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

Let us Deal with the Source of Conflicts

“If you’re in India, and the Brahmaputra river is being rerouted by the Chinese, you’re not muddling through; lives are being lost…the world will be drawn into a war for resources…I think we’ll see more wars”. This statement by Dambisa Moyo[1] captures the perspective-perhaps pessimistic, others would say realistic-of the types of war that we have been seeing and should expect in future. Increasingly, the argument goes, main causes of conflict would not be ideological differences, different religious views or identity differences but rather who gets to control which particular portion of the available natural resources. As the Chinese economy continues on its exponential growth trajectory and we continue to deplete the remaining natural resources one would expect that the pressure and competition for the few remaining resources would increase by the day. Eventually this would determine the livelihood of entire populations. When this happens then it would not matter the type or size of stick that international criminal law holds over the warring parties[2].

We can see snippets of this today. The first judgment was recently determined by the International Criminal Court and the perpetrator sentenced to fourteen years imprisonment[3].  However, in spite of this the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo is far from resolved. Possibly, the world’s richest country in natural resources[4], the conflict in the Congo had at one time sucked in several neighbouring nations. The pull of and supposed need to control these resources far outweighs any consideration on the “big stick” that the ICC or any other international body carry. We all held our breath as Southern Sudan and Sudan amassed troops towards their common border in what would have been another full scale war. While the original war when Southern Sudan was part of the bigger Sudan had elements of religion and race involved, this would have been a fight for control of the oil fields along the common border. Keep in mind that the ICC still has unexecuted warrants of arrest over Al Bashir, the Sudanese President. Reason? The allure of the oil outweighs the risk of more indictments on any of the parties. Lastly, Kenya recently experienced clashes along its coastal region, even as the ICC prepares to determine cases involving four prominent politicians[5]. The possible involvement of more politicians on the massacre possibly indicates the contempt with which they hold the ICC. Perhaps they feel the ICC has a big bark but no bite. Perhaps the ICC never features in their calculations. Or maybe, yet again, the control of resources is perceived to be a matter of life and death and the ICC can just go jump in the pool. One could go on and on- about Libya, about Iraq, about Afghanistan and other resource rich nations.

The lesson? International criminal law and fear of retribution, by itself, is not enough to prevent people from fighting for resources. When people feel that their own lives are at stake they will take any steps-even committing international crimes-to extinguish the threat. Everyone has an innate need to be heard especially in the allocation of resources. When their views are ignored, as is often the case, conflict results. Is it not then time for the international community to examine how sharing of resources can be conducted in an equitable manner. Not after the fact-when the war drums are being beaten-but immediately after the resources have been discovered. For example, Uganda has discovered oil and gas. We know-from history-what will likely happen if any of the local communities feel aggrieved in the wealth distribution process: more work for the ICC. So does it not make sense for the international community to “poke its nose” into Uganda’s affairs right now, albeit in a subtle way.  This rather than having a court with international jurisdiction is perhaps the better way “to put an end to impunity…and thus to contribute to the prevention of these crimes”[6] After all, “it is the whole political economy of southern resource rich countries and their relations with the north that needs to change if inequalities and recurring conflicts are to be avoided”[7].

(by Ronald Rogo. He lives and works in Nairobi, Kenya. rogo.ronald@gmail.com )


[1] Dambisa Moyo, from Zambia, is an international economist and author. She has authored Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way For Africa among others.

[2] There is also the converse argument that an abundance of resources allows for the emergence of warlords able to sustain wars independent of the state’s largesse.

[3] Prosecutor vs Lubanga. Mr Lubanga was convicted and sentenced for conscripting child soldiers into his army

[4] DRC is rich in diamonds, copper, cobalt and lush natural forests. It is easy to see why each country wants a portion of these resources but sad to realize the effect on the citizenry who have not enjoyed this “blessed curse”

[5] Prosecutor vs William ruto and Joshua Sang- (Kenya 1 Case)and Prosecutor vs Uhuru Kenyatta and Francis Muthaura (Kenya II case)

[6] Preamble of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal court

[7] The political economy of resource wars by Philippe Le Billon at p. 40