When the Way Out of Boko Haram Is an Ancient Slave Route


Philip Obaji Jr

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria—At a bus station here in the capital of Nigeria’s northeastern Borno State, 17-year-old Abba got set for a trip he hoped would take him to a new life, and, perhaps, save his life.

He wore a white cotton shirt and white trousers, and leather sandals like a typical Nigerian schoolboy returning to the dormitory after holidays. Beside him were three other young boys and a light-skinned middle-aged man who led them to get their tickets. It was clear he was coordinating the trip. The boys held on firmly to their bags, hoping to board a vehicle to the northwestern town of Kano, but their destination was the Mediterranean Sea, a body of water they had never seen, and Italy, a country where they’d never been.

I saw Abba from afar as he and the others got out of a three-wheeled taxi. I waited for them to get their tickets, and then walked up to Abba as soon as they were done.

We knew each other well. Abba was one of a number of former Boko Haram child victims I have interviewed and given psychosocial counselling to in Maiduguri, which is the birthplace of the jihadist group. Abba in particular struck me as a brave and intelligent kid. He had told me so much I didn’t know about the jihadists.

It was Abba who first told me that Boko Haram was teaching child soldiers to rape women, after he stumbled on a little boy getting instructions from a senior militant on how to carry out the act. He also told me how militants used Viagra to enhance their sex performance when it was time to rape their female captives, although I was careful not to identify him too closely when I wrote about those two disheartening topics for The Daily Beast last year.

Abba saw hell at the hands of Boko Haram militants who abducted him from his home in the northeastern town of Gwoza in March 2015.  He had just finished having his bath and was preparing to visit his cousins on the next street when the jihadists struck. Armed with guns and machetes, the militants moved from house to house kidnapping mostly women and children, and setting some homes ablaze. In most compounds, the jihadists focused on kids who looked like they were in their teens. Abba, who was barely 15 at the time, was one of those seized.

“They shot my brother,” he told me when we first met in an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp in Madinatu, near Maiduguri, in May 2015. “They killed him because he wouldn’t let them take me away.”

It took hours for his abductors to move Abba and the others they kidnapped to their base in the Sambisa Forest as the militants kept changing routes to avoid a clash with Nigerian soldiers. When they finally arrived late at night, the jihadists began to separate the boys from the girls.

“They asked all the women to sit while the men stood,” Abba said. “One of the militants moved around counting and asking us our names and what we do.”

As the headcount went on, another militant drew the attention of his colleagues to the fact that two captives were wearing the shirts of English Premier League soccer teams. One of them was Abba, who wore an old Arsenal shirt design. The other was another little boy who appeared in a Chelsea shirt.


Abba alone was asked to step out from the crowd, and then a militant used a small knife on his shirt—first tearing out the front part that had the club’s brand, and later asking the boy to take off his shirt completely.


“At first I thought they [the militants] hated Arsenal,” Abba said. “I became confused when they called out the other boy and did the same to him.”


They had committed a crime in jihadist eyes. “They said we were supporting infidels,” said Abba. “They flogged us with electric wires.”




Boko Haram’s torture of Abba and and the other boy happened just as the jihadists had pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State and were trying to copy its mode of operation. Cutting team insignia from shirts is one of the many strict rules ISIS imposed in its self-declared caliphate in the Middle East.

Boko Haram, like the organization it pledged its loyalty to, believes soccer is anti-Islamic. It has targeted fans watching the game in viewing centers in a number of suicide attacks.

In the past, ISIS in the now-defunct caliphate spanning Syria and Iraq beheaded members of a soccer team after labelling them “spies.”

Boko Haram merely tortured the two teenagers. The victims were tied together and made to sit on wet ground until the next morning. They were not given food or water.

“They only untied us when they heard the sound of a jet flying in the sky,” Abba said. “I couldn’t even get up because I was so weak.”

The boys were moved to the area in the Boko Haram camp where senior commanders stayed, and that became their home throughout the period they were held captive. Their job was to run errands for the militants.

“If they wanted to send messages across to militants in other locations, they’d ask us to do it,” he said. “You’d be punished if you were caught sleeping at the time there was a message to be delivered.”

The two boys often contemplated escaping, but they were too scared to do so because militants told them that they’d be hunted down and killed if they tried to run away.

One night, the jihadists went for an operation, leaving only one senior militant behind to watch over the camp. Abba kept an eye on the him. When he noticed the man had been sitting for a long time in one place and was beginning to fall asleep, the boy picked up a big stick, walked up to him quietly from behind and bashed the guard on the head, knocking him unconscious and creating a way for a number of abductees to escape.

“We ran as fast as we could without looking back,” he said. “It took us days to get to Maiduguri.”

Eventually they found their way to the IDP camp in Madinatu—one of the biggest displaced persons camps outside Maiduguri—where Abba and I first met over the course of a week that I spent as a volunteer at the camp trying to help rehabilitate him and several others.



Meeting Abba for the second time in Maiduguri was difficult. I had gone to the same IDP camp, where I first met him in 2015, to see him again. I wanted to find out how he and other young Boko Haram victims were faring.

I was told by a man who knew him well that he now lived in the heart of Maiduguri, but no one at the address I got knew who Abba was. Then the man who had given me that address suddenly recalled that the boy was about to travel to Kano, headed for Agadez in neighboring Niger.

Agadez is an important transit point for smugglers taking young men and women to Libya through the Sahel, and I had no doubt Abba meant to try to make it to Europe.

Finally, on the second day I waited and watched for him at the station, he showed up.


Abba said he had made some money in a menial job with a building company in Maiduguri, and he was using it to pay the smugglers. He heard life in Europe was rosy, and that jobs were so easy to get, provided you’re willing to work.

“Two people I know from Maiduguri left for Europe last year,” he said. “People are dying everyday in Maiduguri. Everybody wants to leave.”


Abba’s parents as well as his brother were killed by Boko Haram, and then he had been taken to the forest. “I don’t feel comfortable anymore staying in an area that reminds me of the family I have lost,” said Abba. “I believe things will be much better for me in Italy.”


The teenager’s love for soccer is huge, so also is his dream. He’s hoping he’ll find a small team to play for once he gets to Italy, and then catch the attention of a big Italian club with his performance. He’s hoping that one day he’ll end up in London as an Arsenal player.

“It will be the best way to put those militants to shame,” he said. “Boko Haram tried to kill my dream, but I want them to see me living it.”


An increasing number of young  people in northeastern Nigeria are hoping to move to Europe, The Boko Haram insurgency has ravaged the region for nearly a decade and made life very difficult for millions of people who are living without jobs.



The light-skinned middle-aged man travelling with Abba and the other boys is from Niger, a broker for a smuggling ring that traffics migrants to Italy via Libya.

Abba introduced me to a man called Idris, saying he is a benefactor who helped him pick up the pieces of his life after he had escaped Boko Haram captivity. So, we got talking.


Idris said he spends much of his time in Maiduguri where he has talked a number of young men and women—including those in IDP camps—into leaving Nigeria for Europe.

The broker told me he was a businessman who always delivered on his job. He said he worked for a man called Amin, a Syrian who controls a “reliable” Libyan smuggling network that has smuggled thousands of people into Europe through the Mediterranean.

Idris said Amin’s men—most of whom are nationals of Arabic speaking countries—last year helped over 5,000 people get into Europe, and that those who made the trip came from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Syria, Palestine, and Libya itself.


Brokers for smuggling rings in North Africa have begun to create bases in troubled northeast Nigeria where they approach—or are approached by—people seeking to migrate to Europe.


“There’s still some secrecy in the business, but even if you don’t directly know someone, you may be lucky to find someone who knows someone,” says Babagana, a Maiduguri resident whose friend successfully made the trip last year.


Idris also has taken advantage of the desperate situation of Boko Haram female victims. Among those he has helped smuggle out of Nigeria are girls as young as 17, he says.




One of the smuggler’s female clients had spent close to a year in captivity where she served as a cook for the jihadists and was later forced to marry a militant. After escaping from her captors, she found life very difficult in an open IDP camp in Maiduguri where food is hardly enough for hundreds of displaced persons. She started working as a cleaner in the house of a man who is a close friend of Idris. It was in one of the broker’s visit that he met the teenage girl.


“I told her about helping her get to Europe and she was so interested,” Idris said. “I don’t know how she did it but she wasted not much time in raising the money.”

Like Abba, the three other boys travelling with the man from Niger are in their teens, and have suffered huge losses due to the insurgency, and experienced its horror, even if they were not abducted and enslaved.


Usman, Musa and Ahmed are half brothers from a very large polygamous family in Maiduguri. Their father married four wives and has over 20 children. The travelling boys come from different mothers, but have become very close. The three have lived virtually all their lives working together.


In 2012, Boko Haram militants entered a compound near Maiduguri, beat up everyone they saw, and set fire to the buildings, including a shop owned by the family of the three boys. As the boys tried to escape, one militant stopped them and told them to take off their shirts.


“He tied the three shirts together to make it appear like a rope, and then used it to tie us together around our necks.” said Usman, who recently turned 16. “The man then dragged us close to the road and began to whip us with a cane.”


“It wasn’t in their plan to kill us,” Musa said. “They only wanted to torture us.”


The militants replicated the kind of punishment that was common during the slave trade era. It was almost the same way black slaves—for about 800 years—were joined with chains around the neck and transported through the same remote desert villages the boys on this trip will be passing.




For centuries—and for many years after the Atlantic slave trade had been abolished officially by Europe and the United States—foreign merchants bought black slaves from Kano and transported them through remote desert villages in northern Niger to Fezzan (as the southwestern region of modern Libya was known). From there they were sold most often to Arab traders and owners.


The same routes are still being used by smugglers to this day. Kano no long trades in slaves as such, but the city is vital to people smugglers who hope to sneak clients from Nigeria into Niger.

When the British captured Kano in 1903, they quickly made it the administrative capital of northern Nigeria and began to build rail and road infrastructure connecting to other strategic towns in the region. As a result, the city began to grow massively in trade and, subsequently, in population. Right now, it is the commercial nerve center of northern Nigeria.


I had decided on the spur of the moment to join Idris and his charges, and our journey—on dilapidated roads, and through towns and villages that had witnessed many Boko Haram attacks—gave me a picture of how easily smugglers get away with their businesses.


At a number of checkpoints, policemen focused mostly on private cars while they allowed commercial vehicles to pass freely after the drivers paid small bribes to the officers.


“It’s the reason why some of us [brokers and people-smugglers] prefer to carry out our businesses using commercial vehicles,” Idris said. “It saves a lot of time.”


Questions are hardly asked by policemen about passengers or the destination of the vehicles they board. As a result, smugglers and traffickers often move freely with their victims inside Nigeria, and then find ways of outsmarting immigration officials once they get to border posts.


We arrived at Kano at about 4:00 p.m. local time, after a nearly eight hour journey that was often interrupted by police and military checks. Eventually, we stopped at the popular Kurmi market in the heart of Kano, where a man called Moussa was on hand to receive the boys.




Kano’s slave trade history has a connection with Kurmi market, which was built in the 15th century as a center for the commerce in humans. Every year, some 5,000 slaves were exported from Kurmi.


Foreigners now buy other goods from the market. But for men like Moussa, it is a pick-up point for clients heading to Niger.


The smuggler came in an old Volkswagen Passat and was going to be the one to take the migrants on a nearly three and a half hour drive into Niger. There they will head to Libya in pickup trucks, in minivans, and on motorcycles.


Moussa’s task is to take the boys across the frontier 161 kilometers north of Kano to Maimoujia village in Niger, and thereafter assist them in getting another vehicle that will take them to the central Niger city of Agadez—the main departure point for convoys of people headed for Libya.


People-smuggling isn’t a new business to Moussa. The driver comes from the southwestern Niger village of Tongo Tongo, the same place four American Green Berets were killed in October in an ambush by militants linked to the so-called Islamic State. It was there that Moussa began his trade as a smuggler. He had been hired by militants to drive prospective migrants from Mali into the village, from where they are transported in another vehicle to Agadez.


“They [the militants] controlled the smuggling routes in and out of Mali,” he said. “You can’t pass along those routes if you are not friends with them, or if you don’t first pay them.”


Moussa had a much easier job then than now. Militants controlled the area along his route. His task was to get inside Mali, pick prospective migrants from the location the militants gave to him and take them across the border to an encampment in Tongo Tongo where jihadists arranged for them to reach Libya.




Many prospective migrants were children who had served the militants for a long time. Others were people who paid jihadists about 200,000 CFA ($320) each to facilitate their crossing into Niger. Often times these persons travelled along with neatly wrapped parcels containing hard drugs, which they hand over to militants on arrival in Tongo Tongo.


“If I wanted to identify those who worked for the militants, I’ll look out for marks on their face and body,” the smuggler said. “Children are often beaten either as a sign on initiation or punishment for disobeying.”


One afternoon, after Moussa arrived with migrants from Mali, militants asked for a parcel they said contained cocaine. Neither Moussa nor the migrants had it. The militants accused them of stealing and selling the drug. They were stripped naked and flogged with whips. Moussa sustained a cut above his left eye. He bled uncontrollably and couldn’t see at all with the eye for days.


Now, before the smuggler departed with the boys from Maiduguri, Idris gave them the phone number of a “connection man” in Agadez, who would help them with accommodation and then put them in a vehicle to the southern Libya town of Sebha, where they’d be helped by another connection man, who would house them then arrange for them to get to the Libyan coastal city of Sabratha—a main departure point for migrant boats journeying to Europe through the Mediterranean—and there they would meet Amin.


The boys finally left Kano at about 4:30 p.m., but before they did, Idris gave an important warning to them.


“Do not panic when you encounter immigration officers on your way,” the broker said. “If you do, it will be the end of the trip.”


Moussa, who has been helping Idris smuggle migrants into Niger since 2015, said he knows how to handle immigration officials at the border.


“They [NIS officers] want to see that you are genuine travellers,” the driver, who now resides in Kongolam, said. “I’ll make sure there’s something to present or something to say.”


As Moussa got set to leave with the boys, he assured Idris that he’d call them once he had crossed Kongolam into Maimoujia. I decided to stick around Idris until the call came. We sat in a restaurant, not far away from the bus stop, watching soccer on TV and talking about the broker’s business, as we waited to hear from the driver.



About five hours after Moussa and the boys departed Kano, Idris’s phone rang. It was the driver calling the broker to inform him that they had crossed successfully into Niger.


“Well done, my brother,” said Idris. He then called Amin to update him on the migrants who had just begun their journey to Libya. Amin likes to know the location of migrants he is expected to transport to Italy through the Mediterranean.


“It will help him know whether to proceed with arrangements or not,” Idris said. “Sometimes, people in Nigeria indicate interest to travel, but they later change their minds even after paying a commitment fee.”


Idris claim individuals moving from Nigeria pay a non-refundable fee of about 1,440,000 naira ($4,000). For women, especially those who are desperate to reach Europe, he sometimes charges an extra $500 on top of the regular fee. The higher the amount you pay, the quicker your chances of getting on a boat that leaves the Libyan coast for Europe. Or so he says.


“Ladies are much more eager to travel than men, and some can do anything to raise money,” he said. “There are a few other women, though, who don’t have much money to pay that we consider on a lesser traveling package.”


Women, who don’t have much money to pay, are expected to make money along the way, often by working as prostitutes. They pay a “commitment fee” of, say, $1,000, which covers their transportation until they get to Sabratha. But after they find their way there, they have to hustle until they can raise an additional $1,000, or thereabouts, to get on Amin’s boat to Italy. This is what Idris describes as a “lesser package.”


Because they haven’t paid so much, they don’t get housing, and just to find shelter on the journey they are forced to work in Libyan brothels as prostitutes.


In recent months, hundreds of Nigerian women stranded for months in Libya have returned home, and a number of them have told stories of smugglers selling them to brothel owners, who forced them to work as prostitutes until they are able to repay double the amount paid to their smugglers to buy them. The girls departed Nigeria under the illusion that they were going to Europe to get jobs, but ended up in sex slavery in Libya and finally were deported back to their country.


According to a UNICEF report released in February (PDF) nearly half the women and children from sub-Saharan Africa who try to get to the Mediterranean through Libya are victims of “sexual abuse during migration—often multiple times and in multiple locations,” with “widespread and systematic” sexual violence occurring at checkpoints and crossing areas.


Last November, according to Idris, a young woman fled the violence in the northeastern town of Damboa to Maiduguri, where he met her. The broker talked her into moving to Europe and arranged for her to get to Sabratha. When she made it to Sebha, she lived in the private home of her connection man. But when she couldn’t pay her housing fee, he sold her to a woman who runs a commercial guest house, to work there as a prostitute.


“That’s what happens when you don’t go for the full package,” Idris said. “You become a slave of your connection man.” But Idris claims he shows his clients some respect by informing them of what to expect once they get to Libya.


“We tell them the risk involved in not paying full before leaving Nigeria,” Idris said. “Some of them are lucky to get better jobs in mini-shops and stores.”




Most of the victims of smuggling and trafficking in IDP camps are women, and most of them are in their teens.


Of the six girls under 18 years of age that I interviewed at the IDP camp in Madinatu, two admitted that they’ve been approached by people who promised to give them jobs abroad if they were willing to work.

“He promised to take care of my transportation, but that I’ll pay back once I start working,” one of them said of a trafficker who approached her. “I refused him because he wasn’t clear on the job he was offering.”


I visited Bama in June. The week I arrived, a group of women displaced by Boko Haram had formed The Knifar Movement, which advocates for the rights of displaced women in the northeast. The women petitioned Nigerian parliamentarians accusing CJTF militia members and soldiers of “sexual violence and rape” of female IDPs in Bama, and complained that 466 displaced women, some of whom had suffered malnutrition, had died and were buried in a cemetery just by the camp.


I counted 1,331 graves in a makeshift cemetery located near the camp.  About 500 of those graves were of children.


In May, Binta, as we’ll call her, left an IDP camp in Bama—72 kilometers southeast of Maiduguri—thinking she was on her way to Europe. No one knew about her trip until she called a member of the CJTF to inform him that she was stranded in Agadez. Her trafficker had abandoned her and absconded. Nobody in Bama seems to have heard of her since.


Binta had started living in the IDP camp after Boko Haram militants attacked her home, killed her mother, tortured her, raped her and got her pregnant. At 16 she gave birth to a female child while in the camp, but the baby died of malnutrition after a few months, and is in one of the graves at the makeshift cemetery.


A woman who was part of a team that supplied aid materials to some displaced persons sneaked Binta out of the camp and took her to Kano, from where they left for Niger. She was told that she’d be given work in a charity home once she arrived in Italy.


“She has always had my phone number right from when I met her here,” the CJTF member known as Umar told The Daily Beast. “After she called the first time, I haven’t heard from her again.”


Months before her departure, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of internally displaced persons visited Nigeria, and after he assessed the situation of victims of the Boko Haram insurgency, he reported that some of the camps they live in “are in fact the settings for violence, exploitation and abuse of the most vulnerable,” and that there is “major protection concerns relating to children, women and girls in the northeast region.”




The crisis in northeastern Nigeria as a whole has been a nightmare for young women this past eight years. Dozens of little girls have been used by Boko Haram as suicide bombers, countless have been raped by insurgents, and thousands including over a hundred of the Chibok girls remain in captivity. The government for its part has not done enough to protect those seeking refuge in IDP camps.

Vulnerable girls who fall victim to trafficking may undergo a particular form of psychological torture, in addition to the suffering inflicted on their bodies. Often the victims are taken to Benin City in Nigeria’s Edo State, where they are taken to a shrine and forced to perform a juju oath-swearing ritual to guarantee they will repay the money spent in taking them to Europe.


One such victim is Sarah, a 17-year-old former Boko Haram sex slave, who was kidnapped by jihadists in Bama and taken to the terrorists’ stronghold in the Sambisa Forest, where militants took turns raping her


After a couple of weeks in captivity, Sarah escaped from her captors in the middle of the night when those guarding the camp had fallen asleep. She walked for long hours before reaching a settlement from which she was able to make her way to Madinatu, and began to live in the IDP camp there.


While in camp, where food wasn’t always adequate, Sarah took to prostitution on the streets of nearby Maiduguri to be able to raise cash to support herself and, she hoped,  to return to school and complete her secondary education. It was in one of her outings that she met a woman who made her a promise to take her to Italy and find her a job.


I first met Sarah in January while she was making preparations to leave for Benin City. The woman who told her about Italy was an agent for a trafficking ring operating in the ancient southern city. She gave Sarah the address of the female leader of the gang, and arranged for the girl to travel to Benin City and meet the woman whom she referred to as “Madam Eunice.”


Sarah shared the address with me, before proceeding in February on her trip to Benin City, which was supposed to take her at least two days to complete by road.


A week after Sarah had departed, I visited Benin City—1,429 km southwest of Maiduguri—and went straight to the address Sarah gave. It wasn’t a residential home, as we both had thought, rather, it was a temple, where she was expected to swear an oath of allegiance to her trafficker.


I met the priest in charge of the temple and told him I was a close friend of Sarah and was concerned about her whereabouts. I showed him a photo of the girl and he quickly recognized her.


Sarah hadn’t spent the night at the temple. On the same day she arrived, the teenager took part in the ritual along with the other girls Madam Eunice planned to traffic to Italy.


The priest slaughtered a chicken and the girls swore over its blood that they’d keep to the promise they made to their madam. Should they fail in any way, the punishment could be “death or an illness no one can cure.”


The girls were asked to cut their fingernails and a part of their hair, and leave them in the shrine before departing. It is only when they’ve paid their madam back in full or when both parties decide to terminate the agreement that the priest returns the items to the owners or destroys them.


“If they keep to the agreement, they won’t need to worry about anything,” said the priest, who said the girls moved with their madam to Kano a day after the ritual.




A strong British force fought against the locals and captured Benin City in 1897. After the war, the British found evidence relating to the practice of human sacrifice in the city which was tied to traditional beliefs. Until this moment, traditional ritual practices, that sometimes blend with Christianity, are carried out in the name of local gods in Edo state and some other areas of southern Nigeria.


At Upper Sakpoba Road in Benin City, where many traffickers originally come from, a woman called Ivie built a house with proceeds from trafficking. Three years ago, her childhood friend returned from Italy after spending five years there as a prostitute. Both of them started working together to aid other women traveling to Europe. Last year, a man brought Glory, a 16-year-old orphan. The girl had lost her parents in one Boko Haram attack in northern Borno. She luckily escaped and found her way to an IDP camp in Maiduguri.


Ivie and Glory embarked on the trip north. As they arrived in Maimoujia, armed bandits attacked them in the “connection house” where they were spending the night. All the monies in their possession were taken. Glory was raped. The next morning, Ivie handed over the teenager to another trafficker in Maimoujia who who left with Glory to Agadez.


“I don’t know if she ever got to Italy,” Ivie told me. “There was no way to confirm because I lost the contact of the man in Maimoujia.”


The desert crossing there is brutal. Survivors tell of marauding bandits, breakdowns and accidents in the middle of nowhere. One that I interviewed said he had had to drink his own urine, and would never forget seeing skeletons that “littered the desert.”




So far this year, 2,803 migrants who have made it to Libya and then made it onto boats have died along the central sea route to Europe, according to the International Organization for Migration. Among the victims are 26 Nigerian teenage girls suspected to have been sexually abused and murdered by people smugglers as they attempted to cross the Mediterranean.


When the news of the death of the girls got to 15-year-old Maryam who lives close to an IDP camp in Maiduguri, she wept, and, then, recalled how a female trafficker approached her in October with a promise to give her a job in Italy if she was interested in travelling. She was too scared of attempting the trip. So, she declined. But her 17-year-old older sister jumped at the offer and travelled almost immediately.


“Who knows if she’s among those who died,” Maryam told me. She, along with her older sister, fled Bama after an attack by Boko Haram in 2015 that killed their parents. “Since she left last month, no one has heard from her.”


Italian authorities buried the 26 girls after having identified only two of the victims. If Maryam’s sister really is among the unidentified 24, no one may ever know how she was lost.


“I wish someone will call and tell me she’s fine,” she said. “Something tells me all is not well.”


Despite the risk involved, the four boys hoping to reach Italy with the help of Idris were undeterred. For them, it seemed, the risk couldn’t be worse than a life of uncertainty in an area where no one knows when the next Boko Haram bomb will go off.

“If I can survive Boko Haram, I can survive anywhere”, Abba said, just before the boys departed Kano. “I know people in Maiduguri who have travelled successfully, and that gives me hope.”


I still wait to hear from him.

Culled from The Daily Beast

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