157 child slaves were rescued by Interpol in Nigeria and Benin in April 2019.

Rescued during “Operation Epervier II”, the child slaves worked as market peddlers, “carrying heavy loads or fetching water”. Of the 121 girls and 36 boys, some worked as housemaids and others worked as (forced) prostitutes.

Nigeria – although oil-rich – has been, “long hobbled by political instability, corruption, inadequate infrastructure, and poor macroeconomic management.”

According to UNICEF, “the end of the oil boom in the late 1970s coupled with mounting poverty has driven millions of children into labour [in the twenty-first century].” As a result, Sub Saharan Africa’s largest economy has 62% of its more than 181 million population living in extreme poverty.

Modern slavery

Nigeria is one of the top scoring African nations with an “estimated vulnerability to modern slavery”.

Forced labour – including child labour – is a significant money-making business in the nation. Nigeria is a “major source, transit, and destination country for forced labour and sex trafficking.”

According to End Slavery Now, “more than a quarter of the world’s slaves are children. These children are forced to commit commercial sex acts, forced into a system of domestic servitude or employed in occupations that are mentally, physically, socially and morally harmful.”

In Nigeria, 31.1% of children, aged 5 to 14, work. 26.8% of children, aged 5 to 14, combine work with primary school. Only 73.8% of students aged 5 to 14 complete primary school.

Free and compulsory education in Nigeria is federally mandated by the Education Act. However, compulsory education is often not enforced from state to state. School is also often a for-profit business in a country where free schools are considered the worst option for students. Furthermore, there is a lack of teachers nation-wide and “inadequate sanitation facilities, particularly for girls.”

A review by the Bureau of International Labor Affairs at the U.S. Department of Labor concluded that: “Children in Nigeria engage in the worst forms of child labor, including in quarrying granite and gravel, commercial sexual exploitation, and armed conflict. These children work in hazardous conditions with little food, small pay and no medical care.

Other examples of child labour in Nigeria include forced begging, agricultural labour, forced recruitment for army groups, including rebel groups, forced recruitment in armed robbery and drug trafficking, automotive repair and construction.

Nevertheless, according to the Global Slavery Index of 2018, the nation has been “proactive in responding to modern slavery”, despite “the Africa region ha[ving] the lowest average regional government response score.”

International Child Slavery

The problem of child slavery in Nigeria is an international one. UNICEF reports that “in West Africa’s Lake Chad region” Boko Haram has devastated the lives of “millions of families.”

Thousands of people in this region rely on smugglers daily to get them out of the country. Often, they end up trapped in Libyan detention centres, “where they are beaten, abused and indefinitely detained.”

Many Nigerian young women and girls are sold and forced into prostitution in southern and western Europe. Currently, there are over 10,000 Nigerian prostitutes in Italy. This figure, according to Mr Arinze Orakwe, the director of public enlightenment at the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP).

At a June conference for action on illegal migration and trafficking, Mr Orakwe claimed that over 20,000 Nigerian girls are currently in Mali, waiting to cross over into Europe through the Sahara desert, North Africa and the Mediterranean Sea.

Paul Stanfield, Interpol’s director of organised and emerging crime attributes human trafficking in Nigeria to “organised crime groups who are motivated by money.”

0.8 per cent of the Nigerian population are estimated to live as slaves. While the nation has improved its response to tackling slavery, the problem will not be solved until the nation’s deep social, political and economic wounds are tackled.