By Shola Ogundipe
The unlawful trafficking of human organs for transplantation, known as organ harvesting, is an increasing global concern. Nigeria, like many other countries, is not immune to this bleak reality. The perilous world of organ harvesting in Nigeria is dark and foreboding. It has a tangible impact on individuals, families, and society as a whole.
Organ harvesting is the illegal removal of organs from people without their consent, usually for transplantation or commercial sale. It can happen as a result of compulsion, fraud, or abduction and may exploit vulnerable persons, particularly those living in poverty or marginalized groups. They may be misled into believing the procedure is both safe and equitable.
Abduction or kidnapping can also be employed, in which victims are forcibly removed from their homes and their organs are harvested without their consent. However, this is not the same as lawful organ transplantation, which involves the voluntary and altruistic donation of organs for the purpose of saving lives or improving health. Legal organ transplantation takes place inside a regulated framework with strong ethical criteria and donor and recipient informed consent. Organ harvesting, on the other hand, breaches human rights, exploits vulnerable individuals, and poses severe hazards to both donors’ and recipients’ health and well-being.
The removal of organs such as the kidneys, liver, heart, lungs, corneas, pancreas, and other body parts from living or deceased people connotes organ harvesting. Kidneys are the most commonly illegally harvested organs due to their high demand and survival rate. Less attractive is harvesting of the liver for liver transplantation – a life-saving procedure for those with liver failure or other liver-related diseases. Hearts are highly sought after for transplantation due to their vital role in the cardiovascular system, and lung transplantation is complex and rare for individuals with end-stage lung diseases. For corneas – the transparent front part of the eye – they are harvested for transplantation to restore vision in individuals with corneal damage or disease. Also, pancreas transplantation is often performed in conjunction with kidney transplantation for individuals with both kidney and pancreas failure.
Essentially, the Illegal trade poses significant risks to both donors and recipients, including severe health complications, organ rejection, and even death. Legal organ transplantation ensures safety, ethical standards, and proper medical care for both parties involved.
The harrowing world of human organ harvesting in Nigeria is dark and gloomy; its impact on individuals, families, and society as a whole is palpable. The illegal trade of human organs is a growing global concern, sadly, Nigeria, like many other countries, has not been spared from this dark reality. It has become a lucrative business involving complex networks of recruiters, middlemen, doctors, and corrupt officials.
The absence of strict regulations and law enforcement contributes to the flourishing of the illicit trade. Socioeconomic factors like poverty, inadequate healthcare, and limited access to legal organ transplantation drive the demand for organs, forcing many Nigerians to seek them illegally.
Nigeria is experiencing a rise in covert crime, as evidenced by a 2013 scandal involving a “baby factory” in a southeastern state. The scandal revealed a criminal network involved in illegal activities, including alleged organ harvesting. The scandal primarily focused on the trafficking of infants, but also implicated organ harvesting in human trafficking. In 2017, the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) discovered a criminal network involved in the unlawful removal and trafficking of human kidneys.
A number of people, including doctors and medical staff, have been arrested and accused of crimes related to organ harvesting. In 2018, a mass grave with the bodies of alleged victims was found in Anambra State, believed to be victims of organ trafficking. An investigation by the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offenses Commission (ICPC) revealed a private hospital in Ibadan was engaged in illicit kidney transplantation. In 2020, a man was arrested in Lagos State for allegedly luring individuals with promises of employment opportunities, only to abduct and forcibly remove their organs. In June 2023, the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital (LASUTH) denied allegations of missing intestines of a 13-year-old patient, Adebola Akin-Bright, after he underwent corrective surgery without willfully removing any organ or structure. The state Governor, Mr. Babajide Sanwo-Olu, promised to take up the boy’s treatment abroad, but he died shortly thereafter before the required reprieve.
In August 2023, Dr. Noah Kekere was arrested by the Plateau State Police command after a businessman named Kamal accused him of illegally harvesting his wife’s kidneys and causing her chronic pain for five years. Kehinde, who was operated on by Noah in 2018, continued to suffer from stomach pains after the surgery. Recently, it was discovered that one of her kidneys had been removed during the surgery five years earlier. The Plateau state branch of the Nigeria Medical Association (NMA) declared Noah a quack, as he was not their registered member. These are just a few of the numerous documented cases of illegal organ harvesting in Nigeria, but they serve as proof of the widespread issue due to the crime’s secrecy.
Burden of problem
Organ harvesting in Nigeria is a growing issue due to its clandestine nature and the existence of a hidden network of perpetrators. The World Health Organization estimates that 10 percent of organ transplants worldwide involve organs obtained through illicit means. Nigeria is a significant source, transit, and destination country for organ trafficking. The growing demand for organs, driven by the growing number of individuals in need, often exceeds the available supply, creating a breeding ground for illegal trafficking networks.
Poverty and economic inequality also contribute to the increase in organ harvesting, as vulnerable individuals may view it as a means to alleviate their financial struggles. The Nigerian government passed the Trafficking in Persons Prohibition, Enforcement and Administrative Act, which addresses human trafficking. Section 20 of the law specifically addresses the recruitment of persons for organ harvesting. The law states that anyone who abuses power, dominance, or authority in a vulnerable situation or through payments or benefits to induce consent for organ removal commits an offense.
Those involved in the removal of human organs or buying and selling of organs are also liable for imprisonment for up to seven years and a fine of up to N5,000,000. Section 20 (2) also states that anyone who procures, offers, assists, or is involved in the removal of human organs is also liable for imprisonment for up to seven years and a fine of up to N5,000,000. Section 20 (3) also states that anyone who enlists, transports, delivers, accommodates, or takes in another person under 18 years old for organ removal is also liable.
Weak enforcement of legislation
The weak law enforcement and corruption within Nigeria create a fertile environment conducive to the increase in organ harvesting, as criminal networks exploit loopholes and corrupt officials. The inadequacies within Nigeria’s healthcare system, including limited resources and infrastructure, also contribute to the increase in organ harvesting. Worse still, technological advancements have made organ transplantation more accessible, but also increased the demand for organs.
In reality, Nigeria has comprehensive legislation against organ trafficking and related activities. The Trafficking in Persons (Prohibition) Enforcement and Administration Act (2015) criminalizes human trafficking, including organ trafficking, and provides penalties for those involved. Also, the National Health Act (2014) regulates healthcare in Nigeria, including organ transplantation, establishing legal framework for ethical organ donation and transplantation. The Criminal Code Act and Penal Code Act apply to the southern and northern states and contain provisions criminalizing offenses like kidnapping, abduction, and illegal confinement which can be applicable to cases of organ trafficking.
The National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) Act (2003) established the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons, responsible for coordinating efforts to combat human trafficking, including organ trafficking. The Act provides for the investigation, prosecution, and punishment of offenders involved in human trafficking offenses.
The Organ Harvest and Transplantation bill in Lagos state aims to regulate organ transplantation to combat illegal trade in human parts. The bill outlines penalties for removing organs for non-therapeutic purposes and imposes a 10-year prison sentence without a fine. It also outlines penalties for individuals or hospitals who assist in organ removal without authority, resulting in a fine of N5 million or a 10-year prison term. This legislation aims to curb illegal trade in human parts.
Burden is underreported
Organ trafficking is a significant issue in Nigeria, with victims often seeking redress through legal assistance, documentation, and international mechanisms. While organ harvesting/trafficking in Nigeria has seen increased awareness and efforts from NGOs, government agencies, and international organizations, the true extent of the problem is considered under-reported.
Dr. Luc Noel a former official of the World Health Organization, WHO, called attention to the problem of organ trafficking. Noel highlighted the importance of international cooperation in eradicating the issue. He places a strong emphasis on the necessity of enhancing legal frameworks, healthcare systems, and public awareness to stop organ trafficking.
A specialist in public management at the University of Ibadan, Dr. Olusegun Olaopa has also stressed the significance of poverty and poor governance in the promotion of organ harvesting. To address the problem, he emphasizes the necessity for all-encompassing programmes to alleviate poverty, better healthcare infrastructure, and efficient law enforcement.
Shola Adeyemi a researcher at the University of Lagos, notes that addressing the driving factors requires a multi-faceted approach, including poverty alleviation measures, strengthening healthcare infrastructure, combating corruption, improving law enforcement capabilities, promoting ethical organ donation, and raising public awareness about the dangers of organ trafficking. He argues that By addressing these underlying factors, Nigeria can work towards eradicating organ harvesting and ensuring the protection of its citizens.
Observers believe that a comprehensive approach involving legislation, law enforcement, public awareness, and ethical organ donation promotion is required.
Organ trafficking is a significant issue in Nigeria, with victims often seeking redress through legal assistance, documentation, and international mechanisms. To protect citizens, Nigeria should strengthen legal frameworks, improve healthcare infrastructure, raise awareness about the trade, and establish ethical donation programs. Victims should report incidents to law enforcement, seek legal assistance, document evidence, and seek support from NGOs and human rights institutions. Investment in medical facilities and trained healthcare professionals is also crucial.
The government at the National level should collaborate with other countries to share intelligence and extradite individuals involved in cross-border trafficking operations. If domestic avenues for redress are insufficient, victims can explore international mechanisms for justice and accountability.
To protect citizens, Nigeria should strengthen legal frameworks, improve healthcare infrastructure, raise awareness about the trade, and establish ethical donation programmes. Victims should report incidents to law enforcement, seek legal assistance, document evidence, and seek support from NGOs and human rights institutions. Investment in medical facilities and trained healthcare professionals is also crucial.
The Federal government should collaborate with other countries to share intelligence and extradite individuals involved in cross-border trafficking operations. If domestic avenues for redress are insufficient, victims can explore international mechanisms for justice and accountability. Increasing public awareness and education about organ trafficking is crucial in curbing its growth.