Feyi Fawehinmi: How sex trafficking came to reign in Edo state

by Feyi Fawehinmi

I recently started reading Hugh Thomas’ magisterial thousand pager on the Atlantic slave trade.

My reading is somewhat motivated — I am looking for patterns that have been in place for hundreds of years that you can still see today. What if someone somewhere, hundreds of years ago, set in motion something that continues to reverberate till this day? Can the hand of history be so strong as to continue to disturb people even when the trigger is lost in the mists of time? Is it useful to interrogate history so deeply as a first step to solving a particular problem? Or we should avoid such a path so we don’t get stuck in a fatalistic mindset?

I’m going to be doing a series as I read the book. Just short posts anytime I come across something that looks and reads familiar till today. Please note — these are theoretical questions. I’m not making any definitive statements because I’m by no means qualified to do so. I’m merely inviting you into a thought experiment and maybe to think deeper about Nigeria’s problems. So here’s the first one.

The Hand of Oba Ozolua The Conqueror?

The Port of Ughoton proved to be ‘bad market’ for the Portuguese traders in the late 15th Century and early 16th Century in terms of slave trading. The Spanish demand for slaves was high and the Portuguese were struggling to fulfil their orders. They tried to navigate the Benin River but they were dying from malaria and all sorts.


Benin City in the 17th Century

The only way to do it was to ask the Oba of Benin to supply them slaves (by bringing them to the Port on the river from the hinterland) in exchange for copper and brass. He initially agreed and supplied them slaves. But later he got worried that he would lose potential members of his army to the trade. So first of all, he set up 2 different markets for the sale of male and female slaves. This way, he was able to restrict the supply of male slaves.

But later on, early in the 16th Century, he did something completely unique in the history of the African slave trade — he completely banned the sale of male slaves and permitted only female slaves to be sold. This ban initially appears to have remained in place for probably close to 200 years, spanning 8 Kings, until Oba Akengbedo in the late 17th Century started selling male slaves again. But it seems that the ban was enforced again after him.

Look at this for example (link here):

The sale of male slaves resumed in the first half of the 18th Century ‘but only those from outside Benin proper’. Then further down the page you see the clear distinction between female slaves and non-Bini males. That is, Benin women were being sold. At this point, it’s been more than 200 years since the ban on male slaves.

Explaining The Modern Day
Here’s a recent piece from the New Yorker magazine:

The migration of young women out of Benin City began in the nineteen-eighties, when Edo women — fed up with repression, domestic chores, and a lack of economic opportunities — travelled to Europe by airplane, with fake documents. Many ended up doing sex work on the streets of major cities — London, Paris, Madrid, Athens, Rome. By the end of the decade, according to a report commissioned by the United Nations, “the fear of aids rendered drug-addicted Italian girls unattractive on the prostitution market”; Nigerians from Edo State largely filled the demand. The money wasn’t great, by European standards, but, before long, parents in Benin City were replacing ramshackle houses of mud and wood with walled-off properties. Lists of expensive assets — cars, furniture, generators — purchased with remittances from Europe were included in obituaries, and envious neighbors took note. Pentecostal ministers, preaching a gospel of prosperity, extolled the benefits of migration.

And here’s from a piece in the FT from December 2015 (Given the topic of this post, the headline of the FT piece is perhaps interesting):

With a population of 1 million, Benin City bears no obvious links to Europe. But most residents know someone who has left home “for a job opportunity” there — often code for a dangerous future in prostitution. Local myth has it that this city’s outsized role in Europe’s illicit sex industry has its roots in tomato harvesting. In the 1980s, men from Benin City working on Italian farms discovered a “side hustle” when it became apparent that some locals had a taste for the Nigerian women who sometimes accompanied the labourers.

Sister Bibiana Emenaha “The men would come back [from Italy] and take a relation, friends or even sisters [back],” says Sister Bibiana Emenaha. “People saw it as a lucrative way of making money. I think that’s why it became so rampant in this place.” Often, this involved the complicity of family members. “You see a mother trafficking her daughter, a brother trafficking his cousin, his sister trafficking her cousin, because they don’t see it as anything bad. They see it as, ‘I’m helping to take you overseas, to Italy.’ That’s how prostitution came in.”

That’s 2 different explanations for the head-scratching phenomenon of women from Benin being overly represented in the trafficking of women to Europe. If you search around I’m sure there are more explanations. All we can agree on is that there is something wrong here — why Benin? The origins of how it came to be, remain up for debate.

It is difficult to tell how history can continue to echo from generation to generation and manifest itself in different ways that are actually the same. I am certainly not qualified to answer that question and like I said, my reasoning is motivated.

But the one clue that sticks out like a sore thumb to me is this — Oba Ozolua of Benin was the only one in Africa who banned the export of male slaves and sold only women.


P.S I have summarised different things I read about this matter to keep the post short. In Hugh Thomas’ book, he only casually mentioned the ban but it piqued my interest so I went digging. Have a go at Google if you want to know more. See you again when I find anything interesting.

Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija

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