KEYNOTE ADDRESS BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE SENATE OF THE FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF NIGERIA, HIS EXCELLENCY (DR.) ABUBAKAR BUKOLA SARAKI, CON, MBBS, AT THE SENATE ROUNDTABLE ON MIGRATION AND HUMAN TRAFFICKING IN NIGERIA, HELD IN BENIN CITY, EDO STATE ON FEBRUARY 26, 2018.
1. Let me extend warm greetings to everyone here, especially my distinguished colleagues in the Senate, representatives of Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs), our international partners, dignitaries, speakers and invited guests. You are all welcome to the Senate Roundtable on Migration and Human Trafficking in Nigeria, a Two-Day discourse starting today in Benin City, Edo State.
2. The theme centres on Irregular Migration – which some refer to as Illegal Migration – and Human Trafficking; two issues that have become a bane of our existence as a nation. Nigeria currently ranks 23 on the Global Slavery Index of 167 countries with the highest number of slaves. Human trafficking is third in the ignoble hierarchy of the commonly occurring crimes in Nigeria, according to UNESCO.
3. Irregular migration has been a disastrous development for our continent; and the stark realisation becomes even more so, when we narrow the focus to Nigeria – which accounts for the world’s highest number of irregular migrants going through the Agadez Route. Our citizens represent the fifth largest number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea into Europe; and the number of females arriving in Italy alone increased 600-fold in just three years.
4. And what of those who perish along the way – who are sucked into the void between the desert and the raging sea and are never seen again? 10,000 Nigerians are estimated to have lost their lives on the perilous journey in five months of last year alone. We have seen the bleak images of coffins of 26 Nigerian girls who were laid to rest in Italy last November. And while media attention is often focused on those rescued at sea or washed up along Europe’s shores, United Nations’ estimates suggest that more migrants die crossing the Sahara than the Mediterranean. This is human tragedy on a colossal scale, and to reel off the statistics is to recite a litany to doomed youth.
5. That is what brings us today to ancient Benin, throne of kings, a centre of culture and home to one of the greatest artistic traditions in the world – which gave us the 16th century Mask of Queen Idia, the imperishable icon of FESTAC ’77. That is the Benin we know and revere. But today, there is disquiet in the land. His Excellency Governor Godwin Obaseki declared earlier this month that the irregular migration of Edo citizens had reached ‘epidemic proportions’ – pointing out that 10,000 persons had been traffickedin one year, and 3,000 lost their lives during the same period. The trafficking of young males has overtaken females in this state for the first time, and now stands at 63 per cent.
6. I thank Governor Obaseki for his determined leadership in the face of the crisis, and for being our gracious host for this Roundtable. Recognition or acknowledgement of a problem is a crucial step in seeking solution, because in that way, we banish denial. Nor can we be in denial of the fact that this is something that affects many Nigerian communities. It would be illusory to think that this is a problem for Edo State alone; it is a Nigerian problem. Young people all over the country are entranced by the lure of life abroad, and it appears many are willing to risk their lives for it. It is our expectation, therefore, that this Roundtable will serve as a springboard to efforts to stem the tide.
7. The Roundtable is intended to draw attention to the situation, to give confidence to our people and to let them know that we are troubled by this. We are losing sleep over irregular migration and human trafficking; and we are determined, as representatives of the people, to do something about it.
8. Therefore, this summit should help identify how legislation – which is the primary function of the National Assembly – and policy – a joint responsibility – can be brought to bear in addressing the problem. The irregular migration of Africans to faraway countries – especially in the Western hemisphere – is not new, but it has assumed a much more worrying dimension in recent times. And Nigerians seem to lead the ignominious pack. Of asylum applications rejected by European countries since 2011, Nigerians accounted for nearly 100,000 – almost three times the number of any other African country.
9. Even more alarming is the spectre of human trafficking – and worst of all, the enslavement of Africans, including Nigerians, in some countries. Who can forget 21-year-old Victor, who told CNN in one viral video that he was sold into slavery while in transit? “I spent my life savings leaving the country,” he narrated. Ponder that for a moment, if you will; many Nigerians waste funds that could have been ploughed into profitable enterprise, in the quest for an ever shifting horizon. Victor is symbolic of the best of us, being lost to the desert and the sea in their search for what they think is a better life. It no longer seems appropriate to call this a Brain Drain; rather, it is the lifeblood of Africa draining away.
10. And you wonder… why? This Roundtable is designed to help answer some of the niggling questions. To identify root causes and the various dimensions of the problem, as well as areas where legislation and policy can be used – in the short term – to stem the outward flow of our people; and – in the long term – to see how Nigeria and the rest of the world can collaborate to reduce the damage to national economies, societies and the global economy.
11. I should say that the particular impetus behind this initiative by the Senate, lies in disturbing images of thousands and thousands of Africans, including a large number of Nigerians, imperiling life, limb and liberty in the hope of attaining a dream that is often more myth than reality. It is time to lay bare the mirage that tricks young, able-bodied, energetic and potentially productive Africans like Victor into leaving the relative certainty of the fatherland. We must drive home the message that they are undertaking these highly uncertain and risky journeys for countries where, even if they get there, they will likely live wretched, subterranean lives as fugitives from the law. The irregular migrant’s desperate dreams are often not realisable. It is a pipe dream.
12. As you might imagine, the media images have shocked the leadership of this country and indeed the whole of Africa; and it would be irresponsible and a betrayal of the people’s trust if no action is taken to reverse the trend. As we have seen, the immediate response of the Nigerian government has been to commence the repatriation of our citizens stranded in countries such as Libya, and many are now back on Nigerian soil. We must commend the initiative of President Muhammadu Buhari, who moved swiftly to come to the aid of citizens marooned in foreign lands, and prioritised their return.
13. And yet, in spite of those images that show in no uncertain terms what befell many that went before, we have reports that thousands are still willing to take a chance on the same deadly route. The question we then have to ask is: what is the spur to these dangerous odysseys?
14. We have lost too many young people who have died in the desert and in the sea on these unpredictable treks.
15. We have lost too many young people who would otherwise have found productive lives in their home country.
16. And have we not lost our dignity as a people, watching our freeborn citizens sold as slaves in lands that are themselves teetering on the brink?
17. We have had to endure the trauma of a history we thought ended two centuries ago with the abolition of the slave trade. A history we thought we would never see repeat itself. A history of the enslavement of our people by outsiders. And the bitter irony of that history – whereas Black Africans were forcibly taken across the seas during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, we now have the absurdity of youths wilfully walking into bondage.
18. We must therefore ask ourselves some searching questions. For one, how has it become such an easy option for thousands of young females born into proud and civilised cultures to find their ways into prostitution and other forms of crimes, as well as dehumanised existence in other countries? How is it that they drag Nigeria’s image into disrepute and put themselves in harm’s way in one go?
19. Are the answers to be found in an economy that does not sufficiently address the needs and aspirations of young people? Or in the erosion of societal values and the enthronement of greed, immediate gratification and the worship of money? Or is it the failure of community leaders to exercise the responsibility bestowed on them by our culture?
20. Additionally, we should ask whether the Nigerian state has not failed its citizens. Why is it so easy for huge numbers of young Nigerians to leave home, go through borders illegally, enter other nations’ borders, and cross those borders without being detected or prevented? Clearly, something is wrong in the way we manage citizens’ security, border security as well as international cooperation and collaboration.
21. We are not comforted by the international community raising alarm about the large numbers of our citizens within their borders. While Nigeria should collaborate with destination countries, we should also join in undertaking a mutual enquiry as to whether those nations themselves do not compound the problem with some of their policies. We make bold to ask our international partners: what have you done and what are the sincere and humane steps taken to bring an end to this crisis? You certainly can do more to collaborate with us because whether we like it or not, you also have a responsibility in this matter. We have seen international summits on Syria, for example. But what we are seeing here is also worthy of international intervention. This is a silent holocaust of African humanity unfolding, and it cannot be allowed to go on. It simply cannot be allowed to go on.
22. I must stress, however, that this is not a blame game. The idea is to collaborate in a responsible manner, to make certain that agencies in Africa, Europe and the wider world are not failing in their duty on this issue. Let me make it abundantly clear that Nigeria is willing to collaborate with all countries of the world on irregular migration. With our international partners, we should be able to work out a carrot-and-stick approach that gives our people the incentive to stay on the continent and strive. Every human being deserves his or her own place in the sun – and for many, that place in the sun is here, in Africa – but they have to stay in order to find it.
23. Awaiting repatriation, Victor lamented to CNN: “The problem is, how I am going to start again?” As policy makers, we must have a reassuring response to Victor’s plaintive enquiry. Naturally, we recognise that part of the solution is to evolve an economy that would make it less tempting for young people to leave. It is also important to try and examine whether we can adopt constructive, innovative strategies and policies with countries that receive large numbers of irregular migrants. We commend the initiative of countries that are actively involved in looking for solutions and options that include skills acquisition, education as well as laws legalising the stay of some Nigerians in their jurisdictions.
24. Above all, we as Nigerians need to take a hard look at ourselves. We need to reexamine our value systems and ask some very difficult questions, because clearly, poverty alone cannot account for this debacle. Without holding excuses for government, let us reason with ourselves as Nigerians. Is our economy worse than that of Burkina Faso, Chad or some other countries out there? However bad we think the situation is, surely there are some things that we, as a people, would not want to be associated with?
25. Communities and leaders at all levels must therefore come together to find solutions to what appears to be a total collapse of the value system that once placed premium on hard work, respect for the law and perseverance in the search for lawful means. In spite of our limitations, Nigeria is a great country, and in no shape or form should our people be leaving in the thousands via irregular routes on the plea of poverty or insecurity.
26. In closing, let me set out what I think are the main goals of this Roundtable, and these are:
i. To improve collaboration between the Nigerian state and other countries on irregular migration;
ii. To put a stop to human trafficking, an aberration and an assault on our standing as a civilised nation;
iii. To improve legislation and policy in the longer term, so as to put in place effective mechanisms for arresting the twin scourge;
iv. To see to ways of improving funding and other support to MDAs including the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), in order to increase their capacity for tackling the culprits; the deterrence, reorientation and rehabilitation of victims; as well as greater synergy between relevant authorities;
v. To facilitate and fast-track all pending treaties and agreements that are necessary to put in place, in order to effectively deal with this issue; and
vi. To ginger our international partners to meet us halfway, and come up with incentives that will encourage more Africans to opt for legal migration – for example, through more embracing and creative visa regimes, as well as other workable initiatives.
27. Whilst we are seeking an end to human trafficking and modern day slavery, we as Nigerians must look inward in our everyday lives and take steps to eradicate every semblance of domestic trafficking and slavery in our midst. Big changes begin with the seemingly little ones.
28. And, for the sake of our people caught in the vortex of illegal migration and its evils, we must not relent. The cry of #BlackLivesMatter has reverberated throughout the world. These ones too, who are trekking into bondage or death, are also black lives – and we must begin to trumpet the affirmation here in Nigeria that their lives matter, too – by taking decisive action that will lead to a significant reversal of these unfortunate trends.
29. Timing is a very crucial factor here; and so, permit me to sound an additional note of urgency on this matter. I believe we have a window of about six months to get something done – before the polity is taken over by politicking ahead of the next general election. Let us seize the moment, and take the opportunity for action on the subject of this summit.
30. Do we promise that illegal migration and human trafficking will stop immediately after this Roundtable? No one can promise that. However, with you and us and the support and cooperation of our international partners, we can give hope to Nigerians that – Yes – there is a government that exists and cares for the people. The solution needs all of us, coming together with a common purpose. Together, we can do this.
Thank you all very much.
THE PRESIDENT OF THE SENATE