Let My People Go: Blowing the Whistle Upon African States

By Ronald Rogo   rogo.ronald@gmail.com

I have heard about the problem of human trafficking[1] for eons. Horrid stories about the pain of individuals held against their will within and outside their borders. The numbers are numbing: conservative estimate of 600,000-800,000 victims being trafficked annually across international borders. Many more cases are not reported, especially trafficking that occurs within the national borders.Resolutions have therefore been passed about how governments will fight the menace and ensure that future generations do not have to fight these ghosts again.

As a source market, the situation in Africa is just as dire, if not more, compared to other parts of the world. For example, according to the Global Report on Trafficking in Persons by the UNODC in some parts of Africa and the Mekong region, children are the majority (up to 100% in parts of West Africa) of the persons being trafficked. Needless to say, hundreds of thousands of Africans have been subject to sexual, physical and psychological abuse. Most Africans could identify one or two individuals who have been subjected to these inhuman conditions. For Africans, human trafficking is a chilling re-enactment of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Only that this time the African governments are complicit, by design or default, in the entire business (others would argue that, yet again, the leaders are complicit…but that is a discussion for another day).

But let me fair. It is not entirely correct to state that nothing has been done by the African leaders. Numerous conferences have been held in the continent where the issue of human trafficking has been discussed. Glossy paged reports with policy and legal commitments have also been prepared. We have even passed laws that outlaw human trafficking[2].  In fact, even some of the highest public officials have created time out of their busy schedules to open these conferences, deliver the opening remarks and encourage the participants of the commitment of their respective governments on this issue. But that is all. After this, the documents are filed and shelved until the next donor conference when they would be dusted again and the speeches brushed up. The rigmarole. And that is exactly my problem.

While the rest of the world has developed regional instruments to tackle their specific needs on human trafficking, Africa has stagnated. In 2005, for example, the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings was established to assist combat human trafficking problem in the European Union. In addition, the European regional court-has established important jurisprudence in the area of human trafficking.

Africa developed the Ouagadougou Action Plan[3], where member states pledged to havea comprehensive legislative and institutional framework that covers all aspects of trafficking in human beings in line with the UN Convention” and to “Ensure the effective prosecution of those suspected of involvement in trafficking in human beings, and deterrent penalties for those found guilty of trafficking”. However, as we shall see, these noble intentions have not been met by actual progress.  In contrast, one would barely get a case that signifies the importance of human trafficking in Africa. For example, while child sex trafficking was outlawed in Kenya in 2006 there has not been any significant reported case to date[4]. Even in situations where the victims’ cases have been filed in the European capitals the source countries have often inexplicably failed to take similar actions against the perpetrators. To put it more succinctly “Law enforcement systems have fail(ed) to prevent trafficking, punish traffickers, and protect those who are trafficked. In general, the failure of law enforcement officials to ensure security, particularly in the context of conflict, means that traffickers can act extremely violently with impunity”[5].

It seems to me that since the victims of human trafficking are mostly women and children-and conversely the beneficiaries are predominantly male[6]-the problem of human trafficking does not affect the power relations. The political power brokers can therefore afford to bury their heads in the sand. For instance, one would be hard pressed to recount an instance when an individual Parliamentarian in Africa has, suo moto, raised concern about the impact of human trafficking on their citizenry. Others would state that there are bigger problems to deal with in Africa. But what, pray tell, would be more urgent than preventing the decimation of the population in the continent?

Lack of the appropriate resources is often stated as an important barrier to effective combating of human trafficking. I would agree but qualify. Africa lacks willing implementers of the policies. People who will bite the bullet and get on with the task of rescuing generations of enslaved victims. Fighting human trafficking, just like drug trafficking, requires the expertise of a skilled police force. Specialised police units with the skills of identifying and being able to expose these tight networks need to have been created. So typically, if one would have to succeed one would need lots of solid evidence and co-operation of the victim. Most African states have not yet put these in place (although,  I submit, this is more for lack of the will and determination rather than a lack of resources).

Lastly, until African governments address the inequality situation in the continent human trafficking will continue being a problem. Most of the victims are deceived by the promise of a better life across the shores. Lack of employment opportunities, capital to start businesses or an investment climate for small businesses has led to the vulnerability of millions of young people. The Ouagadougou Action Plan identified  poverty, unbalanced wealth distribution, unemployment, armed conflicts, poor law enforcement system, degraded environment, poor governance, societies under stress as well as non inclusive societies, corruption, lack of education and human rights violations including , increased demand for sex trade and sex tourism as the root causes of trafficking in human in Africa. We have the diagnosis. Now let us treat the disease. Urgently.


[1] The UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Supplementing the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (the Palermo Protocol) defines human trafficking as “The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.”

[2] While a step in the right direction, the type and number of laws are still wanting. Few countries in Africa have specific legislation outlawing human trafficking as a specific offence (these include Djobouti, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Mozambique, the Gambia, Ghana, Liberia, Mauritaina, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Egypt and Nigeria). More countries only have laws that address only one specific form of human trafficking. In the USA, however, there are four different laws to combat human trafficking- The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2003, the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2005, and the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008. In addition, an Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons has been established under the State Department to co-ordinate efforts to prevent and prosecute perpetrators of human trafficking.

[3] Ouagadougou Action Plan To Combat Trafficking In Human Beings, Especially Women And Children As Adopted by the Ministerial Conference On Migration And Development, Tripoli, 22-23 November 2006

[4] However, it is important to applaud the efforts of the Nigerian government which prosecuted 209 trafficking cases in 2011, resulting in 23 convictions. While the numbers are low compared to the number of victims these efforts forecast what should happen if the rest of the states were as serious about combating human trafficking.

[5] HUMAN TRAFFICKING IN EASTERN AFRICA: Research Assessment and Baseline Information in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and Burundi (Report by International Organization of Migration)

[6] The ILO estimates the annual proceeds from human trafficking at 32 billion US Dollars. This, no doubt, is a profitable enterprise with interests. The report can be accessed online at http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/@ed_norm/@declaration/documents/publication/wcms_090356.pdf

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