INVESTIGATION… Child marriages, human trafficking overtake Benue IDP camps
Fresh from a visit to Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) camps in Benue state, Investigative journalist, Patrick Egwu tells the heart-wrenching stories of how children disappear at random and young girls, not even old enough to take care of themselves, are married off by parents due to lack of food, clean water, adequate care and other relief materials.
Since Agnes Apsu’s child, Naomi turned three, she had dreamt and planned for a good future for her – to go to school and succeed, and live a better life than hers. This is not happening again. Naomi, now 10, lives as a wife with a man old enough to be her grandfather.
When Naomi turned 10, she was already an Internally Displaced Person (IDP) – living at a resettlement camp with her mother and other siblings following the invasion of their villages by semi-nomadic herdsmen from the Fulani ethnic group.
Apsu, 48, who has eight children with her deceased husband, said she married off her daughter because she couldn’t bear the situation in the camp anymore – no access to basic needs such as food, clean water, medicine, soap or sleeping materials. For her, she would rather give out her daughter to someone who would take care of her than allow her suffer or starve to death.
“I allowed her to marry him because there is nothing here,” Agnes said, sitting comfortably on a bamboo armless chair in front her corner in the camp, her hands gently placed on her jaws.
“We don’t have food, clothes, soap or sleeping materials. What we need mostly is food,” she told me, drawing her son, Robert, 6, closer to her.
To survive and feed her family, Apsu collects firewood from a nearby bush with her young son. After collecting the woods, she heaps them on her head and head back to the camp. Once in the camp, she starts breaking the woods so she can sell and get some cash to take care of her basic needs. But, Apsu doesn’t make enough sales as her fellow IDPs in the camp face similar condition as her.
“I sell firewood but there is nobody to buy it from me because they don’t have money,” she said referring to her fellow displaced persons in the camp. “I go to the bush to get firewood and break them when I come back but look at them over there,” she continued, pointing to the direction where she had packed the woods she got the previous day.
“I have not seen her since he took her from here,” Apsu said when asked the last time she saw her daughter after marrying her off. “But I know they are fine because he promised to take care of her when he came to take her,” she noted convincingly.
When asked if she had an option to send her child to school or give her out in marriage which she would choose, Apsu said of course she would send her child to school because she has seen the benefits of going to school, but now that she has been displaced from her ancestral home with her deceased husband, she had no choice than to send her child away – with a man in his 40s.
Agnes, and many like her are the bye-product of a January 1, 2018 event when suspected armed herdsmen invaded several villages in Benue state, Middle-Belt Nigeria and went on a killing spree. At the end of a bloody attack that continued the following day, more than 100 villagers had been butchered in their homes and farms. Subsequent attacks followed and the death toll greatly increased according to the Movement Against Fulani Occupation – a group campaigning against the herdsmen and collecting data on their activities.
At Agan camp located about 5 kilometers off the state capital, Makurdi, where Apsu and her children live, more than 2,500 other IDPs face similar poor living conditions – no food, no clean water and no adequate care from the government or international donors.
Sometime ago, a local NGO – Arm of Hope Foundation had entered the camp and sunk a borehole to provide clean water for the displaced persons. After a while, it stopped working, the source of water dried up and they resorted to other means to get water.
“The issue top on their needs is lack of food. There is no food,”said Helen Teghtegh, convener of Benue civil society organizations and director, Community Link Human Empowerment Initiative who is working with 58 other NGOs to alleviate the poor living conditions of the displaced persons.
“So these women felt that the only way out was to give out their older children for marriage. And when we are talking about older girls we are referring to girls within 10, 14 – 15 years old. These are the kind of girls that were given out for marriage. Some of the girls were married off to communities who are not involved in the conflict where they are hosting them, while some marry among the IDPs themselves – the younger boys are marrying the younger girls,” Tegtegh added.
When further asked if it was the culture of the people to marry off their girls early, Teghtegh said “In the past, yes, children were given out for marriage but with education and civilization, the girl child is being sent to school. But with this displacement and poverty in the camps, the practice has risen again and most girls are being sent into early marriage.”
Married off for N5,000
Like Apsu, Victoria Uwhe, 50, married off her daughter, Humbadoo, 7, three months ago for just N5,000 at a low key ceremony in the camp – witnessed by her neighbours and fellow IDPs.
Uwhe, told Ripples Nigeria she was starving with her six children and that was why she decided to allow her young daughter go when the suitor came. When the man who came to marry her daughter said he would take care of her and provide whatever she needs, Uwhe gladly accepted.
“We are suffering and have no food or anything here to survive,” Uwhe said, folding one of her wrappers firm against the other. “I have six children – 3 boys and 3 girls and all of them are married off because we are poor,” she continued, placing both hands on her head while adjusting her head tie.
Judith Nena was still breastfeeding when she lost her parents. She was raised by relatives until she was asked to fend for herself at an early age. Now 16, she said her decision to marry to her young lover, Friday, 19 was because she has nobody to take care of her.
Last year, Friday and his people came and took Nena home after they had met her relatives. “I am happy here,” she said when asked how she feels about the marriage. “He provides everything for me and I help his mother,” she said, her hands dipped inside a bowl of soup she was enjoying with her husband.
Friday, a guinea corn farmer, said he got married to Nena so she could be helping his mother whose husband is deceased. “I love her and that’s why I married her,” said Friday, bare-chested, his eyes steadily fixed on Nena.
“Agan camp is not officially established and recognized by the government so I cannot claim to know everything that is going on there,” said Emmanuel Shior, the Executive Secretary, Benue State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) when asked about the reported cases of child marriages and human trafficking.
“There are so many camps and people gathered in different locations so we cannot locate all the IDPs. So I am not there and my staff are not there so we can’t claim to know everything that is happening there but we reach out to them with assistance once in a while,” he told Ripples Nigeria.
“Since January when we came here there is no food and we have been facing a lot of challenges,” said Thomas Azo, the leader at Agan camp. “Even two girls who are under-aged between 8-9 years old got married recently because the mother has no food, clothes or even as little as N5 to buy something,” Azo said.
“Then the last one is about 6-7 years then she married because of poverty, they don’t have anything to eat, they are orphans. Our villages are still being occupied by the herdsmen and just last week, they killed two people at Shiga and torched down a house,” he said.
“I don’t have go to other camps on a daily basis to observe what is going on there but for this camp, I’m always here day and night and I don’t think that is happening here,” said James Iorkyaa, another official of the SEMA at Abagena camp re-echoing Shior’s position.
“We have been taking time, moving round and interacting with the parents and children and nothing like that is happening.”
However, he agreed that some people have approached parents in the camp for adoption of their children but they refused.
“In fact, some people even come for adoption but the parents refused even though we told them that if somebody say that for the time that you are in the camp here, when the camp is over you can come and take your child and go, but most of the parents have been refusing to release their children out like that,” Iorkyaa said.
When I asked if the reported cases are happening in other camps, he said “In other camps, I will not know because I have not been there except if I call to ask because you can only say what you know and what you verified. Here, I am very sure about it because I know and I am on ground.
“It might be their culture and if that is the case, I don’t see anything wrong with that,” Angela Omirigbe, the camp commandant stated, when asked to speak on the cases of child marriages in the camps, that “The people need food, they are hungry”, she said of the most important challenge the displaced persons are facing.
“The government is doing her best in that regard but the number is large to handle. So, individuals, NGOs, other people too should come in too to assist in taking care of them.”
Children disappear, never seen
At Daudu IDPs camp located in Guma local government area, Peter Ioryoosu sits on a raffia mat. Four little children who sat close to him were playing, having a fun time and tossing balloons in the air.
On July 17, Ioryoosu, 36, had stepped out to visit a friend at a nearby camp in the evening. When he returned around 7pm, his niece, Membe, 4, had gone missing – no one knew where she was, not even the little children she often moves around with.
A neighbour said she saw her with a woman and they later left but was not prompted to stop them because she had thought the woman had come to visit the displaced persons. The next hour, an alarm had been raised in the camp – camp officials and security were notified. After several search parties had combed the area, and neighbouring camps, Membe was not still seen – even now.
“We didn’t see her,” said Ioryoosu, adjusting his position on the mat. “We reported to the chairman of the camp and he took us to the policemen guarding the camp. They came and searched all the houses one by one but they didn’t see her. So they took us to the police station, and they also joined in the search but she has not been found even now,” he said looking depressed.
Membe’s mother, who has four children with her husband died two years ago. Two of her children also died not too long ago – leaving Membe, a brother and her father. Now, Membe too has been declared missing.
Ioryoosu said he believes Membe might have been kidnapped by ritualists. “We think they are kidnappers or ritualists. They saw a woman playing with the child around. Later she took the child and said she wants to buy her something to eat and in the process she took the child without reporting to the mother. At first we thought they were lying until when we couldn’t find her. We don’t know where they took her to whether Gboko or Lafia,” he said.
“She took her secretly and disappeared and since then has not been seen. They don’t have food and we only eat once a day or get a cup of rice each. So when someone comes with food or money, the children follow the person,” Mbahamen Keraver, one of the neighbours living close to Membe said.
When contacted on the issue, Benue police command spokesperson, ASP Moses Yamu said “We have not gotten any official report on that matter. I don’t have any such report from any IDP camp. But I will get in touch with the people there and get back to you.”
He however did not get back to our reporter as at the time of this report, nor did he respond to further attempts to contact him
At the camp with more than 20,000 IDPs, only three armed mobile police officers were spotted, seated at a makeshift camp, chatting among themselves.
“I have not been informed officially but I heard something like that happened there. But I have informed the security operatives and they are working with me in finding her, and her family is searching too,” Shior said.
“Those people giving their backgrounds can be very difficult because most times they give these children out themselves for adoption and they will turn around to say that their children are missing”
On his part, Omirigbe who is the camp commandant at Daudu 1 and 2 camps said, “No, it does not happen here. There is no such case and as you see the IDPs here, they prefer to suffer with their children than give them out to go and suffer again. They prefer to manage the little they have than give their children out,” she insisted.
Before Membe’s disappearance, a pregnant woman at Agbagene camp had given birth and never saw her baby again. When she was pregnant, a female stranger had strayed into the camp and instructed them to inform her when the woman was due so she could help her during delivery. When the time came, the female stranger was informed and the pregnant lady taken to a hospital in the area. After delivery, the stranger disappeared with the baby.
“When the woman delivered, the female stranger told her that her baby was not strong and needs to be taken to another hospital in Makurdi where she lives for proper care,” Blessing Termunu, 38, who was in the camp when the incident happened told Ripples Nigeria. “They left for Makurdi with the mother of the baby and her husband’s brother. When they got to the hospital, the stranger told the husband’s brother who had accompanied them, to go back to the camp while she takes care of the mother of the baby. Immediately he left, she disappeared with the baby and has not been seen till now.”
Similar incident was reported at Agan camp. On June 26, a charity group had entered the camp to set up a viewing center for the displaced persons so they could view the Nigeria versus Argentina game during the World Cup in Russia. After the game, a boy – 6 years old, went missing and was never found. Several efforts by a combined team of the displaced persons, volunteers and the police to find him were not successful.
“Some people came from town to take children here as maids, after we gave them, we didn’t see them again or know where they live,” said Azo. “Since then, we don’t give out anybody else out again as maid to anybody. That is our agreement now,” he told Ripples Nigeria.
The situation in the camps across the state is gradually turning to a humanitarian crisis. Latest survey and head count carried out by SEMA and other civil society organizations in May and June pegged the number of displaced persons at 300,000 across 22 camps in the state, though officials say only 6 camps are recognized and registered by the government.
“Officially we have six camps in Benue state. We had eight before but because of continuous attacks even at places where some other camps were established, we decided to cancel two and so we have six for now as the ones registered and recognized by the government,” Iorkyaa said. “The official number is 300,000 as at the last count in May and June but some of the displaced persons are not in camp as some of them have seen their relatives and have been reunited with them,” he added.
“We have an NGO that is carrying out a comprehensive data collection and what they have now as verified data is 300,000 persons displaced in the state and they are resident in IDP camps or villages, said Teghtegh, who supervises other NGOs in the state working to help the displaced persons. “They are resident at villages with relatives or in IDP camps or some of them occupying uncompleted buildings in the state and are littered all over the place,” she said, corroborating Iorkyaa’s earlier statement.
At Agbagene camp in Makurdi, 34,986 displaced persons are settling there according to SEMA officials. Though the camp has a huge structure, with few makeshift camps recently constructed by officials of the Red Cross, the capacity cannot carry more than 20,000 persons – currently overcrowded with over 10,000 other IDPs. A similar situation was observed at Daudu 1 and 2 camps with 24,044 displaced persons occupying the deserted schools.
Teghtegh, alongside over 58 other NGOs, regularly carryout needs assessment to know the key needs of the IDPs and be able to mobilize in that area. She recalled a situation at one of the camps in Logo local government area, where there was no food for the displaced persons leading to her interfacing with SEMA to respond promptly.
“We are working with the government through SEMA and most times we mount pressure on them to respond. I remember in Logo camps, where there was no food for a very long time, it took the coalition to first report this to them and went to social media too and they responded. The following day, they sent trucks to the camps. So we are working with them by synergizing,” Teghtegh claimed.
Teghtegh’s work with the coalition of organizations though very important, comes with great risks and sacrifices. Some weeks ago, one of the volunteers with the coalition had gone to one of the villages to get food from his farm and other supplies, but he never returned. Instead, his corpse was brought back – he had been killed by the herdsmen who are still occupying some swath of land in the state.
“Their villages are not only deserted but still occupied by the herdsmen even now,” Teghtegh said. “If you think that there is peace and you walk alone into the villages, you will be killed.”
When Ripples Nigeria corespondent visited some of the camps, children who had abandoned their education since their settlement there in January, swarmed around him, asking for food and money. No makeshift classrooms where the children could learn since their schools and classrooms were converted to camps when the villagers were displaced was sighted. For example, Daudu 1 and 2 camps uses the premises and classrooms of the government primary school in the area as settlement for the displaced persons. Same with Gbajimba camp in Guma local government area which converted the central primary school in the area to a resettlement camp with over 24,019 displaced persons according to data collected from camp officials.
“Help me and tell the world especially individuals and organizations to come to their aid because the government cannot do this alone and these people have been displaced since January. This is why you find them occasionally complaining about food and other relief materials because the government is overwhelmed already,” Shior said.
However, international donors such as the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders and UNICEF are currently providing relief support and intervening to the humanitarian crises in various thematic areas in the state.
For Apsu and her children at Agan camp, they hope for a day when they will return to their ancestral home and continue their normal lives. But Iorkyaa revealed that this might take time.
“They can only go back to their homes when we have a good security report that everywhere is safe”.
“I miss her everyday especially when I remember how she keeps me company in the farm and the chores she does for me,” Apsu said of Naomi, her child whom she had married off a month earlier. “I know he will take care of her,” she quipped, gently tapping Robert on his head.