Nigerian Kidnapping Highlights Scale Of Child Trafficking In Africa

May 9, 2014
Originally published on May 9, 2014 7:45 pm

Nearly 300 schoolgirls remain missing in Nigeria. For more information on the pervasiveness of child slavery in Africa, Robert Siegel speaks with Benjamin Lawrance, the Barber B. Conable Jr. Endowed Chair in International Studies at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

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From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. The international response to the abduction of nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls by Islamic militants is growing. Teams of advisors from the United States and Britain are now in Nigeria. Secretary of State John Kerry has vowed that the U.S. will do everything possible to counter the menace of Boko Haram. That's the Islamist militant group that's claimed responsibility for the kidnappings. The group's leader has promised to sell the girls.

This is the highest profile kidnapping incident in some time but the problem is not new, certainly not for Nigeria. We're joined now by Benjamin Lawrance, associate professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He's author of the book "Trafficking in Slavery's Wake." Welcome to the program.


SIEGEL: And while information is scant, there has been talk of these schoolgirls being taken out of Nigeria and Boko Haram's leader has threatened to sell them into slavery. How plausible a scenario is that given what you know about trafficking networks?

LAWRANCE: Elements of it are quite plausible and of course there's extensive documentation of buying and selling of children today in Nigeria and elsewhere. And of course buying and selling and moving them around the sub-region is also well documented. The idea that they could be sold in a sort of commercial or a semi-commercial transaction is quite tenable.

SIEGEL: The president of Nigeria Goodluck Jonathan, has said this week that the kidnapping of these schoolgirls will be a turning point. He said the beginning of the end, he called it, of terror in Nigeria. How big a problem is this in Nigeria in particular and how well has the country been dealing with it?

LAWRANCE: Well, Boko Haram of course has been involved in a medium-level insurgency now for a number of years. The president seems to have tied anti-trafficking with a sort of antiterrorism project. And I'm deeply uncomfortable with that. I think that's a deep -- reflects a deep misunderstanding of what's going on. In fact, if I were to try to analyze this, I wouldn't highlight terrorism as a key part of what's going on.

In fact, there are three important historical dimensions that are significant and that is the ongoing prevalence of child trafficking, the ongoing prevalence of forced marriage and the ongoing rich tradition of using children in conflict, both as soldiers and also in various forms of service.

SIEGEL: I gather that the United Nations and the U.S. and other NGOs have given Nigeria good grades for its work in trying to control the trafficking in children. Is that correct? And indeed, is it effective?

LAWRANCE: Well, the answer to that is yes and no. Nigeria routinely gets much better grades than most of its neighbors. And for a number of years it got top grades. On paper there are some very important achievements, and I don't want to downplay those. But when we consider the reality on the ground, the scale of trafficking versus the scale of funding for anti-trafficking, it's almost ludicrous. It's laughable.

SIEGEL: What is the scale of trafficking in the area?

LAWRANCE: We're talking about tens of thousands of people bought and sold every year. In 2003 the ILO estimated there were at least 15 million children in Nigeria that were working of whom 40 percent were themselves either trafficked or likely to have been trafficked or vulnerable to trafficking. So we're talking about millions and millions of children.

SIEGEL: And the number of criminal cases brought in Nigeria?

LAWRANCE: Well, you can look at the data online. It's very accessible. There are a couple of hundred cases last year, a slightly fewer the year before, and only half of those or a third of those result in a conviction. The vast majority of those convictions result only in a criminal fine. And the fines are somewhere between 300 and $600. The anti-trafficking budget in Nigeria is approximately $3.5 million annually.

So what's going on in Nigeria in terms of trafficking is much greater than the resources that are being devoted to anti-trafficking. And I might also point out that the effort to engage anti-trafficking often involves a lot of NGOs that operate privately. So the welfare issues, the sustenance of trafficking survivors, attempts to recover children or locate their parents, that's often not even taken on board by the state but in fact handed over to private NGOs and charities.

SIEGEL: Well, Professor Lawrance, thank you very much for talking with us today.

LAWRANCE: You're very welcome.

SIEGEL: That's Benjamin Lawrance, associate professor of international studies at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.