West Africa | The Desert Option

Going through the Sahara and living to tell the tale

By Emmanuel Mayah
In Nigeria, stories from people who have travelled to Europe tell of success and despair. Some migrants have made it big; others have died of thirst in the Sahara, drowned in the Mediterranean, or have perished in other ways. When I heard that twenty Nigerian migrants had been imprisoned in Libya, in 2010, I decided to check out the desert option for myself. I lived to tell the tale- barely.

My trip to Europe had started at what my travel agent called ‘the Computer Fraud Academy’ in Lagos. It was a three month-course given by experienced computer criminals in an internet café in an uncompleted three-story building in our capital city. I had learned credit card fraud there, internet fraud, ATM fraud, and several identity theft, advance fee and share certificate scams. It was the only way, my smuggling contact, ‘travel agent’ Rajah, had told me. “Can you work as a barber? Electrician? Do you know anything about welding? Carpentry? You will need these skills in Libya so you can quickly cross into Europe. How do you hope to make it big when you are not a woman?” Convinced, I had signed up for the training at a fee of 70,000 Naira (440 US$).

I had already discussed my different travel options with Rajah. I didn’t have the money for a proper visa and had gone for the cheapest package he could contrive. It was called the desert option. Rajah also sold me a ‘virgin’ passport, which I needed because my original passport showed that I was a journalist and had travelled to Italy, France, South Africa and a few other places already.

A hundred Naira for the immigration official

Three months later, my fellow student Ugo, another youngster called Irabor Monday and myself, arrived at the Seme border with Benin. All non-passport-carrying travellers going into Benin to buy tomato puree, second-hand textiles, frozen chicken or fairly-used automobiles pass here. One just gives a hundred Naira to any passing truncheon-wielding official. But because our passports needed to be stamped, we had to go about it differently. On the Nigerian side, officials at the Immigration Desk demanded and received one thousand Naira (about 6 US$) for the Yellow Fever Immunization certificate. At the next desk, another thousand was demanded. At the third and final desk, five hundred were paid to squint at the stamped page. The story was more or less the same on the Benin side, where we exchanged our Naira to Central African Francs (CFA) with the mainly female money dealers.

Rajah met us and took us to a building in the Jonquet area of Cotonou. Four young women had arrived before us. We were in a back room, adjacent to another crammed with empty crates of alcoholic beverages. Rajah left and brought three more women and two more, chaperoned by a scrawny-looking man, were ushered in at dusk. We were now thirteen.

About seven o’clock in the evening, a large woman, whose name we were told was ‘Auntie Queen’ and who had clearly met some of us before, waddled in; behind her Rajah. She greeted everyone warmly and asked what we would like for dinner. Her eyes swept the room as she conducted a mental headcount. She then gave a pep talk, reminding us we were in a foreign land where the people spoke no English; that Beninese gendarmes were unpredictable and that if she were any of us, she would rather not wander around. Any request should be channelled to her or Rajah or indeed the scrawny character whose name was Esan. From ensuing conversations among the girls and from noises, particularly loudspeakers blaring reggae music, it finally dawned on me that we were in the red light district.

An oath of silence

The next day one of the first four girls we had met in the room, a girl of about seventeen years old called Omosan, had started sobbing. Everyone was too careful to be inquisitive, but it transpired that she was objecting to the ritual prayer session that was planned for later that day, and where we would all take an oath of silence before a witch doctor. An older girl, Uhreva, was unperturbed. It was to be her second blood oath, she told us. She had made it to Turin, Italy in 2005 only to be deported 18 months later ‘without even a pin’.  She was now determined to find her way back again, even though her first trip had been by air and far more dignifying. She was however optimistic that she could use the second trip to pay off her two Madams and still have enough to build a house in her village, own cars, a fat bank account, a boutique or beauty salon.

At dinner time we were herded by Esan to a nearby canteen that served Nigerian foods. The upset girl, Omosan, refused to go anywhere. By the time we returned, Auntie Queen was pouring expletives on Omosan: “I treat you like my own daughter but you mess with my business. Your parents begged me to take you along. All the girls you came here with have moved on but you are here acting like a child.” Rajah, too, was spitting fire. He held out a cell phone towards Omosan: “Your father wants to speak with you. Take the phone.” He pulled out a designer belt from his jeans and stepped forward, threatening to hit the girl. “Your father says we should make you do what every other girl is doing.”

Herded to Togo

We were thirteen, nine girls including Uhreva and four men, as we were herded on to Togo by Auntie Queen the next day. She was disguised as a devout Muslim, wearing an orange boubou and headscarf. Omosan was not with us. Uhreva told us the girl had told her that she would also love to go to Europe, but that she would die before surrendering to a blood oath. She was simply too scared of the demons that were commonly evoked. We had all gone through it by now, chanting with the witch doctor and asking the demons to visit us with potent venom if we would ever betray our traffickers, but not Omosan. She had stayed behind. Rajah was yet to decide what to do with her.

The Togo border was a replay of Seme. I was told that customs officials here, after even only a few years of service, would start to build big houses. In the capital Lome, Auntie Queen departed with some girls and come back with others. She would keep doing that throughout our trip. I gradually understood that she was a Trans-Saharan brothel queen, circulating girls and refreshing supply all the time. The only one who stayed with us all the time was Uhreva.

All along the route there was a service industry, ranging from guesthouses –in Togo’s capital Lome there was a host family whose children, three boys and a girl of about nine, happily tended to our needs-, to pit latrines where we could wash a bit, and even churches. Auntie Queen loved going to church to while away the time between transports and we all joined her every time. But things changed after the Burkina-Mali border, where an official spotted the camera in my jacket, searched my bag and found my notebook. I kept repeating I was a schoolteacher on my way to Mali to visit a sick friend and was finally ushered through. But Auntie Queen was wary of me ever since.

Abandoned travellers

We met more and more abandoned travellers. A 27-year old Nigerian furniture maker, Azeez Abiola, told me he had paid 600,000 Naira (more than US$ 3700,-) for the journey only for the trafficker to disappear upon entering Mali. This was three years ago. His daily bread now depended on the number of passengers he brought to a transport company for a commission. Diawara Boh from Guinea had sojourned all over West Africa. He had hauled giant generators for a Lebanese company in Nigeria on a starvation wage; had been conscripted by Liberian rebels; had escaped, returned to Guinea and then tried again. He hadn’t seen his family for ten years.

Petros Massageloi and Sesay Koni from Sierra Leone had witnessed the killing and maiming of women and children in their violence-ridden country. Koni had tried to protect Nigerian relatives from rebel attacks directed at immigrants. He had risked his life to save his brother-in-law, but had left after witnessing a rocket grenade attack on his aunts’ house. He and Massageloi had ended up at the Oru Refugee Camp in Nigeria, where Koni finished school. But the certificate has not been of much use to him. Unable to get a job, and not making enough selling dye in the streets, the last straw was when the much-awaited United Nations High Commission for Refugees resettlement package came and they were handed 70,000 Naira (US$ 440,-) to start a new life. They knew the official amount for individual resettlement was US$ 2200,-per person. They had left.

A robbery in a historic town

Our next destination was the Malian border town of Gao, a historic city which I was excited to see.  Upon arriving, we were invited to step on to motorbikes and, from the passenger seat, I took in the scenery. But I should have paid more attention to where my motorbike was taking me. Suddenly I was alone, with a group of rogue-looking men, in a sandy neighbourhood with mud brick houses. An Algerian, clearly the boss of the group, asked me if I was Nigerian. “You Ibo? I made fortunes transporting Nigerians and many Ibo’s are my friends.” After about ten minutes of deliberations with his men, he advised me that it was in my best interest to pay them off.

My offers were met with slaps and punches. The man from the motor park wanted dollars and Euros. I surrendered all the CFA and dollars I had on me; they didn’t want the Naira I still had, though they did take some notes -perhaps as mementos. The Algerian then took me to an inner room where two young women were lying on a blanket on the floor. They seemed unimpressed by the commotion going on outside. He left and came back about half an hour later with a different motorbike. I was taken to a Customs post outside Gao, put on a mini bus out of town and landed in a village where none of the natives spoke English.

For the next two days, there was neither food nor water. I begged, but clearly the good citizens of Mali had grown tired of the pathetic tales of migrants. Fortunately for me, a good Samaritan came along:  62-year-old Aliou Maiga, who told me he had lived in Nigeria for many years. He offered water, food and shelter. He exchanged some of my Naira notes to CFA and put me on a cargo van to Agadez.

No money to go forward or back

In Agadez I found migrants from Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroun, Mali, Liberia, Guinea Bissau, Togo and Gabon. Some had been here days, others months, some years. 21-year-old Olu from Nigeria had lived here for 16 months. An amateur footballer, Olu and fourteen other young men had been taken here by a football agent and abandoned. Olu, another footballer, Moruf, and six others had sojourned to Agadez to get closer to their dreams. “I would die in shame if I had to go back empty handed”, he told me. “Not after the lavish farewell party my friends and family threw for me.”

Olu and Moruf housed me in their rented hut in Agadez.  Both did odd jobs for Arab, Mauritanian and Hausa merchants. A Ghanaian in the opposite hut, Franklin Onwusu, earned about CFA 400 (US$ 0,82) per day working with a bricklayer. He didn’t have money to move forward or to go back.  He was scared to go with the rogue drivers, who would arrange with authorities to have their own vehicles impounded and the migrants arrested in the desert, to simply pocket the fares. I was also told that rebels had mined some of the routes. Some months back, a truck carrying illegal migrants had been blown apart by landmine. There were registered transport companies that travelled under military escort to as far as Arlit. But they were much more expensive.

A microbiology graduate and a housewife

On the fifth day I saw Uhreva, who told me that Rajah was in the city too, with Esan. Auntie Queen had stayed back in Bamako. Ugoh and Irabor were somewhere in the city preparing for further travels to Arlit, the last town before the Algerian border. Uhreva was staying in a brothel and introduced me to some of the ladies: a Nigerian microbiology graduate and a housewife, also from Nigeria, who said her husband and she had agreed to use a part of his pension to send her on her way. The Madam whom she had paid to take her to Europe had left her in Agadez.

In a local café I met Ugo and Irabor, who had also been robbed in Gao. With them was another Nigerian called Cosmas, a father of two, who often wept thinking of his wife and children. He had left Nigeria because he was running away from a debt. “My brother, look at me”, he sighed.  “I have been here since April. I have worked in a salt mine just to survive. My mother would not recognize me now.”
As more people gathered at the cafe, voices rose. “It is better to be a prisoner in Europe than a free citizen in Nigeria”, said one. “At least I’ll be sure of three square meals a day.” “(Former ruler) Abacha’s son was found with 350 million dollars in his Swiss account. What work did he do to get such money?” asked another. “It would be enough to revive the nation’s railway! But even if we recover that money, it will be stolen by new people.” A third: “My father once said that life was better under Colonial rule.” A fourth: “We need people like Jerry Rawlings and Thomas Sankara to rescue Africans from their current leaders.”

Tuareg bandits

I secured a place in an overloaded truck going north. Franklin had strongly suggested we first visit a local prophet, a marabout, to find out what the future held for us, and we did. For CFA 800 (US$ 1,64), the marabout said he could see no obstacle in our way. On the truck, we kept moving for four days and nights, amid the unbearable stench of all the urinating we, about forty adults, were forced to do on board. Every now and then we passed carcasses of dead animals and human skeletons with personal items like passports and Bible.

A little before Dirkou the truck was intercepted by Tuareg bandits who seemed angry with us. I had been told that Tuaregs in the Dirkou region blame migrants for the high cost of food that comes from Agadez, and for drinking from their water wells, which they guard with guns. We had to strip naked. They searched even our anuses. I had been told nightmarish stories of migrants being disemboweled because the bandit was impatient, or simply did not want to suffer the indignity of digging his fingers into that part of the body. One Nigerian was found carrying pharmaceutical products, which he had calculated he could sell in Libya. He was forced by the bandits to swallow two tablets of each.  Right in front of everybody, one of the Tuaregs was raping a Nigerian girl. She did not cry but just lay there. So much for the predictions of the marabout that all would go well.

Nobody was talking as we continued, except for the man who had been forced to eat his own pills. He got so sick he begged to be brought down from the truck at Dao Timni, one of the desert posts. There had been no time for words of sympathy or encouragement. We had left him there. I felt quite ill, too.

Back to Agadez

Having made it to Libya, I decided to break off my mission. I had wanted to go as far as the Libyan authorities and ask them about the twenty Nigerians still held in Tripoli on a variety of charges, including murder. But I had not been able to connect with the Embassy of Libya in Nigeria before my departure: it had been closed for months. And I had become scared of the idea of risking arrest by the Libyan Departments of Anti-Infiltration and Illegal Immigration, which operate over 27 detention centres in the country and who had ensnared my twenty compatriots.

I had no desire to become number twenty-one. I waited till the following day to catch a transport back to Agadez.

Update: November 2013. After I initially did this story, more human traffic from Nigeria has reached Libya; there have been prison escapes during the ‘Arab Spring’ in Libya, but there are still also regular and new arrests. While there are startling claims by Nigerian NGO’s that there are about a 1000 Nigerians in Libyan jails at present, of whom allegedly 300 girls, it has been impossible to check the veracity of these claims. Both Nigerian and Libyan authorities stay mum on the issue.

Emmanuel Mayah is a multi-award winning reporter whose strength is undercover work. He has exposed vehicle smuggling rings, factories with bad employment conditions, international Nigerian crime syndicates and corrupt government links to foreign investors in his country. His essay 'Not everything is the fault of Shell' was published in ZAM Magazine in 2010.