A gritty undercover exposé of a human trafficking in Nigeria is making waves in the African country – but not for all the reasons you may think.
Tobore Ovuorie (@DaughterofMit), a reporter for Nigerian online newspaper Premium Times, wrote about her experience going undercover to shed light on a ruthless human trafficking syndicate. The motives for the story, according to Ovuorie, were:
It had all started in Abuja, with me deciding to expose the human traffic syndicates that caused the death, through Aids, of my friend Ifuoke and countless others. As a health journalist, I had interviewed several returnees from sex traffic who had not only been encouraged to have unprotected sex, but who had also been denied health care or even to return home when they fell ill. They were now suffering from Aids, anal gonorrhoea, bowel ruptures and incontinence.
The human traffickers were not only involved in recruiting and exporting young Nigerian ladies to Europe as prostitutes, but were also training them to pickpocket. Ovurie also recounted an incident of cold-blooded murder:
What happens next is like a horror movie… As we ‘unlucky’ four, are standing aside, Mama C talks with five well-dressed, classy, influential-looking visitors.The issue is a ‘package’ that Mama C has promised them and that she hasn’t been able to deliver. The woman points at me, but Mama C refuses and for unexplained reasons Adesuwa and Omai are selected. We all witness, screaming and trying to hide in corners, as they are grabbed and beheaded with machetes in front of us. The ‘package’ that the visitors have come for turns out to be a collection of body parts. The mafia that holds us is into organ traffic, too.
Ovurie however was able to escape from the mafia and publish her story, which stunned the Nigerian blogosphere. It also prompted an investigation by the National Agency for the Prohibition of Traffic in Persons and Other Related Matters.
However, the shock had barely worn off when doubts over the veracity of Ovurie's report began to surface.
Tobore Ovuorie (whose twitter handle is @DaughterOfMit) is enthusiastic, if anything else, as evinced by her vociferous testimonies on her timeline. If her narrative turns out to be true, Ovuorie and her sponsors (Premium Times and The Zam Chronicle deserve the Pulitzer. And her sponsors deserve to be censored for reckless endangerment of a reporter. As far as I can tell, Ovuorie is walking the streets of Nigeria unprotected after making serious claims against powerful interests. It is a mystery to me why she so brazenly attached her name to the story. If indeed there is a mafia, she is being quixotic and reckless to boot. She could be badly hurt or killed. As for the external sponsor of the adventure, The Zam Chronicle based in Amsterdam, it seems highly unusual for a Western outfit to sign on to such a risky venture without putting many things in place to minimize actuarial risk, the financial consequences may be too much to bear. What if she had been murdered? Her family could have sued the sponsors.
Ikhide asked seven questions:
1. Why is the Nigerian Police silent on this story? Ovuorie seems to know many geographic details of the places where she was taken to and where she witnessed horrific crimes. She knows names of important personalities, there is even a name of a policeman provided. Has Premium Times contacted the Nigerian authorities? …
2. When she witnessed the beheading of two abducted girls, she had her phone (or seemed to). Who did she text? Who did she call? Forensic experts can learn a lot from these transcripts.
3. At what point did she and her sponsors realize that this was possibly an unwise venture and she needed to be rescued? Where there any discussions about this?
4. I am having trouble believing that she did not text any of the pictures that were in her cellphone to someone else. That just seems unlikely. Does anyone have pictures or anything?
5. How sophisticated can this syndicate be if they allow the girls keep their cellphones and presumably let them continue to chat with the outside world?…
6. Ovuorie seemed close to the two girls who were beheaded, does she have their phone numbers? Can they be traced back to their families? Why are people silent about all this?
7. The report talks of a “multibillion dollar syndicate” but the “syndicate” doesn’t appear very sophisticated, a reporter walks the streets asking for the leader and is promptly hooked up with one, gains the trust of the syndicate and along with the other “abducted girls” has access to her cellphone and even a charger. Interesting, but then we are talking about Nigeria. Nothing seems to stretch credulity:
Ikhide received a response from Editor of Premium Times Dapo Olorunyomi:
In amusement, I notice the ambivalence in your review as you tried to challenge the veracity of the story. This is how you put it: “How sophisticated can this syndicate be if they allow the girls keep their cell phones and presumably let them continue to chat with the outside world? There are so many tracking devices on a cell phone, you wonder if and why the game plan of the reporter did not include these free tools.”
Let’s cut to the chase. The logic in your question is erected on the assumption of the implausibility of infiltrating a syndicate and still use a cell phone. Thus, on account of your logic, if one gets to operate a cell phone in the environment of the syndicate, then the story automatically becomes false. Seriously? Sorry, this is either empty or dubious.
This twist has split the Nigerian blogosphere into those standing by Ovuorie's story and others swayed by Ikhide's scepticism. “Onas” wrote on Facebook:
If she went undercover in November, when and where did she receive treatment for the trauma she allegedly underwent? When was she discharged? For how long was she there? Which hospital did she go to? Can we have the medical records? (Even though we know that her medical records are private and personal but the controversy surrounding the story has made the issue a matter of public interest). The Tobore that was at the conference in December was the life of the conference. She was bubbly, talkative and the soul of everything that transpired there. Someone that almost got beheaded, did stunts at the border and checked into a hospital won’t be the most talkative person with the brightest makeup in a human trafficking class. She did not betray any sign of distress even when the heart-rending stores of those who have been victims were told in the class.
Another blogger, Semiu A. Akanmu, asked for more clarification from the Premium Times. This time, Managing Editor Musiklu Mojeed responded:
I can tell you categorically that the story is not fiction. It was well reported by the reporter. It is cruel that Ikhide and others are casting aspersion on a reporter who risked her life to tell us an important story. I agree the story could have been better done, but it was such a dangerous assignment. We warned her against pushing too hard. Her safety was more important to us…
…We knew what our organization and the reporter went through to tell that story. So, for anyone to declare, without any shred of evidence, that the story was a fabrication is simply cruel and annoying. It's an injustice to us and the woman who risked her life and dignity to tell us this story. But this is not the first time Ikhide has mounted a campaign to discredit our work…
Too convenient and sadly expedient
Finally, it is all too convenient that critical evidence that could give the real truth to this story was lost, like why she had not immediately transmitted pictures, conversations and much else for most of the time she had her mobile phone. At worst, there should have been an electronic dead drop to collect all this data for the use of the expose.
In the end, we only have Tobore’s word and the threatened reputations of Premium Times and ZAM Chronicle through obfuscation, bluster, bullying and ad hominem attacks to go by, the rest in text messages and Facebook posts is hardly independently verifiable. It is a crying shame.
You cannot trust this
If Tobore was exposed to such evil and unconscionable human traffickers with connections to people in high places in Nigeria and abroad, she and her handlers must be recklessly bold, careless, and utterly irresponsible to reveal her identity where she must daily be at risk of being apprehended and assassinated.
I am sorry, it is time for Premium Times to cut loose of this travesty or both it and its reputation would sink with it, considering the reporter they are supporting has hardly been with the outfit for 6 months, the level of naïveté demonstrated by the seasoned journalists at Premium Times is befuddling to the point of bafflement.
The end of this story is no where in sight, yet one thing is certain: human trafficking is a vicious business in Nigeria, and it's about time attention is given to it.