BENIN CITY, Nigeria—Ato spends much of his time as a juju priest in Nigeria’s southern Benin City trying to cure all types of illnesses using traditional medicine and carrying out ritual sacrifices offered to a local goddess.
Among the sacrifices he carries out in the name of the goddess is an oath-taking ritual—girls who are about to be trafficked to Italy are forced by their traffickers to undergo the ritual to supposedly ensure they do not disobey their sponsors once they get to Europe.
Since Ato began as a priest four years ago, he has administered over a dozen oaths to girls from different parts of Nigeria who are taking off to Italy through Benin City, and receives payment from their traffickers usually in the form of cash, animals, and liquor. He claims he didn’t know the girls who took part in his rituals were being trafficked until a close friend informed him in January that he had read a story by The Daily Beast exposing how traffickers promise non-existent jobs in Italy to girls desperate for work abroad. Eventually, the girls are forced to work as prostitutes. The juju oath they take before departing Nigeria makes them swear their allegiance to their smugglers. If the girls break their word, they will be cursed.
“The women that bring them here tell me they want to give these girls jobs in Italy and they want them to swear that they will pay back what was spent on their transportation, with additional interest, when they begin to work,” Ato told The Daily Beast in January. “No one has ever said anything about prostitution or trafficking.”
The Daily Beast asked Ato, now that he knows the motives of the women who bring Italy-bound girls to him for oath-taking purposes, if he would like to play a part in the fight against human trafficking in Nigeria by reporting new cases to security agencies.
The juju priest shook his head in disapproval. He was reluctant to work with Nigerian authorities, whom he said would not give human traffickers the “right punishment” they deserve. He rather wanted to develop a “better plan” for dealing with trafficking.
As The Daily Beast left Ato’s temple at the start of the year, he began to discuss how best to deal with the issue with fellow juju priests who are close to him. Four of them then decided that the women who bring girls to their respective temples for oath-taking rituals will also have to swear that they are not traffickers aiming to force their clients into prostitution in Europe. If they turn out to be sex traffickers, the curse meant for girls will be directed at them.
“That’s how we will know who is a trafficker and who is not,” Ato said as The Daily Beast met with him again, in February. “Whoever decides not to take this oath is definitely a trafficker, and we may at this point report that person to the police.”
In the middle of our conversation with Ato, a woman, in the company of her younger sister, arrived to see the priest. She wanted to find out about oath-taking rituals, and how one can be administered to a girl she plans to give a job abroad. Ato handed her a list of items that included liquor, olive oil, a pack of candles, and a chicken to bring for the ritual and gave her a date for the ceremony. He also warned that there would be consequences for her if she happened to be a sex trafficker. The woman gave her address to the priest, and promised to return on the stipulated date.
“If she returns and agrees to go ahead with the ritual, it will mean she is not a trafficker and the ceremony will take place,” Ato said. “If she does not show up on that day, I’ll hand over her address to the authorities in charge of trafficking issues.”
In the temples of the other priests taking the same measures as Ato, no one who has spoken about offering jobs in Italy to Nigerian girls is willing to be part of a ritual ceremony that also puts them at risk. Two women showed up with their clients at different temples, but declined to go ahead as a result of the conditions attached.
“They said no and went away,” Ato said. “We have resolved right now that we will be reporting such cases [to authorities].”
The effort of the four juju priests is coming at a time when Nigeria is seeking to fight human trafficking using traditional actors.
Last year, The Daily Beast reported extensively on sex trafficking in Nigeria and the use of juju rituals by traffickers to trap victims into doing their bidding. The stories were popular in the country, including a report about the trafficking of a former Boko Haram sex slave, which led the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) to increase its surveillance on displaced persons camps in the northeast.
NAPTIP is now following up with working with juju priests in Benin City to deal with sex trafficking. The agency says juju priests “did not even know” the true intentions of the persons bringing girls to them for oath-taking rituals, and had now revoked all the curses they laid on the girls who will disobey their traffickers.
“They didn’t know that what they were doing was criminal,” Nduka Nwanwenne, head of NAPTIP Benin City zonal office, said in an exclusive chart with The Daily Beast. “Now they have agreed to work with NAPTIP. In fact, some of them are even joining us in our sensitization campaign against human trafficking.”
Sex trafficking is deeply rooted in Benin City. Figures show that 80 percent of women trafficked to Italy come from the city, which is capital of Edo state. Most of the trafficked girls are fooled into believing they’ll be given good jobs once they get to their destination. But, on arrival in Europe, they are told that they must work as prostitutes until they pay off debts, which in some cases are as high as $50,000.
The girls have no choice but to do the bidding of their traffickers, bearing in mind that they had sworn to an oath of allegiance to their smugglers, and could end up dead if they go against the covenant they had entered back home.
Benin City is a highly traditional society. The Oba, who is the traditional ruler of the Edo people, presides over spiritual matters until his death. Until 1897, when a 1,200-strong British force captured, razed, and looted the city, the Oba had full political and administrative control over the Benin Empire. Today, his influence is limited to traditional issues. His position makes him revered by juju priests, and NAPTIP is taking advantage of it.
In February, NAPTIP executives paid a courtesy call on the Oba and asked him to talk to juju priests and chiefs to end the oath-taking administered to girls seeking to work abroad. He has swung into action.
Early this month, Oba Ewuare II, as the monarch is called, assembled sorcerers and priests of the Benin Kingdom to his palace to place curses on juju priests who aid human traffickers by administering oaths of secrecy on their victims. The traditional ruler also nullified all the oaths of secrecy administered on all victims of human trafficking and urged them to speak out and seek help.
“The Oba has made it very clear that those [priests] that may have administered oath as at Thursday 8th of March are forgiven, but from the 9th of March anybody who does it will have a curse placed on his head,” Nwanwenne, who was at the ceremony in Benin City, said. “If there is any bridge [on the part of the juju priests], we will go all out to make sure they are apprehended.”
The move against sex traffickers and those who support them has been applauded by many Nigerians, including Edo state governor, Godwin Obaseki, who has asked juju priest to “repent”. But those who have been involved in sex trafficking business in the past are less optimistic it will change anything much.
“Because of greed, many priests will not listen to the Oba,” a middle-aged woman who was part of a ring in Benin City trafficking girls to Italy, told The Daily Beast. “Besides, traffickers may choose to go outside Edo state to carry out rituals. There are juju priests everywhere in Nigeria.”
For priests like Ato, who is determined to do things differently, it was time to end the practise that is “killing our girls and giving priests in Benin [City] a bad name.”
“If I knew [about trafficking], I wouldn’t have done things the way these women wanted me to do,” Ato said. “Thanks to the report [by The Daily Beast] and NAPTIP, we now know the truth about what these women do with our girls.”