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Child Trafficking in West Africa and the Question of Justice: How life under unjust structures weakens efforts to end human-trafficking

ANALYSIS Mitterand M. Okorie, PhD 22 July 2022

A recent report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) paints a disturbing picture of human trafficking in West Africa. Released in 2021, the report shows that 75 per cent of trafficking victims detected in West Africa are children, the majority of whom are trafficked for forced labour.[1] When looking more closely at the 26 West African states, it is particularly worrisome that cross-border trafficking between Nigeria and Benin Republic remains unabated – especially as it is now almost twenty years since the governments of both countries signed the Cooperation Agreement to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons with emphasis on trafficking in women and children.[2]

The bilateral conversations that led to the agreement mentioned above were triggered by the discovery of 261 Beninese children working in a quarry in Abeokuta, Nigeria, in September 2003.[3] Interestingly, the above occurrence happened two years after the Heads of Government in the ECOWAS region adopted a Political Declaration and an Action Plan against trafficking in human beings.[4] In 2006 alone, over 40,000 children were trafficked to, from or through the Benin Republic, with some ending up on cocoa farms in Ivory Coast and others as teenage laborers in Nigeria.[5] Again, it was worrisome that such extensive scale of child-trafficking was happening five years after the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child came into force.[6] In effect, while continental and regional legal frameworks to combat trafficking expanded, protection for vulnerable citizens remained elusive. As a result, this article aims to make critical inferences as to why this is the case. 

Child trafficking – an intractable problem?

My argument is that cross-border trafficking of children from the Benin Republic to Nigeria is seemingly intractable due to the social and structural conditions that account for it. Typically, Beninese children from impoverished homes in rural areas of the country are pushed to traffickers who find demand for child labour in Nigeria. Yet, it is not enough to observe that child trafficking and child labour are organically reinforcing harms but to examine why national, bilateral, continental, or international laws or protocols have failed to stem the problem. 

I contend that part of the intractability is the lack of justice in state-society relations in post-colonial Africa. Implicit in the human trafficking menace is a problem of lack of justice as a default condition of life on the continent. My definition of justice here draws from the perspective of the political philosopher Uchenna Okeja, who reckoned justice to be a commitment to the respect of the humanity of others and a perception of others as beings that deserve care.[7] Hence, in interrogating why laws and law enforcement agencies have failed to protect victims of human trafficking, there is a need to appreciate that life in contemporary Africa is an existence scaffolded by unjust structures.  

A dehumanizing conundrum?

Given the above condition, several pertinent questions arise. Can those for whom life unfolds as an experience under unjust structures develop sufficient instinct for justice in their interpersonal encounters? Whether for the Beninese parent who hands over their child to racketeering intermediaries for as little as $200 or the family in Lagos who demands for child labour, there is an absence of justice, both as a normative pursuit and as a structural reality of both societies. The parent who aids in the trafficking and economic exploitation of their child may have thought very little about the child’s humanity even though parental responsibility should compel it. Though, one could also assume that the parent’s action is compelled by a natural instinct to escape privation. Whatever the case, the child’s fate at his/her eventual destination is treated as an afterthought.

Let us also think about the family in Lagos who demands a Beninese child labourer. Part of the consideration is that they are neither fluent in the local language enough to protest their maltreatment to local law enforcement authorities and that they are too beholden to the trafficking syndicate to escape from their slavers. Some of the homes where these children end up as domestic servants are those of educated, middle-class Nigerians, whose own children attend private schools and vacation in Europe and other Global North countries. 

Essentially, most of the patrons of child labour in Nigeria are those effectively aware of the enterprise’s patently unjust and criminal nature, as an investigative story by the International Centre for Investigative Journalism reveals.[8] They can witness evidence of this injustice in the very fact that while their children are chauffeured to school each morning, the trafficked child is subjected to domestic servitude. So why is the educated, middle-class patronizer of trafficked children oblivious to the child’s humanity? One way to explain this is that this person is a product of a dehumanizing system (this does not excuse the crime they have committed or the harm they have caused). The average Nigerian citizen is an individual at the mercy of arbitrary police arrest, a comatose health infrastructure that cannot save him should he suffer a medical emergency, and a state that can neither rescue him if he is kidnapped nor effectively prosecute his abductors. If his child were to be harmed or killed in school due to negligence on the part of school authorities, he would be powerless to seek justice if those authorities had powerful political friends. Given this socialization in a Hobbesian state, is such an individual capable of coming to terms with the humanity of a trafficked child? 

In her incisive report published in the UK Guardian, Monica Mark tells the story of Timothy Goudjana, a Beninese who spoke of the haunting memories of his life as a teenage labourer in Nigeria.[9] But decades later, he sent two of his children to a similar fate at a much younger age. We must then ask, would the misfortune that befell Timothy’s children come to pass if their father had lived in a just Beninese society where venal corruption was not the overarching legacy of political leadership? Thus, Okeja’s ideation of justice as something that matters for politics and for interpersonal encounters advances an understanding of trafficking as a question of (in)justice. It leads us to imagine that people born in certain countries and subjects of certain backgrounds would naturally contend with certain forms of suffering and disadvantage irrespective of the burgeoning laws enacted to protect them.

Conclusion: How to end the dehumanization

Clawing out of this state of political failure demands that governments in Africa become responsive to the material well-being of their citizens. By doing so, the economic desperation and lax security architecture that reinforces the problem would abate. It is equally essential that those at the helm of affairs in African countries are able to reconstruct state-society relations on the basis of justice and a recognition that citizens deserve care. Infinitely, citizens who enjoy a dignified existence would be less likely to engage in the dehumanization of others. 

Mitterand M. Okorie is a postdoctoral research fellow at the African Studies Centre at Rhodes University. He is currently researching on human rights issues as a member of the research project ‘When the law is not enough: Intractable problems of human rights in Africa’.

[1] UNODC: Human trafficking in West Africa: three out of four victims are children says UNODC report, 05 February 2021 <,of%20exploitation%20in%20the%20region. > accessed 03 July 2022.

[2] UNICEF: Benin and Nigeria pledge to fight child trafficking, 2005 < > accessed on 12 July 2022.

[3] [3] Dottridge, Mike, ‘Between Theory and Reality: The challenge of distinguishing between trafficked children and independent child migrants’ (2021) 16 Anti-trafficking Review, 11-27.

[4] United Nations Information Service: Significant progress in the fight against trafficking in human beings in West African states, 20 December 2001< > accessed on 09 July 2022.

[5] Brown, Karin, ‘Child Trafficking in Benin, West Africa’ (Beyond Intractability, March 2010) < > accessed on 10 July 2022.

[6] African Union: African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, 29 November 1999 < > accessed on 09 July 2022.

[7] Okeja, Uchenna, ‘What is Justice’ (Inaugural Lecture, Rhodes University South Africa, 31 March 2022) < > accessed on 10 July 2022.

[8] Adebajo, Kunle, ‘Pushed beyond borders: A peek into the dark world of child trafficking between Benin and Nigeria (1)’ (International Centre for Investigative Reporting, 09 October 2019) < > accessed on 10 July 2022.

[9] Mark, Monica, ‘Benin’s poverty pushes youngsters into the employ of child traffickers’ (The Guardian, 27 November 2012) < > accessed on 03 July 2022.


  • Dr Mitterand M. Okorie

    Dr Mitterand M. Okorie is a postdoctoral research fellow at the African Studies Centre at Rhodes University. He is currently researching on human rights issues as a member of the research project ‘When the law is not enough: Intractable problems of human rights in Africa’.

By Dr Mitterand M. Okorie

Dr Mitterand M. Okorie is a postdoctoral research fellow at the African Studies Centre at Rhodes University. He is currently researching on human rights issues as a member of the research project ‘When the law is not enough: Intractable problems of human rights in Africa’.

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