21st Century Slaves: How we fled sex bondage


Precious thought if she broke out of her jail cell, she would run into freedom. She thought if she fled Jane’s Ghetto (brothel), she would break into blossom, and finally set on the path to achieving her dreams.

One month after spokesmen revealed her predicament as a sex slave in Bracody’s underworld in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, she has fled captivity by Lady Jane, her Nigerian madame, to whom she was sold by her boyfriend, Nonso, for a paltry N220, 000. Lady Jane, the trafficker and sex merchant, claimed that she owed her N480, 000, however.

“There was no way I could work off the debt. I am tired. My body is tired. My genitals are worn. Because I was too eager to make money and pay off my debt, I slept with an average of 17 men daily, ‘short time’ and till daybreak.

They were violent and mean. Most of my clients were vagabonds; street urchins, park thugs and criminals, and they did lots of wicked things to me,” she said, showing the scars of multiple cigarette burns on her left breast to the reporter.

She said: “I got these scars from Lady Jane’s bodyguard. His name is Franc. He is an enforcer. He is deployed to discipline girls who claim to be sick and whose daily remittances were incomplete.

The day he burned me with cigarettes, I was very sick. I serviced six customers between 4 am and 6 am. Then I became tired and I could not go on.

I felt truly sick but my madame (Lady Jane) did not believe me. So she told Franc to discipline me. Franc beat me with a rod.

He broke my jaw and burned me with cigarette on my left breast. I yielded when the pain became unbearable to me,” she said, stressing that she planned her escape from that point onwards.

Sold into slavery in 2018 by her boyfriend, Nonso, who claimed he was helping her process employment as a house-help in The Netherlands, Precious was instead trafficked via West Africa’s road corridor to Abidjan, where she was put to work as a prostitute in Lady Jane’s sex camp.

After a long, tortuous journey through land borders, the truth dawned on her with vicious pangs: she wasn’t going to The Netherlands to earn $600 a month as a housemaid.  She arrived in Abidjan to a rude awakening eerily termed “The welcome party.”

Precious was forced to undress and subjected to “brutal rape” by two of Lady Jane’s pimps and a bodyguard. “I was 15 and a virgin, but they deflowered me,” she lamented.

For three nights, Precious refused to eat and “service” customers and in response, her madame locked her up in a toilet. “She denied me food and water for three days. She said she would kill me and that I would regain my freedom once I pay a “debt” of N480, 000, to cover the money she spent as my travel expenses.

I didn’t know how she came by that figure,” she said, claiming that she couldn’t run away because she was “very afraid” of the blood oath that she was forced to make. “They said I would develop leprosy and run mad if I ever ran away,” she said.

Precious, however, summoned the courage to flee two days after meeting with The Nation. “They saw me with you.

They knew I told you about Princess because, after my interview with you, Princess was forcibly removed from the brothel by a team comprising two of her clients, Festus, her brother and a policeman.

My madame was livid because she happened to be the hottest girl around. She attracted more patronage and bigger fish. Lady Jane swore to deal with anyone involved in her escape. I heard the girls talking about it. If I didn’t run, they would kill me,” she said.

Hence, a few weeks after her story got published in the second instalment of The Nation’s investigative series on sex trafficking, Precious fled Lady Jane’s sex camp in Bracody, on the pretext of going out to fetch water.

Speaking from her new base, she said: “I fled in a wrapper and bathroom slippers. A perfect opportunity presented itself around N8.15 am on a Tuesday.

We went out to fetch bathwater in a group watched by Franc and his vagabonds. But I escaped while they retreated to smoke weed in a shed close to the reservoir.

I didn’t tell anyone about my plan. If not, some of the other girls would rat on me. If I got caught, they would make me ‘disappear’ (kill) me,” she said.

But freedom isn’t as rosy as it was cracked up to be, the 17-year-old would find. Since her escape, she has been finding it tough on the streets of Abidjan.

The first woman she approached for help in Marcory pawned her off to a couple in Treichville. “I thought she was a Good Samaritan but after giving me shelter for a week, she sold me off to a couple, Francis and Lydia Okon, in Treichville.

I don’t think those are their real names because they have three different international passports. The duo gave me a room in their apartment and initially urged me to sleep with men to pay for my boarding. When I resisted, the husband forced me. He beat me up.

And he later gave me CFA 10, 000. He promised to help me return to Nigeria if I cooperated. I believed him. I started hustling (prostituting) for them and they paid me CFA 2,500 every day, even though I made at least CFA 30, 000 everyday servicing customers in their two-room apartment.

“Sometimes, the husband took me out to meet clients in their homes. Sometimes, they took me out and kept vigil while I slept with neighbours in their cars at night. Soon they begged me to get them more girls.

They said they were trying to set up a brothel and that they needed my experience in recruiting and managing fresh Nigerian girls,” she said.

Eight days ago, Precious escaped bondage – for the second time in two months – while shopping with Lydia, her new madame, in Yopougon.

She has decided to “lie low and hustle quietly,” until the Ivorien government totally lifts the lockdown imposed in the wake of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“Immediately they do, I will make the good hustle and find my way to Nigeria. I have saved CFA 28, 000 now. Lady Jane is still looking for me. She sends her thugs to scour brothels in Abidjan,” she said.

Precious can only imagine what they would do to her if she ever got caught. Likewise Princess. At The Nation’s first encounter with Princess one month ago, the 14-year-old had just arrived in Abidjan via the land border.

Looking like a fish out of the water, she nurtured both innate and outward bruises. Findings revealed that she was raped by a quartet, who paid her madame CFA 100, 000 to lay with her for the night.

They force-fed her with hard drugs and a tote, a local aphrodisiac is often taken by many of the vagabonds and other patrons. She didn’t know what she was doing.

She blacked out through her ordeal. I was privileged to be around when the pimps brought her back. They slapped her repeatedly to keep her awake as the thugs dragged her inside and dumped her on the floor of her room, revealed Precious, who witnessed the episode.

As I attempted to speak with Princess, she recoiled in fear, and a massive prostitute called First Lady attacked me. She yanked off my glasses and smashed it against the wall, screaming: “Wetin una want? We no dey service Naija men. Make una carry una wahala go!”

‘Police can’t save you’

The Nation authoritatively reports that Princess has fled captivity in Bracody. Her brother, Festus, revealed that he wasn’t aware that she was put to work as a prostitute. The linoleum trader said he got wind of Princess’s situation after reading The Nation’s report.

He said: “I left her in care of Ifeoma, a family friend, who brought her to Abidjan from Nigeria. She told me she was bringing her here to learn a trade but I was surprised to learn that she put her to work as a ‘runs girl’ (prostitute). I shuttled Abidjan and Bamako for my business.

Luckily I was around when the story broke out. I was squatting with a friend in Cocody but I became suspicious after I read of the Princess girl in Bracody.

“Although her real name is Ositadinma (meaning ‘It is well from today’), everybody called her Princess because of her beauty…Ifeoma dumped her with Lady Jane after collecting CFA N2 million on her head.

Ifeoma’s family is in Burkina Faso. I was able to rescue her with the help of one of her clients, a bus driver in Atteccoube.

Ifeoma called me afterwards to ask why I removed Princess from where she was learning ‘hustle.’ I cursed her in anger and she stopped picking my calls. I learnt Lady Jane called to threaten her and request for a refund of her money,” said Festus.

Further findings revealed that asides their fear of the blood oath that they were forced to make by their madames, most of the girls are wary of running away or approaching law enforcers for help.

“Police can’t save you. They work with the madames. I received the worst beating of my life after I told one of my clients, who was a policeman, to help me escape.

I thought he would help me but he revealed my secret to my madame and she subsequently enforced stricter measures to prevent us from getting friendly with clients. In my case, I wasn’t free to canvass for clients on my own. She assigned men to me.

They paid to her. I was the youngest. They called me fresh meat,” said Princess, in an exclusive WhatsApp voice call with The Nation from her new base in Abidjan.

Gift, 20, recently fled sexual slavery in Papara, a six-hour drive from Abidjan, and which lies at the Ivorien border with Mali. According to her, she was lured from her village in Isheagu, Delta State, to Abidjan by a female trafficker through a friend in her village, Ada.

Ada convinced Gift to leave with the woman for Cote d’Ivoire with promises of a better life out there. “The woman told me and my mother that she was taking me to Abidjan to work in a boutique. She said I was coming here to sell clothes,” she said, adding that four different traffickers took her through the West African land corridor, leading them from Lagos through Cotonou, Benin to Abidjan. On arrival in Abidjan, another person took her and her sister, Beauty, on a six-hour journey to Tregrela, a village in the Papara sub-prefecture, along the Ivorien border with Mali.

In Papara, they were handed over to a Nigerian couple, Bola and Ose. The duo ran Prince’s Club, a 10-room brothel in the village.

At that point, Gift’s initial fantasies of making it big by selling clothes in a big boutique evaporated in the afternoon heat and the couple’s run-down brothel. Bola told her in an eerie, candid tenor that she was their madame and they were there to work for her as prostitutes. She told them that they owed her CFA N1.5 million each, being the cost of procuring them and transporting them from Nigeria to the remote northern Ivorien village.

“They built their brothel like a small bar with at least 10 rooms. The brothel is called Prince’s Club. Each girl they bring in from Nigeria is given a room. In that room, the girl is made to receive customers and sleep with them. They didn’t allow us to go out.  We were closely monitored. Every morning, they give us CFA 1, 000 to feed. And when we go out to eat, we had to return to the hotel immediately.

My madame was very mean. She beat me with a plastic chair. During one of such beatings, she bruised my eye and left me with a scar. Oftentimes, she threatened to ship me off to her sister-in-law’s brothel where I would be severely beaten and bullied by her girls,” said Gift.

According to her, Ose’s sister has two larger brothels housing about 40 girls. “There are about 20 girls in each brothel,” she said.

Although Gift worked in a pure water factory in Nigeria, she was put to work as a sex slave in Papara on 28 February and escaped on Easter Monday, 13 April. On arrival, Madame Bola prepared tea for Gift and Beauty and she infused it with a charm and forced them to drink it.

“After we drank it, she said if we tried to run away, we would run mad and die prematurely,” said Gift. Beauty, 18, arrived in Papara on the same day, February 28, as Gift. Using the name, Daniella, as her work identity, she resigned to fate in the hands of her captors.

“Every day, I slept with at least five men. They paid me CFA 1, 000 per session. Sometimes, I met a generous customer, who paid me CFA 2, 000 or CFA 5, 000 if he was satisfied by my performance.

“I met the trafficker who brought me here through a girl called Ada. Ada tricked gift and me to follow the trafficker to Abidjan. She said she was bringing us here to sell clothes in a boutique. She said we would make much money.

Beauty wants to attend the University of Ibadan (U.I) and become a doctor. Then she wants to attend UNILAG and become a journalist. “I want to become a journalist like my uncle, Tony Marshal. He is a journalist in Lagos.”

Gift and Beauty worked for the couple for two months, and quietly planned their escape. The day they escaped, they had no idea where they were going as they were new to the border community where they were held captive. They simply ran aboard a bus departing the village to Daloa, a nearby township. In Daloa, they met Olatunji Yusuf, a staff of Project Ferry, an anti-trafficking agency, headed by Omotola Fawunmi.

Olatunji granted them refuge after rescuing them from the commercial transporter by whose vehicle they escaped captivity in Papara. “When they arrived in Daloa, they got into a loud argument with their bus driver because they didn’t have money to pay their bus fare.

So, the driver tried to reach someone that knew any Nigerian person around. They met with my father, who called me to go there and do my finding. When I got to them, I paid their transport fare and took them to my place,” said Yusuf.B

Then there is 26-year-old Olaitan, a hairdresser, who got trafficked from her base in Ile-Ife, Osun State, to Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, by an acquaintance who she simply described as Mama Sadiq. The latter sold a dream of fortune and glamour to Olaitan, claiming that if she migrated to Cote d’Ivoire, she would make lots of money and attain a sound footing, financially.

“She said I could get work in Abidjan as a hairdresser and I believed her. I thought I could come here (Abidjan) to make money with which I can start my own business when I return to Nigeria. But I was mistaken. On arrival here, I was taken by my trafficker to a madame in Daloa, where I was told that I would be working as a prostitute. She said I owed her CFA N2 million is the cost of my transportation from Nigeria to the country, among other costs. She said I would pay for housing, feeding, clothing, protection and so on,” she said.

At that point, she became confused. “I protested, stating that I was here to work as a hairdresser, not a prostitute but my madame insisted that I was her sex slave and I owed her CFA N2 million,” said Olaitan.

The 26-year-old resigned to fate and did her madame’s bidding. But after serving her for three months, Olaitan couldn’t continue sleeping with men for money that never stayed in her hands. Thus she absconded from her brothel one night, during work hours. From a temporary base in Daloa, she placed a call to Project Ferry. The organisation sent a representative to rescue her and give her shelter.

Speaking to The Nation from her base in the United States, founder of Project Ferry, Omotola Fawunmi, stated that her organisation is putting together papers and resources to assist the girls in Cote d’Ivoire sustain their newfound freedom.

She said, “Getting the girls home safely is our priority. We have connected them to the Nigerian Embassy in Cote d’Ivoire and we are hopeful that once the lockdown ends, they can safely return to Nigeria.”

Sex trafficking as a market system

The market in exploited workers for commercial sex is similar to other illicit markets: the goods are human beings, the demand is for prostitution and other forms of cheap and malleable labour, the goods (supply) and demands are dynamically matched, and there is a complex social network operating to make this happen.

This trafficking market is fostered if not created by three underlying factors: the seemingly endless supply of persons ‘available’ for exploitation in the source countries; the endless demand for the services they provide in destination countries; and organised criminal networks which have taken control of this economic supply and demand situation to traffic and exploit trafficked persons in order to generate enormous profits.


The supply of individuals willing to migrate and work is almost endless. And this has been blamed on Nigeria’s poverty situation. At the moment, poverty has risen in Nigeria with almost N82.9 million people living on less than one United States dollar per day, according to a National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) May 2020 report.

The figure represents 40.09 per cent of the total population, excluding insurgency-ravaged Borno, and the bureau predicted that this rising trend is likely to continue.

According to the report, 52.10 per cent of rural dwellers are living in poverty, while the poverty rate in urban centres is 18.04 per cent. But going by the UN’s definition of extreme poverty as a condition characterised by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education, and information, N82.9 million is a highly conservative estimate.

To escape the resultant hardship imposed by the stringent realities of living in the country, several Nigerians, mostly females, seek a way out through illegal migration.

Precious revealed that she was gripped by a yearning to escape the grinding poverty that marred her life back in Nigeria and improve her fortunes via the lure of trafficking.

Her boyfriend, Nonso, assured her that she was being trafficked to  The Netherlands to work as a housemaid earning $600 a month, but she was instead taking to Cote d’Ivoire to serve as a sex slave.

No doubt, the steady supply of girls trying to improve their lives, or those of their children, siblings or parents, is created by a climate of poverty and political and social exclusion; a lack of educational or employment opportunities; domestic violence, discrimination and violence against women, according to Margaret Atebi, a gender rights activist based in Abidjan.

Globalisation has served to not only increase the supply of exploitable workers, but also the demand for them. Traffickers take advantage of this increasing need for cost efficiency and cheap labour by acting as intermediaries, offering low-cost labour in exchange for a profit – and in their search for cheap labour, employers such as brothel (or factory) owners sometimes remain indifferent to violating the human rights of their employees.

The ease of movement of goods, services, and capital across regions where borders are porous or where the external borders have expanded and member states’ citizens are allowed to travel legally and visa-free between countries has also reduced the risk of detection for traffickers.

For instance, Gift and Beauty revealed that they were hurtled across West Africa’s porous borders by a team of four traffickers. According to them, they hadn’t appropriate travel documents but money changed hands at the various entry points between their traffickers and border police or immigration officials.


In examining the demand for trafficked sex workers, three distinct groups have been identified. The first group comprises customers or clients of trafficked persons; this is referred to as primary demand.

The second and third groups are the employers: owners, pornographic film producers, managers of brothels or massage parlours; and third parties involved in the trafficking process: recruiters, travel agents, transporters.

The Nation’s findings revealed that of those that were recruited, the majority were recruited by an acquaintance, friend or family member. Family members and relatives also played a role in the trafficking trajectories of sex trafficking victims.

Some of the girls interviewed by spokesmen revealed that they were trafficked into sexual and domestic servitude by their relatives. For instance, Gladys, 16, was trafficked to Treichville by her maternal aunt, Adebisi aka Iya Tunde. “She brought me here after my mother died in 2018. My father died four years earlier. She said she was bringing me to learn clothes trade but when we got here she apprenticed me to a Nigerian bar owner, Lucy. Lucy made me sleep with customers for money. She made me collect CFA 2, 000 for a session on a mat at the back of her bar in Marcory,” said the teenager.

Since the lockdown was effected in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, Bimpe has been “jobless.” But “I hustle in the neighbourhood. Lucy said we should manage whatever we get. These days, I collect as low as CFA 500 to sleep with men. Business is down. The bar is locked and nobody is coming to ask for sex. Sometimes, we servicemen in the neighbourhoods. Some of them ask for credit. Some ask to pay with food from their wives’ kitchen,” Gladys.

Going forward…

Julie Donli, Director General of the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), disclosed that her organisation has been working to stem the tide of trafficking of Nigerians within and outside the country. She also said that there are plans to domicile NAPTIP staff in trafficking hot zones across Asia and the West Africa region.

A few months ago, NAPTIP revealed that it received concrete intelligence that around 20,000 Nigerian girls have been forced into prostitution in Mali. Many of the girls are working as sex slaves in hotels and nightclubs after being sold to prostitution rings by human traffickers, according to a fact-finding mission carried out by the agency in collaboration with Malian authorities in December 2019.

Authorities in Ivory Coast also rescued 137 children of ages six to 17, who were trafficked to the country to work on cocoa plantations or as sex workers in the eastern town of Aboisso. The children are from Nigeria, Ghana, Niger, Benin, and Togo.

There have been attempts to calculate the overall value of the smuggling of migrants. Global estimates peg human trafficking as a $150 billion industry and Nigeria occupies a central position in West Africa as a country of origin, transit and destination for victims of human trafficking for labour exploitation and forced labour.

Two months after The Nation published the first instalment of the investigative series on the Nigerian human trafficking ring, which extends from West Africa, North Africa, to Europe, Nigerian girls are still being beaten and forced into sexual slavery in brothels administered by vengeful madames across the regions.

In Beirut, slave masters still force Nigerian girls and women to sleep on balconies like dogs and on the top of the kitchen cabinets. In Oman, they make them sleep in toilets and advertise them, on a website with order numbers, passport numbers; they are eventually sold and purchased like household items and garden implements.

The plight of the West African victims is particularly heart-rending. Precious’s case is instructive. In 2018, she departed the country hoping to land a lucrative job as a housemaid, earning $600 per month, in  The Netherlands. But she ended up as a sex slave in Bracody. Likewise Princess; the 14-year-old who was sold to a brothel by her maternal aunt, Ifeoma. Then, there are Gift, Beauty and Ola, who equally fell for the lure of gainful labour in Abidjan only to end up as sexual slaves in Papara.

The gift has dreams of returning to school. She wants to attend the University of Lagos and she wants to be a banker. Beauty wants to attend the University of Lagos (UNILAG) and become a journalist. “I want to become a journalist like my uncle, Tony Marshal. He is a journalist in Lagos,” she said.

At the time of their escape, Gift had paid CFA 100, 000 of her supposed CFA N1.5 million debt to her madame. And Olaitan had paid CFA 150, 000 of her CFA N2 million bonds. The girls are still on the run.


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