WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
A 15th century monarch of an ancient West African empire laid the roots for modern-day slavery in one of the world’s most infamous trafficking hot spots.
- The ancient ruler of the landlocked state of Edo created massive slave markets to feed Portuguese demand in the 15th century.
- More than 500 years later, the tiny state is responsible for half of Nigeria’s human trafficking victims.
In March 2018, HRH Oba Ewuare II, the traditional ruler and spiritual leader of the Benin Kingdom in the southern Nigerian state of Edo, summoned 500 juju priests across his domain to an emergency meeting. There he laid a powerful curse on human traffickers and on native doctors who convince victims to take an oath of secrecy.
A few months later, the state government signed an anti-trafficking law criminalizing sex trafficking and labor trafficking with a minimum penalty of five years’ imprisonment plus a fine. Both spiritual and legal measures recognize the same issue:
Edo state is home to less than 2 percent of Nigeria’s population but responsible for 50 percent of its human trafficking.
According to the International Organization for Migration, 5,425 women went from Nigeria to Italy in 2016. Eighty percent were thought to be potential victims of trafficking, and 94 percent were from Edo state.
Neither the Oba’s magical thinking nor the anti-trafficking laws have brought the practice to a standstill, says R. Evon Benson-Idahosa, executive director of Pathfinders’ Justice Initiative, an advocacy organization committed to tackling modern-day slavery. “However,” she says, “they are a welcome development and helpful step in the right direction if they can be coupled with immediate, effective advocacy.”
Edo — which is also an oil-rich area — isn’t ideally placed to be a trafficking hub. It has no direct borders with the Gulf of Guinea (it did during the 16th–18th centuries when Lagos was a colonized vassal city-state and slave port for the ancient Benin empire). Nor does it have borders with Nigeria’s neighbors — Benin Republic, Chad, Niger or Cameroon. But its roots in slavery go back centuries.
The ancient Benin empire was a formidable trading nation and was respected by all of its peers. At the height of its powers in the 15th–16th centuries, some historians believe the empire stretched as far as modern-day Ghana and Togo. One of the empire’s most powerful warrior kings, Oba Ozolua, ruled between 1481 and 1514 — and his thirst for new territory and wealth meant he needed a massive army.
When Portuguese traders showed up hoping to buy slaves to transport to European colonies, Ozolua’s problem wasn’t whether slavery was morally wrong — but rather how he could gain the revenue of slave trading without depleting the men he needed for his armies.
So he created parallel markets for male and female slaves in the kingdom. Then he “deliberately under-supplied the male market,” says Cheta Nwanze, head of research at SBM Intelligence, a Lagos-based sociopolitical risk advisory firm.
While he did sell male slaves, they tended to be less impressive physical specimens, or foreigners. Later on, Ozolua banned the export of male slaves entirely and sold only women, a practice that continued long after his reign ended. It wasn’t until the 1680s that Oba Akengbedo briefly started selling male slaves, but later rules put the kibosh on that practice once again. Even when slavery was abolished in 1833, smuggling women — which continued illegally — was seen as more profitable.
The supply chain continues today, but has evolved into what we know as human trafficking, with new kingpins — mostly called Madams, as they’re often middle-class women — replacing the royal slave merchants. “The long-term effect of that from a cultural viewpoint is that’s what makes people from Edo state more likely to send their daughters out to prostitution in foreign lands,” says Nwanze.
Other factors are also making it harder — despite efforts from nonprofits like Pathfinders’ Justice Initiative — to curb trafficking. Corruption is rife. Government data shows that between 2004 and 2012, Benin City, the capital of Edo state, saw only 34 convictions of human traffickers.
Deep-seated patriarchy and a preference for male children also adds to the problem, researchers say. In a 2010 study in Ekpoma, a town in Edo state, 89.5 percent women said they prefer sons to daughters.
Yet all these cultural factors wouldn’t have made Edo Nigeria’s unparalleled hub of trafficking if it weren’t for the sordid legacy engraved by Ozolua. “It was a devaluation of women,” says Nwanze — and it continues to this day.