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The Oba and fetishization of Nigerian prostitution

By Leo Igwe
09 April 2018   |   3:36 am
The trafficking of Nigerian women mainly for prostitution in Europe has made local and international headlines. Award-winning documentaries have been released that showed...

The trafficking of Nigerian women mainly for prostitution in Europe has made local and international headlines. Award-winning documentaries have been released that showed the ordeal that many Nigerian prostitutes in Europe go through. Governmental and nongovernmental agencies have been formed to tackle this form of modern day slavery. The practice of human trafficking has led to the abuse and exploitation of women. It has dented the image of Nigeria internationally especially the reputation of the ancient city of Benin and of Edo State where most of the victims are said to come from.

Unfortunately, one narrative about Nigerian prostitution in Europe has become very notorious. That is the claim that the women are trapped in prostitution because of an oath of secrecy which they swore at local shrines before they left Nigeria. So there has been much focus on local priests and shrines in Benin and their role in this international crime. In fact it has been suggested that Nigerian prostitutes are held captive in various European countries and are unable to return because they fear spiritual repercussions.

For some time now, European anti-human trafficking agencies have been trying hard to market the juju scare narrative to the world. They have been trying to convince the international community that Nigerian prostitutes in Europe cannot return home due to some ‘powerful African magic’. Apparently, they are succeeding in selling this fetish idea given the fact that recently the Oba of Benin, Ewuare II, his chief priests and palace chiefs including state officials recently organised a traditional ceremony to address this concern.

They staged a ritual to neutralise whatever oath the trafficked women must have sworn. The Oba of Benin and his priests further cursed all the sponsors and perpetrators of human trafficking in the state. Priests and priestesses, native doctors, traditional religious worshippers and officials of the National agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons, and state security operatives were in attendance. Charms and amulets were used for this special ceremony. Goats, fowls and other animals were slaughtered as part of the ritual sacrifice.

But it is important to ask: What actually is the essence of this ritual exercise that the Oba of Benin organised? What did the Oba intend to achieve by placing curses on sponsors and perpetrators of human trafficking? In fact, what will the curses do to them? What is the connection between slaughtering goats and fowls and the real predicament of Nigerian prostitutes in Europe?

It is believed that with this ritual ceremony at the Oba’s palace, Nigerian women who were trafficked and trapped in prostitution in Europe could now return home without fears. Really? Or that the trafficking will stop, right? Well if that ceremony would achieve anything, it will facilitate the forced repatriation of the women to Nigeria. This is because now the various European governments can now tell these women: You have nothing to fear again, go home.

Given the complexity of the issue of human trafficking, this ritual ceremony is a traditional display that makes no sense as a way of tackling the problem in this 21st century. There might have been instances where the sponsors of these trafficked women got them to take some oath before committing money to pay for their trip to Europe. After all, political and financial dealings in Nigeria sometimes involve oath-taking. Don’t they? Contracts are sealed using such ritual processes. But is a ritual assembly of Obas and chief priests required to neutralize such oaths as has been the case with Nigerian prostitutes in Europe? No, not at all.

Unfortunately, the Oba of Benin, his priests, chiefs and their state counterparts have bought into this narrative. They have unwittingly reinforced the juju scare explanation of the problem. Imagine, how does one dispel occult fears by indulging in ceremonies that create such fears and anxieties? The Oba and his priests eventually caved in to international pressure to fetishize the issue of human trafficking and the plight of Nigerian prostitutes in Europe. The fact remains that this claim that Nigerian prostitutes are trapped in Europe due to some occult fears is being used to distract attention from the real issue, the root causes of human trafficking. It is preventing the relevant agencies from focusing on the reasons why Nigerian women are trafficked and end up as prostitutes in Europe. Instead, anti human trafficking agencies have made oath taking the major issue while refusing to address the urgent socio-economic factors that drive Nigerian women into prostitution in Europe.

Prostitution often called the oldest profession in the world, is a huge business and industry in Europe. In many European countries commercial sex work is allowed. So, as a business, financial profit is often the motivating factor. Nigerian women who are trafficked turn to prostitution whether in Europe, Africa, Asia and in the Americas due to poverty, unemployment, despair, and misery in their home country. Once trafficked to Europe, these women fear to return to Nigeria not really due to occult fears or due to some oath that they had taken at a local shrine as the anti-human trafficking campaigners would make us understand. They are afraid of returning to suffer and to face the grim socio-economic realities that await them back home. The Oba of Benin, his priests and chiefs, the Edo State governor and other politicians are aware of this incontrovertible fact. So they should stop pretending as if they do not know what the real problem is. They should stop given unnecessary attention to the juju scare as if this is the main issue, it is not. The Oba, and other traditional/state actors should rather devote their energies to breaking the curse of poverty and mismanagement of the Nigerian economy. They should preoccupy themselves with creating jobs and putting in place women empowerment schemes, not wasting time placing curses on sponsors and perpetrators of human trafficking.