Modern-day slavery, Nigerian youths and lessons from Libya -Femi Asu

“In everlasting memory of the anguish of our ancestors. May those who died rest in peace. May those who return find their roots. May humanity never again perpetrate such injustice against humanity. We, the living, vow to uphold this.”

I found those words on a marble plaque near the entrance of the courtyard of the Elmina Castle, where large-scale slave trade was perpetrated by the Portuguese and the Dutch in the 1500s until 1814 when such a dastardly and inhuman act was abolished.

During a visit in September to the castle on the coast of Ghana, I was grimly exposed to how many enslaved Africans were crammed in dank and poorly ventilated dungeons before they were transported to Europe or the Americas. I saw the utter shock and outrage expressed by many of my co-visitors from other African countries over what happened many moons ago, but I don’t think anyone knew that a new slave trade was going on in a part of the continent.

Last month, the world was jolted by a CNN report exposing how migrants were being sold by smugglers in Libya, which has long struggled to cope with an influx of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, many of whom hope to transit in Libya before travelling to Europe with the help of smugglers.

As I read more harrowing tales of Nigerians who fell victim to the new slave trade last week, it was so heart-wrenching to see how young Nigerians faced terrible conditions in search of greener pastures that I couldn’t resist the urge to use part of my weekend to do an opinion piece.

Prior to the CNN investigation, one of the United Kingdom’s leading newspapers, The Guardian, had, in a May 14, 2017 report entitled, ‘Africa’s new slave trade: How migrants flee poverty to get sucked into a world of violent crime,’ told of how a young Nigerian, Muhammed Yusuf, was sold, tortured and forced to watch as a friend die.

Yusuf, a 24-year-old Nigerian, was one of thousands of people who had travelled to Libya looking for work, or hoping to sail to Europe in overcrowded, unseaworthy vessels, who were instead sucked into a grim and violent world of slave markets, private prisons, and brutal forced brothels.

Since the beginning of 2017, the International Organisation for Migration has facilitated the repatriation of more than 5,500 Nigerian migrants, who were trapped in and outside prisons across Libya.

One of those who returned last Thursday, 20-year-old Clement Chibuzor, narrated his ordeal to Saturday PUNCH, “After many of my co-travellers died in the desert, I was kidnapped as soon as I got to Libya. I was in prison for four months until my father sent N300,000 for my release.

“In the prison, our food was a piece of bread every day. When I got out of the prison, I was on the street one day when I met a Nigerian who promised to help me. I worked in his house for some weeks until he sold me to a gang. They kept me in a cell. I was there for a very long time. I cannot count the number of people who died in the cell.”

Another returnee, Kelvin Sunday, 21, who was in Libya for seven months, said he spent N965,000 to get to Libya after raising the money with the help of friends and his sister.

He said 41 of them set out in Kano State for the journey through the desert but only 10 made it to Libya, adding, “We were in the desert for three days without food or water. We were drinking our urine to survive.”

It is indeed a sad commentary on governance in Nigeria that a growing number of young people are frustrated and keen to leave the country in a bid to make their lives better whether by hook or by crook. In a country blessed with abundance human and natural resources, it is appalling enough that many people continue to live in abject poverty.

A recent report by Oxfam International described Nigeria as one of the few countries where the number of people living in poverty increased, from 69 million in 2004 to 112 million in 2010 – a rise of 69 per cent.

The youths are no doubt the worst hit by the rising poverty in the land, with, according to the Oxfam report, more than 10 million children out of school.

Spiralling unemployment in the country has left many Nigerian graduates on the brink of despair and frustration, a situation that was exacerbated by the recession the country plunged into last year, its worst economic crisis in 25 years.

“Keeping with the recent trend in the labour market, unemployment and underemployment continue to be highest for persons aged between 15 and 34, which represents the youth population,” the National Bureau of Statistics said in its latest unemployment and under-employment report.

It said unemployment rate was highest for those within the ages of 15 and 24 at 25.2 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2016 from 19 per cent in the same period in 2015, unemployment rate for the 15-34 age group increased to 15.4 per cent from 11.4 per cent in Q4 2015.

“Out of a total youth labour force population of 40.74 million (representing 50.2 per cent of total labour force in Nigeria of 81.15 million), a total of 19.3 million of them were either unemployed or underemployed in Q4 2016,” the NBS said.

These worrying statistics speak volumes about the failure of successive governments to make the most of the nation’s youth bulge, and should serve as a wake-up call to the current leaders at local, state and federal levels to make youth empowerment a top priority.

Not a few concerned stakeholders have warned that the worsening youth unemployment is a ticking time bomb for the country, and must be tackled with a sense of urgency.

“Without action to promote young people’s empowerment, boosting opportunities for employment and opening up spaces for political dialogue, countries will be squandering their most precious resource and storing up problems for the future,” the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Patricia Scotland, said in October last year, when the Global Youth Development Index.

According to the index, the world’s youth population is at an all-time high, at 1.8 billion people aged 15 to 29, yet the potential for ‘Generation Hope’ to contribute to a happy, healthy and prosperous future for all could be dashed by widespread joblessness, unequal access to health and education and lack of political influence.

“To make good on the promise and dreams of this generation and to forge a brighter future for all, we need to invest in young people’s health, education, digital skills and offer meaningful opportunities for employment, participation and individual fulfilment,” Scotland said.

Young people should also rise up to the challenges that threaten to undermine their potential and aspirations and not wallow in the cesspool of hopelessness or allow themselves to be driven into social vices such as cyber crime, prostitution, kidnapping, armed robbery and political thuggery.

Rather than allow themselves to become victims of human trafficking in the name of travelling abroad, young people should tap their energy, creativity and channeled them into productive uses wherever they are.

Another key lesson young people should learn from the stories of those who fell victims to violent crime in Libya is to not be driven by the desire to get rich quick at all costs.

Young people must also be active in holding government at all levels to account, and put their representatives in the National Assembly under pressure to champion causes that would better their communities.

There is clearly an urgent need for more young people to decide not to sit on their hands and do something to acquire more knowledge and skills, instead of just complaining about the challenges in the country.