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Old July 30th, 2011 #10
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Nigeria: One Year After - Girls Still Trapped in Malian Sex Camps

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Thousands of trafficked Nigerian girls are trapped under dehumanising conditions as sex slaves in Mali. And for over one year that their condition was brought to the notice of the Federal Government, the agencies in charge - the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, NAPTIP and NEMA - seem to be foot-dragging in the quest to rescue and bring them home.

It has been almost a year since National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) lamented its inability to rescue tens of thousands of Nigerian girls in Mali and neighbouring African countries. According to the NAPTIP, there are over 20,000 Nigerian girls trafficked to Mali and held against their will in slavish conditions and forced to work as prostitutes.

Following increasing reports from preachers and aid workers over the plight of these girls, NAPTIP sent a fact-finding mission late last year and discovered that the situation was far worse than the reports.

NAPTIP executive-secretary, Simon Egede, while seeking the assistance of the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) in February this year, said that a fact-finding mission he led to Mali discovered brothels in Bamako (capital of Mali), Mopti and Kayes filled with Nigerian girls trafficked for prostitution. He said that the girls charged about 500CFA or N150 for a round of sex.

The girls are held under inhuman conditions in tiny shacks and were forced to entertain about 20 men every night. They were told that they must offset the cost of transporting them to Mali before they regain their freedom. Gory tales of sex abuse and violence trail the lives of these girls, many still in their mid-teens. They are beaten, starved, raped and traded like slaves.

In an interview with a media house in December 2010, NAPTIP spokesman, Arinze Orakwue, said, "It is clear it is not consensual. They have no freedom of movement. They are not allowed to go outside or even make a phone call."

Operation Timbuktu

Subsequently, NAPTIP, charged with fighting human trafficking and the only one of such agency in West Africa, launched 'Operation Timbuktu' in 2010 to secure the release of these girls.

"'Operation Timbuktu' will be executed with the Malian authorities to free the girls and ensure their safe return to Nigeria,"
Egede was reported to have said at the time.

Having identified the sites and brothels where the girls are located, many thought it would be a matter of days and they were released. More than a year later, Egede was still telling Nigerians: "The operation is intended to withdraw about 200 Nigerian young girls between the ages of 15-19 who are sex-slaves."

But the rescue mission failed. "The first thing that is preventing their return is support from the Malian authorities. What we want Mali to do is to say: 'Nigeria, come! We will support you to strike, to engage in law enforcement action to get the girls back.'"

"Definitely, I want to see diplomatic pressure on Mali," insists Mr. Orakwue. "It is an emergency."

It is obvious that NAPTIP lacks the intelligence, determination and logistics required to undertake the rescue operation since it involves a foreign country. It seems to hope more on the goodwill of Malian authorities than its own proactive efforts.

The excuses of language barrier and unwillingness on the part of Malian officials cannot explain why 'Operation Timbuktu' failed.

Lack Of Coordination

Speaking with LEADERSHIP over the fate of 'Operation Timbuktu', Orakwue denied that it had failed. Though he did recognise that it was an emergency and that the agency would need huge support, it appeared that NAPTIP was not talking to the right persons and organisations that could help with the problem.

He said, "The agency is making a multi-pronged approach to bring back the girls. We shared the report with other sister law enforcement agencies, organisations in the UN (United Nations) system.

"We also sent our findings to the office of the attorney-general and the National Security Adviser (NSA). The essence was to draw the attention of partners and government to this unwholesomeness. We have articulated a rescue, withdrawal, evacuation and rehabilitation program for these unfortunate Nigerians.

"Secondly, we want to build synergy in the project to enable us tackle this menace in Mali. Some of our partners, like the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC), International Office of Migration (IOM) and the Switzerland government have shown intent to support. Presently poor funding position of the agency may jeopardise our prompt intervention.

"On another score, it warrants and justifies our intent to seek assistance from partners. It is a huge budget to bring the girls back and give them meaningful life than the dreadful privations in Mali. The executive secretary promised that the agency would go to any length to bring the girls back home.

He said: "We will not let off on that. The program is still on course. Part of our frustration is the language problem between both countries. Up until now, we are still expecting a response from the Malian police chief on the way forward, because we had discussions with him. We are stepping up our efforts to fast-track their support. A team of NAPTIP operatives visited Mali again to explore further avenues to engage the Malian government. We are hopeful it will yield fruit.

"We shared our report with the ministry of foreign affairs because we have also adopted a hands-on approach.


"The problem in the Northern part of Africa has engaged not just government but also NEMA. They have been saddled with evacuating Nigerians in that troubled spots, including Cote d'Ivoire. You will agree that all these problems have followed in quick succession, requiring swift attention from government which NEMA executed expeditiously. We have gone back to the drawing board with NEMA to put the steam back on the project."

When LEADERSHIP contacted NEMA, the agency's spokesman, Yusha'u Shuaib, said, "We are working with NAPTIP towards that. NAPTIP has contacted our agency over the issue. The truth is that we have done little because of unnecessary bureaucratic issues that dog the rescue plan.

"It is true that NEMA and NAPTIP are collaborating towards the safe evacuation of Nigerian girls in Mali back to the country. The collaboration is still ongoing and we hope soon that all necessary things will be on ground to overcome the challenges.

"We must get all necessary implications and approval, especially when it comes to an operation that has to do with another country. We have to consider diplomatic relations, logistics and other requirements of evacuating the girls. You have to consider the state of the girls and their health, and how to integrate them with their families. The problem is not just a simple one of 'just go ahead and evacuate.'"

When asked about the diplomatic issues, he said, "We cannot comment on that because it is not part of our schedule. It is left to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to sort out the diplomatic angle."

A source within NEMA who pleaded anonymity, told LEADERSHIP that it was heart breaking that these girls were still trapped in Mali while the nation is dilly-dallying on when and how to bring them back.

"Of course everybody in NEMA is aware of this case and we still don't know what is holding our people from rescuing these girls. Everyday these girls spend in captivity is an indictment of our nationhood and the ability of the government to protect Nigerians anywhere."

Diplomatic Reason

Given that diplomatic issues topped the reasons why 'Operation Timbuktu' has not got off the ground, LEADERSHIP sought audience with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). Its spokesman, Damian Agwu, told our correspondent that the ministry was aware of the issue but that extra bilateral diplomacy was required.

Agwu said, "We are aware. If we are not aware I won't be responding to you. All our missions it is part of their station charter. Every Nigerian mission has a station charter and they are supposed to use that station charter to work with organisations like NAPTIP.

"Each mission has been mandated to facilitate access for officials of NAPTIP in their countries of representation for the achievement of their objectives. That is the only way we work - we can't be everywhere. We use our missions, particularly those in Africa and Europe where this problem is pronounced."

When asked if the ministry was still monitoring the issue, he answered, "We get reports that are file by the missions. We have a department that handles this kind of problem."

And on the state of the issue now, he again answered, "Don't we have a domestic legislation already? There is a domestic legislation on child trafficking."

When reminded that NAPTIP claimed that the Malian authorities were not cooperating in bringing the girls back, he said, "In the case of Mali, extra bilateral diplomacy will be required."

And has the ministry done this, Agwu answered, "That is by suggesting extra-bilateral mission with officials of the Malian Embassy. Well, I cannot answer that type of question because I don't work in the West African Department where such matter is usually handled."

At the MFA, West African Department, a director in the ministry said that the ministry was not aware of the issue.

"Otherwise, our ambassador in Mali has been very, very active. The number of girls you are talking about, I can't really confirm that we have up to that number. But if that is true, I am sure we would immediately get in touch with our ambassador there, then - both NAPTIP and MFA are serving the same country anyway - I can assure you that, using our diplomatic channels, we should be able to get positive response."

Another director in the ministry also denied knowledge of the trapped Nigerian girls in Mali. LEADERSHIP was shown reports from Mali on two girls rescued by Malian authorities. When reminded that there are still tens of thousands of girls out there, the room went silent.

Since Mali is a member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), like Nigeria, LEADERSHIP sought to know if the organisation was aware of this problem. The ECOWAS Commissioner, Human Development and Gender, Dr. Adrienne Diop, told our correspondent that it was not aware of the matter with Nigerian girls.

She said: "I don't know this particular issue. But if they (NAPTIP) have noticed that there are some Nigerian girls in Mali who want to come back, I don't see Mali stopping them.

"The Malian government does not get anything out of it. I don't see any government refusing to facilitate the repatriation of victims. I don't see it. I would like to be more educated on this issue and I would gladly take it up. But I have not heard of it.

"But if those Nigerian girls are still in the hands of some traffickers, some Nigerian traffickers who took them there, who the Malian government or Malian counterpart of NAPTIP cannot get its hands on, that is another issue. I don't think any government would be reluctant, or not happy to repatriate citizens who are in distress because it is problem for that government keeping them there. I am not saying it is not happening but we need to have more evidence and facts and, really, the nitty-gritty of this issue."

Whither 'Citizen-Centred Diplomacy'?

The Yar'Adua administration initiated what the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ojo Maduekwe, called 'Citizen-Centred Diplomacy'. This concept simply described it as 'diplomacy of consequences'. According to Maduekwe, the acts of Nigeria towards other countries would be defined by reciprocal gestures: "if you are nice to us, we will be nice to you, too. But if you are hostile to us, we will be also be hostile to you, too." Effectively, it calls for the international community to take responsibility for its actions towards Nigerians.

What irks many Nigerians about Nigeria's foreign policy is her inability to defend and protect their interests in foreign countries, which is the essence of any foreign policy.

Thousands of Nigerians are in prisons in foreign countries, some for offences that the do not even comprehend.

Recent official records show that 23,584 Nigerians are in prisons in foreign lands. That was the figure by June 2008. About 10,000 Nigerians are in prison in the United Kingdom alone and the UK government is contemplating having them serve out their jail terms here in Nigeria. Nigeria has not been able to exert her full weight in the international scene. Her citizens are on death row in many parts of the far east for crimes for which they were not given fair trials. At one time, the Chinese government requested permission to return the corpses of about 30 Nigerians in that country.

With many Nigerians currently condemned to death in several countries, the then Permanent Secretary, MFA (2009), Ambassador Joe Keshi, said: "If you ask me whether I am optimistic that these Nigerians will find their way back home, the answer is no, I am not. I am talking about the Nigerians on death row in countries all over the world."

It is antecedents like this that have left many Nigerians wondering if the Nigerian government could bring back these girls. Given the success of NEMA in bringing back Nigerians caught in the North Africa and Middle East crisis, hopes were raised that its involvement would see the girls brought back home. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that the organisation saddled with tackling problems of human trafficking, NAPTIP, has not deployed all its resources in rescuing these trafficked girls in Mali and other West African countries.

With the foreign ministry showing lukewarmness and ECOWAS not aware of the problem, it is obvious that the hapless girls still have to wait for a long time to come home. As the new minister of foreign affairs, Ambassador Olugbenga Ashiru, resumes duty, many analysts believe that solving this problem should be top on his agenda given that citizen-centred diplomacy is a prominent feature of Nigeria's foreign policy.
http://allafrica.com/stories/201107181037.html
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