be looking for donors, I decided to use my works to finance the cause which is to stop the dehumanisation of mankind. We used the proceeds to finance the release and return of some victims of human trafficking. I know there are risks in what I am doing but can’t avoid fighting for the good of the society, because of death. After all, some fought and died to end slavery, which some are bringing back through human trafficking.

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Promise to take abroad

I started working against human trafficking by accident. A case of obtaining by fraudulent practice was reported to us. A woman collected N1million from a particular lady with the promise to take her abroad. She ended up in Libya. She traveled through Agadez in Niger Republic. We were able to apprehend the woman and she made a promise to refund the money. The lady that was taken to Libya was very smart. When they wanted her to start prostitution, she said she could not do it because they promised her they were taking her to Europe where she could practice as an auxiliary nurse. They asked if she had anyone to provide more money for her trip to Europe, she said she knew a king who could assist. She called the king and asked him to play along with them, saying she was in a dangerous situation.

Guns on their heads

The king started playing along, because of that they did not force her into prostitution. That was how we were able to arrest the wife of the leader of the cartel in Nigeria. When the wife was arrested, we insisted that the girl must be brought back to Nigeria. The girl was brought back to Nigeria through Ghana. We later discovered that she was not the only person taken by the couple. When they were leaving Libya, they were given branded clothes to wear so that they can be eliminated on the way but we asked them to change their clothes on the way. When they arrived in Libya earlier, they were rendered incommunicado and whenever their parents called, they would be told what to say with guns to their heads. Out of fear of being shot, they would say they are fine. That was how we knew how they operate. With the help of the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons, NAPTIP, we arrested some and secured some convictions since 2017.

Ran away to Libya

The lady who was arrested later ran away when NAPTIP officials went to rearrest her. Members of her community prevented her from being arrested but those, who aided her escape, were identified, arrested, prosecuted and convicted. She ran away from Nigeria to Libya but we ensured that all her accounts were frozen. She died in Libya last year. Because of what we have done, they started releasing others held in different regions in Libya. Because of the awareness we created, the families of the trafficked girls come to us with names of their daughters. We work with the names to ensure they are released. There was even a man who came to me with the picture of his daughter and I told him the daughter had died because I have her data but the man said the woman who took her to Libya was sending gifts to them purportedly from his daughter.

Organs harvested by hunters

We have a Nigerian in Libya, an Anglican pastor, who assists us. We usually tell the girls to go to the church where they will be taken to deportation camps so that they would come back as victims, not deportees. That was how we broke that cartel. Currently, we have released more than 253 girls. There was a time the US Embassy invited us in 2016 to know how we fund what we are doing. We told them that we sponsor the programme. The issue goes beyond rescuing them but the inhuman treatment they are being subjected to. Some were made to  sleep with an average of 10 men daily. The house they use for prostitution is a dormitory where people come to have sex with them in the presence of others. The food given to them is awful (we have the video). It is made of flour and oil. They are poorly fed except those with stable customers, who bring better food for them. Since the flour and oil are fattening, the girls don’t eat much. They eat once daily. There was a particular lady, who insisted she would not engage in prostitution. She was beaten for four days, after which they sent four men to gang-rape her.

Sold to organ hunters

In the end, she surrendered and embraced prostitution. There was a 15-year-old, who told me they used cucumber to disvirgin her. Some were sold to organ hunters. Their organs are harvested and when they die, little money would be sent to their parents under the pret ext that they died and the government provided compensation for the family. Some were used for training by terrorists. They were used as guinea pigs by terrorists  to become hardened. On their way through the desert, those, who didn’t come with money were beaten and raped repeatedly before they got to their destinations. Those we have rescued are in this campaign with us. They tell their stories to whoever cares to listen.

 

Baby wipes in private part

One of them, Abigail, who was a nurse was poisoned and sent back to Nigeria because she had much to say in 2017. We did so much to save her but she died. When she returned, she was unable to eat solid food. She was placed on a liquid diet which was N8000 daily. When she got better, her family  said they wanted her home but after two weeks with them at home, she relapsed, returned to Lagos and died. She told me that she supervised more than 380 abortions. Some of the pregnancies were aborted at six and seven months because some people pay more to sleep with pregnant women. Each of them needs to make up to N1.8 million to be released but some are asked to make extra N1 million to secure their release. Abigail’s case was the most pathetic because after she was released, she stayed back to make money for herself before coming back. We tried to convince her to come back but she insisted they must give her money out of the proceeds of the prostitution. Unfortunately, they poisoned her with a bottle of juice. She couldn’t even talk when she arrived in Nigeria. She was only whispering.

We stabilised her but the fam

ily took her and were not able to take care of her. She was the one supervising the abortions. Some people died because they were inserting baby wipes into their private part to prevent pregnancy but it proved fatal as some died as a result of complications.

 

N300,000 to travel abroad

Migration is normal but when people are embarking on deadly voyages, it is wrong. People need to know all these because ignorance is one of the driving forces. There was a time I approached popular gospel artiste, Buchi to make jingles for us. I gave the information on how the cartels operate to him so he could make the jingles. The information saved one of his staff the next day. The employee approached him, saying he needed N300, 000 to travel abroad, promising to refund the money. She added that there was an agent who promised to take her abroad at that rate. It was at that point that Buchi recalled that what she said had a connection with what I had told him the previous day. He urged her to call the person taking her abroad and inform him that her boss wanted to speak with him. After asking the man questions on phone, he didn’t pick his calls again when we were calling to inform him that the girl was ready for the trip. A guy once called me that he was going to India to play football but I discouraged him that India is not a footballing nation. He said they gave him a form, adding that they were considering him on claims that he has health issues. I asked him to send the forms to me which he did and I discovered that the agent was not facilitating the trip for him as a footballer but as someone with health challenges. I told him he was likely going to be given to organ hunters and that was the end of the transaction.

Most vulnerable

We don’t charge them. When they are here we take them to NAPTIP, who keeps them for three months after which they are reunited with their families. From their homes, they return to us so we could assist them in reintegrating into the society. There are some, whose parents are angry that they returned because they borrowed money for their journey.  January was international human trafficking awareness month and we did a lot of awareness programmes with celebrities. We took the awareness to the most vulnerable, who are mostly the ignorant people.

Low education

People who are uninformed are the most vulnerable. They were blindfolded by tempting offers that are bogus. People in places like Ikoyi, Victoria Island, Surulere and other cosmopolitan areas can’t be deceived by such offers but the uninformed in Mushin, Agege and other similar areas are the targets. They are beautiful young women from low backgrounds who don’t have time to watch television or listen to the radio. That is the class of people we have rescued. Their English is so poor, confirming that they had little or no education to be able to know about the dangers of human trafficking. Human trafficking is the third worst crime in the world and those fighting against it like NAPTIP should be armed because members of the cartels are deadly. I want states like Lagos to have laws against human trafficking so that there will be specialised courts for speedy trials. We are working on how the law will be designed because many people are encouraging human trafficking unknowingly. Those taking househelps should investigate to know if they are not victims of human trafficking.

 

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