Boys bonded into West African child trade

Friday, October 24, 2003

ONIGONGON, Nigeria -- Lured from home by the promise of a bicycle, Wasiu Goyikon entered a life of hard labor at 9 -- smashing stones into gravel in Nigeria's sweltering granite quarries.

Nearby, boys as young as 4 struggled with rocks and hammers. Always, the boys were worked to exhaustion; sometimes, they were worked to death.

The rescue of 190 scarred and beaten child workers -- none older than 15 -- from Nigeria's quarries, and the arrests of six smugglers who allegedly put them there, comes as part of an unprecedented West Africa challenge to child-trafficking.

But an estimated 200,000 children continue to be shipped across West and Central Africa's borders each year, some ending up in brutally difficult jobs -- or in shallow graves near the granite pits.

And as Wasiu illustrates, breaking West Africa's child trade is no simple matter.

Because, at 20 cents a day, in a land where poverty offers few options, Wasiu has a job he wants.

"The next time I go home, I will bring my younger brother back to work here," Wasiu, now 15, said, sweating as he swung a hammer. "What choice do we have?"

At that salary, Wasiu and two friends shovel and smash enough gravel to fill the dump truck that is their daily quota. Each day's load is sold for $50 -- more than 100 times their combined wages.

Wasiu is one of the lucky ones: He got his bike. He survived. And at the end of his last contract, he received his wages for years at hard labor: $146.

Since September, Nigerian police have arrested six alleged smugglers, including accused kingpin Gilbert Zinjo, for allegedly trafficking children into the pits from across the border in Benin, one of the world's poorest countries.

Zinjo's ring signed up the children with payments to their parents of as little as $30. They promised the boys gifts that seldom materialized, according to investigators, charities and the children.

Poor parents hoped they were sending their boys into skilled trades and better lives.

Instead, the boys were subjected to months or years of forced labor on farms and quarries in southwestern Nigeria. The children were forced to sleep in the bush, even in the rain. They ate handfuls of corn porridge for meals. Most were never paid.

Some were subjected to beatings. Scarred for life, the boys twitch in fear of adults.

The children rescued from the pits around Abeokuta -- hometown of President Olusegun Obasanjo -- told of 13 boys succumbing to disease, hunger and overwork in the three months before their deliverance.

In the murky world of child trafficking, it is often difficult to pin down who is responsible -- and who to believe.

Nigerian authorities say crime syndicates from Benin coax the children, or kidnap them outright.

Witnesses say Nigerian quarry and farm owners willingly hire children from the traffickers because they can pay and feed them less than adults.

In the case of the pit children, a Benin man who describes himself as on a mission against child labor in Nigeria played a key role in their rescue.

Dauda Ewenje and a dozen supporters calling themselves his "strike force" stealthily took video images of boys only a few years past toddler stage being forced to work in open pit mines and manioc fields.

In August and September, the group -- working with a sympathetic police officer -- strong-armed 190 boys "kicking and screaming" from traffickers and whisked the youngsters away in vans. Some children initially thought they were being kidnapped by rival traffickers.

Several times, Ewenje says, the group was pursued by traffickers armed with guns, machetes and axes. Once, criminals forced Ewenje's jeep off the road, destroying the vehicle and injuring two adult passengers.

Since the pit rescues, officials from Benin, the United Nations and charities say they are in Nigeria, searching for more children at hard labor.

"Whether it is 20 or 2,000 children ... it is a problem that deserves our concerted efforts," said Yann Colliou, with the Swiss child protection group Terre des Hommes, which has a home in Benin for freed trafficked children.

The rescues -- the largest such operation in memory in West Africa -- come under an August accord by Benin and Nigeria to fight cross-border crime, including child-trafficking.

In Nigeria, police spokesman Chris Olakpe acknowledged "thousands of trafficked children are being subjected to slave labor in different parts of the country."

"But we're moving faster than the criminals," Olakpe insisted. "We expect more recoveries and more handovers of children very soon."

Escaped child laborers still show up at Ewenje's home. One, 15-year-old Savie Unokamji, was forced to work for five months in a quarry at Abuletitun, a village 30 miles north of Abeokuta.

Savie said the "master," a Beninoise trafficker named Bitobi, repeatedly whipped him with sticks and ropes, leaving a web of white scars on his back.

Savie escaped when his boss tried to move the group to prevent detection by police.

But instead of returning home to impoverished Benin, the teenager still hopes to find another job in Nigeria, where Africa's largest oil industry has made a small minority of the population fabulously wealthy -- and fed the hopes of millions more.

"If I go home, who will help me?" Savie asked. "My only hope is to find another master."

Associated Press writer Dulue Mbachu in Lagos contributed to this report.

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