Dating back as far as the 13th century, the wealthy kingdom of Benin City, capital of Edo State in Southern Nigeria, was famously known for its bronze, palm oil and Ivory.
The beautiful African city was destroyed by the British who had burnt down the city and took many of its treasures. Traces of the old Walls of Benin which extended for 16 000 kilometers – longer than the Great Wall of China at some point – can still be seen today.
During its golden age, Oba Ewuare, a traditional ruler and custodian of the culture, created a network in which Benin dominated trade along the coastline of the Western Niger Delta through Lagos.
This, is where the first trades with Europeans took place which involved palm oil, ivory, pepper, and also slaves.
Today, tens of thousands of West African women and young girls are trafficked through and from Benin City, with the majority of them ending up in Europe.
While the exact global trafficking statistics are unknown, research has shown this to be a $150billion (R2.3trillion) industry.
In 2018, the CNN Freedom Project uncovered migration routes and Benin City’s role in global sex trafficking to prove that slavery is not a thing of the past.
While poverty in the capital city is a motivating factor for vulnerable young girls and women in search of a better life for their families, spiritual leaders also play a major role in persuading them.
“We always have had this belief that your future lies in the hand of God and religious leaders, both the traditional and the Christian, are capitalizing on this,” local NGO worker Roland Nwoha told CNN.
The young girls are recruited by “sponsors” who approach them directly or through family members and once the victims arrive at their destination only to realize it was a trap, and are told the cost of the trip which is around $25, 000 to $60, 000.
Unaware of the initial debt, they also sign a blood pact with spiritual priests which prevents them from escaping their debt and an oath of secrecy ensures they obey their madams in Europe.
“The traffickers, madams, sponsors, guides have many names but they are usually called madams by the Nigerian women,” wrote Sine Plambech, an anthropologist from the Danish Institute for International Studies in a report published by the European Asylum Support Office.
“It is primarily a woman’s business. They are organising it and orchestrating it, and we also have madams in the red-light districts in the various European countries.
“They are also mostly from Edo state, with the same ethnic origin and same social network,” she said.
Plambech added that while men are often seen as the perpetrators – and male traffickers do exist – Nigerian women are the primary group of recruiters.
The question remains, why is Benin City and the Edo State a human trafficking hub as poverty alone cannot be the main factor and that there are poorer states in Nigeria.
Kokunre Agbontaen-Eghafona, a professor at the University of Benin, said that in the 1980s when Nigerian women traveled to Europe to trade gold and beads, they saw a thriving market in prostitution which she believes is the “founders factor” and the main reason it’s become a trafficking hub.