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Arrow Igbinedion versus Prostitutes By Maureen Chigbo

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Gov. Igbinedion

In spite of stiff opposition, Governor Lucky Igbinedion of Edo State signs into law a bill which stipulates harsh penalties for practitioners of sex trade and their sponsors

Queen Imotanyi Omoruyi, 25, used to be a hairdresser before she travelled to Italy two years ago for prostitution. Omoruyi, who had nothing before her trip seems to have hit it big in the sex trade. She has reportedly bought two houses in GRA and off Ekenwa Road, all in Benin City, Edo Stae

However, Omoruyi, will not be able to enjoy the fruits of her “hard” labour peacefully. “Queen" as Omoruyi is popularly called by her friends, came back in January with a strange ailment. One of her friends, who wishes anonymity, told Newswatch September 13, in Benin: “Queen has been sick since her return. Her relatives are looking after her. The worse thing is that she has no child to inherit all she has laboured for.” She said that Omoruyi’s illness has deteriorated and now she is paralysed from waist down. “She cannot walk. She is hospitalised at Suyi Hospital, a private hospital in Benin,” she said. Her friend fears that Omoruyi is dying of AIDS.

Florence, 35, lies in bed at her home. She is one of many victims of the AIDS epidemic that is forecast to cripple the country's economy as millions die.

Although nurses at Suyi hospital told Newswatch that they did not have any patient bearing such identity, Emmanuel Idemili, a Benin-based medical doctor, explained that Omoruyi’s paralysis could be as a result of AIDS/HIV infection, which breaks down the immune system, exposing one to different illnesses.

Omoruyi’s plight paints a vivid picture of the risk anaverage Bini female who embraces prostitution is exposed to. Prostitution abroad is now a fad in Benin City. Many young girls and some parents from almost all the Bini households embrace it as an easy way of earning hard currency not minding the risk involved. This apparent moral decay has generated wide concern among some custodians of culture in the city as well as the Edo state government. It has also elicited bad publicity for Edo state, whose indigenes make up 98 percent of the prostitutes deported from abroad. This apparent bad publicity has led to a statewide campaign against prostitution and trafficking of females from Edo State.

In its determination to confront the problem frontally, government has wielded its big stick on sex trade barons and sponsors. About 13 barons or sponsors said to be involved in trafficking of women were arrested between November 1999 and May 2000. Those arrested in November are Patience Evboumwan, Gafaru Tijani, Barry Iyobosa Etiosa, Gibson Igbe and Christopher Ogbadan. In March this year, the police arrested Mary Uhuamwangho, Eshohen Iyoha,Cecilia Uhuamwangho, Victor Omobude and Lucky Bright Enadeghe. Three persons arrested in May were Arala Osula, a Bini chief, Mary Osula and Packer Ikopa. They were charged to court.

Apart from arrest and prosecution of baron/sponsors, government has come out with a law which makes prostitution an offence in Edo State. Lucky Igbinedion, governor of Edo State, on Monday, September 11, signed the bill into law. The law cited as the “Criminal Code (Amendment) Law 2000,” amended some of the provisions of the criminal code law cap. 48 laws of Bendel State 1976 as applicable to Edo State. The new law forbids any person from sponsoring a girl or woman by giving her any financial, physical or material assistance to enable her travel out of Nigeria for the purpose of becoming a prostitute or to carry out any immoral act.

It stipulates that any person, who administers any oath on a woman or girl or performs any fetish ritual to enable her to travel out of Nigeria for the purpose of becoming a prostitute or to have unlawful carnal knowledge with any person, is guilty of an offence. On conviction such a person will be sentenced to imprisonment for ten years or to pay a fine of N500,000 or both.

Any female person who knowingly offers herself for the purpose of prostitution or carry out any immoral act within or outside Nigeria, shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to an imprisonment for two years or pay a fine of N20,000. Similarly, any man who patronises any woman in an act capable of being called prostitution is guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to two years’ imprisonment or to a fine of N10,000. “Any woman who lures or induces any male with gratification for the purpose of having carnal knowledge with her is guilty of an offence and if convicted is liable to two years’ imprisonment or a fine of N10,000 or both.

For those who lure or induce women into prostitution, a prison term of 10 years or a fine of N500,000 awaits them if they are found guilty of the offence. In addition, they will forfeit any property acquired through prostitution to the state. The law also provides for a five-year imprisonment for any male person who is guilty of an offence of misdemeanour. A similar offence carried two years’ imprisonment in the old law.

The passing of the executive-sponsored bill by the State House of Assembly is the climax of a two-year campaign by both international and local pressure groups and concerned private individuals who continuously raised alarm on the scourge of prostitution in the state. They include several non-governmental organisations, NGOs, the Nigerian embassy in Italy, the Benin monarch, Oba Erediauwa, the Nigerian police, churches and Eki Igbinedion, the governor’s wife, who is presently in the fore-front of the campaign against prostitution. The groups made serious representations to the House of Assembly stressing the need for the law and a concerted action by government to rid the state of the evil of prostitution.

Matthew Egbadon, speaker of the House of Assembly, told Newswatch that he got a letter from the Nigerian ambassador to Italy stating that out of about 10,000 prostitutes in that country, 80 percent of them were from Edo State. On February 7, 2000, the wife of the governor, who initiated the “Idia Renaissance” last year to tackle prostitution and other social ills in the state, carried her war to the Italian embassy, Lagos. There, she held a meeting with Giovanni Germano, the ambassador and Sabina Vetere, visa officer. Present at the meeting were some officials of “Idia Renaissance” including R.I. Olotu, permanent secretary, ministry of women’s affairs and social development, Benin, representatives of TAMPEP, an NGO based in Torino, Italy.

Germano spoke against prostitution and trafficking of women and how his home government felt on the issue. He said that in 1999, there were about 28,000 Nigerians resident in Italy out of which 15,000 possessed valid documents. The ambassador said most Nigerians entered Italy through Ghana, Togo and specifically through Spain and Morocco. He said the biggest African population in Italy were Nigerians and underscored the need to ensure that all hands were on deck to help curb prostitution and human trafficking and possibly to rehabilitate all its victims.

Vetere also stressed the need for Edo State government, particularly the registry department of Oredo local government council to work hand-in-hand with the Italian government in the issuance of marriage certificates to ensure that falsification of marriage documents was minimised.

Oredo local government is considered the most endemic in the illicit trade. Omede Osazuwa, cultural co-ordinator of TAMTEP, also informed the meeting that there exist a syndicate based in Togo, France, Spain and Burkina Faso, which specialised in the sale of different passports which Nigerian prostitutes used to enter Italy illegally.

AIDS is Real
A man walks past a billboard warning residents that the threat of HIV/AIDS is real, 31 March 2001, in Lagos, Nigeria. While surveys show sex among the young is widespread and HIV/AIDS is spreading, Africa's most populous country still struggles with straight talk about sex, health workers say. HIV/AIDS prevalence rates have risen to 5.4 percent of the adult population, passing the point at which the epidemic spreads into the general population, according to the latest survey published in December 1999. The government has been criticized for doing too little to alert people to the danger of HIV/AIDS and to promote safe sex.

The wife of the governor also travelled to Torino, Italy, to explore the possibility of cooperation between “Idia Renaissance” and the Edo State government on the one hand and the provincial authorities on the other towards combating female trafficking. She also canvassed support for the plan of action drawn up by “Idia Renaissance” to fight the social ills from the roots. Igbinedion used the opportunity to enlighten the Torino authorities, and by extension, the international community, on the vigorous measures already adopted by the Edo State government in tackling the problem in order to erase the erroneous impression that Edo State is tacitly encouraging the vice.

Other objectives of her trip were to contribute to the overall effort to improve the nation’s image abroad and to advocate tougher sanctions by the Italian authorities against known traffickers other than the counter-productive measures of indiscriminate deportation of the victims of the trade. While in Italy, she met and counselled some of the prostitutes who renounced their old ways for a better life.

Apart from “Idia Renaissance,” Edo Cultural Association also raised an alarm over the sex trade. On September 14, 1998, the association wrote to Oba of Benin on the festering issue of prostitution in Edol and. The letter said prostitution had become a ravaging fire spreading from city to city, village to village and house to house in Edo State. “There is practically no home in Edoland without a girl being sent to Belgium, Holland, Spain, England and especially this country, Italy” it said.

The letter cited the often-quoted, well-researched statistics in Italian press, saying Nigerian prostitutes accounted for 50 percent of all foreign nationals (Albanians, Croats, other Africans, the Poles etc.) It said that amongst Nigerian prostitutes, 90 percent came from Edo State. “That means for every 10 Nigerian prostitutes killed by assassins, AIDS, or other job hazards, Edo women stand nine chances of being victims. This is no exaggeration,” it said.

The association observed that the trend had so degenerated that children of 14 to 20 years of age were being lured away from schools to face the high risk of sexually transmitted diseases, AIDS, assassins, and even freezing winter in Italy in search of money. “Women now desert their matrimonial homes with a few months’ old babies. Some men deliberately send their wives. Parents sign for their daughters to join the slave boat. We could go on and on," it said.

The association said prostitution in Italy was at its most dangerous form, adding that Edo people in Italy had become the butt of caustic humour by other Nigerians. The association recalled its recent meeting with T.S.O. Olumoko, the Nigerian charge d’ affaires in Italy who insisted that Edo State was not the poorest in Nigeria. “Your people are not the poorest in Nigeria; other Nigerian women who choose to stay in Nigeria carry their poverty with dignity. How is it that most of your women came here to use themselves to make money...Please do something about this ugly situation...My wife is a Bini woman, she is ashamed...,” Olumoko was quoted as saying. The association then pleaded with the royal father to do something, pledging to supply the necessary back-up information to assist in stemming the tide of local and international prostitution.

The embassy of Ni-geria in Italy and A.J. Ojomo, assistant inspector-general of police, D’ department, also drew the Oba’s attention to the “odious practice of Bini women” in their respective letters dated October 2, 1998 and March 30, 1999. Olumoko stressed that Nigerian women were being ridiculed and brought into disrepute in diplomatic circles in Italy. “Any black woman is seen as a Nigerian prostitute. Many respectable women, including wives of diplomatic personnel have been propositioned and embarrassed in this manner,” he said, stressing an urgent need to tackle the menace from the source as outlined in the Edo Cultural Association’s letter.

The Oba of Benin took several actions to tackle the problem. First, he replied the inspector-general of police, on April 5, 1999, saying he was shocked to hear the initial reaction of his chiefs. According to him, “the chiefs almost in unison said their efforts to eradicate prostitution were likely to yield no result because many parents now live in affluence from the money their daughters sent to them from overseas. The chiefs’ position was based on the fact that many young females returned from abroad to buy undeveloped plots of land and houses. This, the Oba said, became phenomenal with the result that those who did not wish their houses to be sold overnight now inscribe on the walls of their houses, “This House is Not For sale”. He described the situation as very serious, adding that it had brought degradation to Nigerian womanhood. He said he was glad that the police “now want to take it up.”

The second action the Oba took was the decision to recruit Afamat Nigeria Limited, information managers and image makers to handle the image of his majesty. Afamat’s duty was to study the problem and fashion out preventive and curative measures to solve the problem.

Afamat proffered wide range measures covering political, socio-economic to cultural means of curbing the scourge. Among other things, it recommended that the syndicates, who are part and parcel of life in Benin must be sought out and punished. It said the greatest share of blame should go to the family/parents who put pressure on their children to debase societal values for mundane things and outrightly failed to impart old values that sustained society in the past. “It becomes imperative for traditional sanctions, including curse to be meted out as punishment to those who debase Benin values by taking young men and women to prostitute in Italy and other countries”, Afamat said.

For those who are already there, Afamat recommended that they must be brought back, adding: “There should be invocation of certain curses on parents who after necessary counselling still send their children to Italy for this shameful act. “As a matter of fact, such families and parents owe society apology and must seek forgiveness from God and the ancestors.” Afamat dismissed poverty as a justification for prostitution and observed that wealthy Benin indigenes were reluctant to invest in their kingdom because of the fear of ruin by their own people. “As much as this is true, one must stress that the future of Benin people is in their own hands and they must strenuously and painstakingly re-chart their destiny .”

Afamat’s position paper, Newswatch gathered, was tabled at a meeting the Oba of Benin called in his pal-ace to discuss the deportation of young Bini men and women from Italy. Present at the meeting were some Bini chiefs and leaders of thought.

At the end of deliberation, the meeting issued a communique condemning the role of persons who sponsor the young girls abroad. Among other things, the meeting noted that the sponsors and individuals who accumulate wealth from the on-going sex-slave trade might want to employ their ill-gotten wealth for legal action to obstruct the repatriation of the prostitutes under the pretext of protecting individual freedom and fundamental human rights.

The chiefs urged government to take necessary action, including providing legal backing for the repatriation of the prostitutes to protect the waning image of the state and reputation of the country abroad. This, it said, would also protect the interest of the general public that might bear the brunt of the sexually transmittable diseases imported into the country by the prostitutes when they return home. “What can be done immediately is to stop further movement of our young people abroad for prostitution so that only those with genuine need and who are admitted by host countries for education, self-improvement and gainful employment may be permitted to leave these shores,” it said.

Against this backdrop, the House of Assembly had no option but to succumb to pressure to enact the new law on prostitution. The law did not scale through without dissentng voices which Egbadon described as normal in any democracy. “The House felt it ought to do something, if only to check this and also redeem the image of this state that has been so soiled in this direction,” Egbadon said.

The law on prostitution is not completely new. From the State House of Assembly’s point of view, there is no vacuum in the existing laws on this matter. For instance, a look at Chapter 21 of the criminal code, law of Bendel state applicable in Edo state, shows that there are copious provisions on offences against morality of which prostitution is one of them. What the House did by enacting this new law was to fortify the existing provisions by providing harsh punishments for would-be offenders.

“The only addition is that there was no provision for those who were in charge of sponsoring some of these ladies abroad. So we now made provision for those who sponsor girls or women by giving them financial, physical or material assistance to enable them travel out,” he said. Egbadon added: “We also found out from those who were repatriated that there were times they were made to subscribe to some fetish rituals in order to protect and hide their identity before they are taken out. So we have also made provisions for such people.”

Igbinedion says the difference between the old and new laws lies in the penalties. “The penalty was not stiff enough. The penalty is stiffer now. Sentences are stiffer. The awareness is more,” the governor said. He added that the collective resolve to fight the ill is more now, citing an instance of some youths, who paid him a solidarity visit hours after he signed the law. “Parents, even the children themselves are coming to say we don’t want to get ourselves involved,” he enthused.

Igbinedion is greatly worried that many of the Bini girls deported from Italy are HIV carriers. Although the police in Edo state confirmed that eight girls out of the 81 deportees between 1998 and 2000 tested HIV positive, statistics from a prominent private hospital in Benin city shows that there is a rapid spread of HIV/AIDS infections in the state.

Out of 910 persons screened in the hospital in the past two years, 99 persons were found to be HIV positive. This figure represents more than 10 percent of the study population. Of this number, 717 persons were female, representing 77 percent of the affected. This implies that out of every 10,000 persons in Edo state, at least 1,000 will be HIV positive.

“This figure is unacceptably very high,” said Idemili, a medical doctor. Although the statistics was not that of a comprehensive study, he could still say that the incidence of HIV infection was quite on the increase not just in Benin but in Nigeria. “Unless appropriate machinery and massive campaign is waged against the spread/menace of HIV infection, this figure may be doubled within the next few years,” Idemili warned.

Igbinedion says that part of what the state government is doing is to educate the public on the dangers of prostitution and attendant sexually transmitted diseases. “We even want to educate them that what they are doing is not the best. Really, they don’t even know because they are enticed to say that they are going to fashion school, catering school, etc. First of all, we want to educate them that where they are going is not where they are going to achieve a goal. They are going to be sold off as sex slaves and sometimes they end up sleeping with animals and things like that. So it’s a very terrible thing,” Igbinedion said.

In spite of the noble in-tentions of the government, there is strong opposition to the law. The general fear amongst the populace is that when the prostitutes come back, they would surely constitute a social nuisance with no jobs for them. This, invariably, would increase crime wave which had gone down since the advent of the sex trade.

Johnson Omo-Idubor, a taxi driver, warned: “Remember that the notorious Anini was from this state. There are many more hardened criminals who are still around in this state who have managed to keep their claws in check because they are enjoying the windfalls from their sisters or mothers who send them dollars from abroad.” He is certain that the reign of terror would begin again when the ladies who are their source of livelihood for now are repatriated from abroad with no alternative source of income to fall back on.

Even before the governor signed the bill, a cartel that is responsible for trafficking in women mounted serious negative propaganda against it. The cartel resorted to blackmail and propaganda to rubbish the image of top ranking government officials by portraying them as hypocrites.

Igbinedion said resistance to the law “is not significant and not one that is worth taking note of.” Egbadon agreed. He said that the members of the cartel had not the courage to come out in the open to challenge the government. “But from what we are hearing and seeing, they are working underground inciting the people against the government by telling all sorts of lies, even blackmailing functionaries of government,” he said.

Egbadon cited a recent rumour making rounds in Benin that the governor had impregnated one of the members of staff of a private television station in the state. “This wild and unsubstantiated allegation came about just after they knew that this law was about to be passed and assented to by the governor,” he said.

The speaker said it was very nauseating for people to go to that extent of blackmailing individuals. “We are aware that they have also mapped out several other methods to harass functionaries of government, particularly at the level of chief executive, the wife and may be the leadership of the House of Assembly,” he said.

By these actions and rumours, the cartel is questioning what moral justification the governor has to fight prostitutes when he himself is engaged in a similar business even when there is no basis for it. “It can be very nauseating. But as I said, the government is resolved on the matter. The law has been signed. And as the governor said after signing the bill into law, the government will mobilise all the machinery at its disposal to ensure that the law is implemented to the letter,” the speaker said.

Surprisingly, one of the opponents of the new law is Michael Edo Ogie, special assistant to Sherry Igbinedion, deputy chairman of the Igbinedion Educational Centre, Benin, and wife of the governor’s father. In a widely publicised personal letter to the governor before the bill was signed, Ogie described the government’s action as sheer hypocrisy and threatened to go public with his fight if the governor dare to sign the bill into law.

Ogie also said that the law was a denial of the human rights of those involved in the sex trade. But when Newswatch met Ogie in Benin September 14, he described his letter as “hasty”. Mumbling and fumbling for the right words, Ogie outrightly denied that he or any member of his family was benefiting from the illicit trade. He said his initial position on the law was due to an erroneous belief that the law was too draconian. Ogie, who is now regretful, apologised to the governor, his wife and members of the Igbinedion family for any harm his letter must have caused them.

Another critic, who is a Benin-based lawyer, cynically waved off the law saying Igbinedion was playing to the gallery by signing it. He added that Igbinedion signed the bill into law to please his wife who claims she is fighting prostitution, the oldest profession in the world.

The worst opposition to the law appears to come from the market women, who are battle-ready to do physical damage to anybody who steps into their territory to preach against prostitution. Newswatch was fore-warned at the palace of the Oba of Benin to be very careful in raising the issue with the market women, who are very antagonistic and emotional on the issue. The women’s anger is premised on ignorance and their belief that “some one in government wants to deny them of their garri.”

There is also the wrong notion amongst the women that government is advising foreign governments to repatriate their children home. Many of the market women who talked to Newswatch on the issue said the government was wrong in doing so. One of the women, whose three daughters are based in Italy, told Newswatch that there was nothing wrong in young unmarried women sleeping with the opposite sex. “What is wrong and what the Bini culture abhors is married women committing adultery,” the woman said.

There is also a serious political undertone to the position of women on the issue of prostitution. Newswatch gathered that for any party to win an election in the state, it must have the active support of the market women. Some political pundits predict prostitution, which was never a campaign issue during the 1998 elections, would feature in future electioneering campaigns.

Abu Audu, a contractor and a PDP stalwart in Isako west local government area of Edo State, thinks that the government’s stand on the issue would affect the party badly as other parties would use it against them. "Those enacting the law may not view it the way I am doing. Those benefitting from the trade sees it as a determined effort to close their only means of livelihood. Government should not have started with signing the bill. It should have done a massive awareness campaign first. Passing of the bill would have come last,” Audu said.

But Mike Ehima, chairman of the Oredo local government, says “there is no time that you will bring that bill even in the next ten years, that people will say that it is right.” This, he explains, is because dealers make a lot of money from the sex trade. “This matter has been on for a long time. It is unfortunate that it will be after this government has gone that the glory will come. It is so unfortunate,” he says.

Ehima does not think that the signing of the bill will cost the PDP the next election. “It is not a matter of winning an election. I wouldn’t say because I want to win election I would destroy my people. I wouldn’t say because the party must win the next election, I must do what is seemingly right in their eyes, even if it is not right. It’s a matter of doing what is right. It’s a matter of doing what is good for the people. I believe that some people, majority of them will see the goodness in it,” Ehima says. He insists that even if government leaves everybody to be a prostitute, the PDP may still not win if it is predestined not to win. “We keep praying to God to give us the best government, that’s the truth of the matter. If God knows that I will not be effective, I will not be productive in the next election and I so desire to return here, God will never allow it. And it will never happen," Ehima says.

“It will be unforgiven to destroy our people in order to win election. Who will do the voting if the people are destroyed? ...People should not believe that because we are doing programmes like this they should not vote for us. They should look at the merits and demerits very objectively to determine who should get their votes, “he said.

Ehima is of the view that the government means well for the people. “The government of PDP wants the very best for the people in all areas.… We don’t want to create a very healthy economy, a good economy for a sick people. We don’t want to build good roads for a sick people,” he said.

Ehima recalled that the current resistance to the law was akin to the people’s behaviour when the then government tried to fight against Planwell, a finance company that defrauded a lot of people in the state before being distressed. According to him, the government that fought against Planwell came and left before people realised their mistake. Planwell went underground. Everybody lost.

He added: “We must be criticised. In life there are two things to it: you must have negative, you must have positive. That’s how it is. So don’t expect that everybody will talk so well of it. But I want to say to you that in no too distant time, people will hail this decision.…”

There is no doubt that the fight against prostitution in Edo State is going to be a long drawn out battle. But will the current PDP government in Edo State win it before the next election? Ehima says even if it cannot be a 100 percent victory, the government will win to a point…. “We will win the battle up to an enviable point. At the end of the day, we may not win outright considering the tenure of this government. But at a point people will say that government really tried, we can now see the message they are passing to us.”

The prostitutes are already getting the message that government means serious business in enforcing the law. Newswatch last week visited notorious red light zones in Benin, especially the Ugbague street, which harbours brothels and the Motel Benin Plaza Road both in the day and at night to assess the impact of the new law. The areas, which used to be very boisterous were unusually quiet.

Yekini Jimoh, the new commissioner of police, in Benin, told Newswatch that they were determined to enforce the law by constantly raiding the prostitutes and charging them to court. On trafficking of women and sponsors, he said: “If it comes to our knowledge, we will make arrest and investigate.”

The government has also put in place measures to rehabilitate prostitutes and provide employment as a means of deterring youths from being lured into social vices. Igbinedion says his people have a history of pride, of culture, of tradition and the state government was doing all within its power to put in place legal avenues of making money. “We are setting up skill acquisition centres, creating industries, creating the conducive environment and atmosphere for people to come and invest here. We are still talking to people to come. The cocoa cola plant is the biggest in Africa, it will employ a lot of people,” Igbinedion said.

He also said the government would recapitalise the New Nigerian Bank, reactivate Bendel Insurance, privatise the moribund Okpila Cement Company and fertiliser plant all of which will employ a lot of people. He said the stadium would be refurbished and upgraded so that youths can engage in physical activities. The government has also set up a micro-credit loan scheme to give loans to graduates of skill acquisition centres to enable them start their business.

“There are a lot of opportunities and avenues. The educational facilities are being upgraded. I don’t see any resistance to the law. Rather, I see that they are going to start having a sense of pride because I don’t think there is any child or any parent that wants to show to the world that his children or daughter is a prostitute. So at the end of the day, if money is what they want, we are trying to create a lot of legal means for them to make a livelihood," Igbinedion said.


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