f all the things you’d expect to go viral in 1996 in Benin City, home of the Benin Kingdom and seat of the Oba of Benin’s religious power, no one could have predicted the rise of contemporary art. As modest mud brick homes, made from the city’s red sand were torn down and replaced with bourgeois cement detached duplexes, extravagant facades of lions and bears and family patriarchs began to appear on fences. These new ‘ultra-modern’ houses were largely empty, built on behalf of mothers and sisters based in Italy and scattered across Europe who were “working” there. As more women left Nigeria for Europe by air and by the treacherous Saharan desert, more houses were felled to make way for newer ones, and the artistic facades grew even more elaborate, patrons particularly favouring three-dimensional wrought iron gates that drew inspiration from the carven gates and doors of Yoruba antiquity.
Asides their aesthetic value, these gates served a secondary purpose, they were a visual representation of the wealth being returned to Edo by the growing population of forced and voluntarily trafficked women, distrustful of Nigeria’s failing banks and unwilling to invest in business.
In the 90s, the facades quickly gave way to a different kind of contemporary art. Created by unskilled hands, driven to desperate measures by frustration, simple graffiti began to pop up on the walls and fences adorned a decade before by the work of Benin City’s finest artists. The words were simple at first, “Not For Sale”, “419”, but they grew more verbose as the biting poverty of General Sani Abacha’s dictatorship drove even the most reticent of homeowners to protect themselves. Elaborate graffiti script became ubiquitous to Benin and later Lagos, driven by widespread, blatant fraud by young Nigerians looking to raise funds and leave the country. If you look close enough today, you will see remnants of those dark times, hiding in plain sight in our upwardly mobile, democratic Lagos.
Two weeks ago, video footage from Libya of young black West African men being auctioned in Libyan suburbs surfaced on the internet and quickly went viral. It caused an uproar, factions quickly forming to argue the sides of the many facets of the crisis. Many Nigerians sided with the young black migrants whose journeys to Europe via Italy were stopped prematurely in Libya. African Arab commentators took to social media to remind us of the Libyan people who have struggled under militias since 2011 when their longterm dictator Muhammad Gaddafi was killed by President Barack Obama and his government ousted and how it was simplistic to file the crisis under Arab racism. There was, of course, the European fascist contingent who contended that Italy and Greece, both rocked by internal corruption scandals, are struggling under the pressure millions of immigrants have put on their economies. Petitions to the United Nations were quickly cobbled together, thousands took to their social media channels to express their outrage, all of us were given a sober reminder that slavery by way of colonialism only ended 18 years ago in South Africa.
2017 has been one hell of a year.
However, one of the arguments that have been repeated several times in the discussions around the human rights atrocities that have come out of the Libyan crisis, championed by a handful of privileged Nigerians is the view that if the Nigerians who raised money to go on the trip to Italy through Libya had put that money into some kind of business or channeled their resourcefulness towards self-improvement here in Nigeria, this crisis wouldn’t have even happened.
This is neither an intelligent or an original argument. We heard in the 1970s during the first wave of emigrations, where millions of Nigerians from the South-South emigrated to Europe and the Americas escaping the violent aftermath and the biting poverty of the Nigerian Civil War. They were branded as cowards and traitors because they wouldn’t stay back and ‘build’ because they chose to seek out a better option for themselves than settle for a substandard life. We heard it in the 80s and 90s at the worst of Nigeria’s military regimes, when Nigerians were so poor they began to substitute kerosene for Abacha stoves and illegally fell protected forests for sustenance. They were accused of not being resilient in the face of oppression, of not having that Nigerian resourcefulness that sees them thrive when they are in environments that support innovation. This argument has risen up again, completely ignoring the complexities and the nuance that has led to so many people losing their independence, their dignity and their lives in Libya’s race fuelled slavery crisis.
Before we delve into some of the nuances around the mass emigrations, we must first disavow ourselves of the idea that the Libyan slavery crisis is a ‘flare up’, an isolated incident occurrence of a phenomenon that we have successfully crushed as a globalised community. In reality, slavery has never been eradicated, it has never even been significantly reduced; it has simply evolved, going underground and hiding in plain sight. Early in 2017, The Atlantic published Alex Tizon’s posthumous essay, My Family Slave about Eudocia Tomas Pulido, a Filipino house servant who had served his family illegally in the United States for 57 years. Tizon’s essay spread through the world like wildfire, with many Nigerians drawing parallels between his story and the plight of millions of child house servants here. Many Filipino persons came forward to dispel the outrage that followed, explaining the nuances of slavery in the Philippines, and how slavery is often an act of agency for some social classes in the country. Three years before in Bangladesh, the collapse of the Savar Building in the Rana Plaza and the violent, preventable deaths of 1,134 itinerant workers exposed the existence of an extensive network of slavery rings in the fashion industry, where women and girls were assigned sewing machines and forced to sew for 19 hours a day, 6 days a week for 68 dollars a month so we can shop cheaper clothes on ASOS. Every other week in Nigeria, we hear of baby making factories, where girls are sold off and sexually assaulted until they conceive and their children taken after birth.
Slavery is everywhere, we have simply chosen to use fewer euphemisms to describe it.
What these vastly different incidences of slavery suggest is this; slavery does not occur in a vacuum. It requires structure and a network of people all committed to the cause, united by similar goals. The goal is often self-enrichment and is often justified by bigotry of some kind. In Alex Tizon’s Philippines, it was a class system that ostracised people because of their birth, in Bangladesh’s sweatshops, ethnic affiliations determined if you sat a sewing machine or if you supervised. In Libya, slavery is fuelled by greed and justified by racism. These men who take the desert route to Europe trust their lives in the hands of a network that has fractured, and a system where everyone looks out for themselves first instead of the people they are paid to ferry to the shores of Tripoli. They know there will be another Nigerian with a carefully hidden pocket of money looking for passage if this one doesn’t get to Italy, there is no incentive to get the job done properly.
The men and women trapped in Libya are only a fraction of the people who attempt the trip to Europe through the Sahara desert. It is common knowledge that the desert route is treacherous, and even experienced travellers are only one misstep away from losing their lives to its shifting dunes. The land route is a last resort, and the people who attempt to cross through it to Europe are well aware of the risks involved but have become so despaired by the poverty and dwindling prospects of life in Nigeria that they work a year or more, save enough to take them to Agadez, a border town in Niger and begin the journey. A 2015 Guardian article by Patrick Kingsley describes the process in detail, highlighting the fact that the majority of the travellers who use this route pay as little as $70 dollars (N25,000) to get from Agadez to Libya. Smugglers are recommended to prospective travellers by word of mouth, and a good percentage of the men who end up in Libya’s slavery auctions start their journey there on a spur of the moment decision and little more than a few month’s wages in their pockets.
Augustina Arebu was killed because her family couldn’t raise N5000 in one night, and children still die from Malaria because subsidised anti-malarial medication is still too expensive for the vast majority of Nigerians living under the poverty line. The promise that Libya offers, even with its civil unrest, militia wars and virulent racism is too powerful to ignore. There have been a slew of articles lamenting the Rent generation and how the world’s current gig economy effectively ensures that our generation will en masse, live better lives than our parents, and while we might publicly refute the research behind this assertion, millions of young Nigerians can feel the stagnancy, a subconscious dread that drove them to fraud in the 90s and early 2000s, and is driving them to flee today. Many of our spontaneous young millennial success stories are only so, until you scrape away the personal grit to reveal roots of privilege that snake and branch, leading down to generation wealth, privilege and influence.
This is often ignored when we chastise the young Nigerians trapped in detention centres in Tripoli and migrant camps in Calais. We fail to realise that this is what the resilient Nigerian spirit and the persistent entrepreneurship we extol looks like in 2017— a journey through the desert for chance at a different life in a first world country.
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