Tobore Ovuorie: In the Galleria of Truth

. . . The unreality of the seen lends reality to the seeing. -Octavio Paz

I shall examine the truth of Tobore Ovuorie's investigative report on human trafficking in Nigeria, and also argue that disapproving or downplaying the validity of the images of violence, prostitution, murder, human trafficking, voodoo, and political crime in her report due to its narrative texture –which rather gives the impression of an unintended methodological flaw-, fails on the pragmatism and patriotism that drape the stories' shocking discoveries. Her piece is a confection that stings. As a robust diagnostician of the bricks of corruption that plinths the foundations of Nigeria's troubles, Tobore Ovuorie rose to national prominence in 2011 for her award winning investigative report, Travellers Shun Vaccination- her attempt to resolve the insalubrious lifestyle and evasive attitude of Nigerians who travel abroad without real vaccination. In reports and interviews, Tobore's persistent contemplation on the investigative journalist's responsibility to a society on the siege of political corruption and moral evasion is phenomenal and redemptive in its paradigmatic and zealous confrontation with the objectionably unexpected crippling of Nigeria's nascent democracy. I claim that her story is efficacious as it is timely in the confrontation of human trafficking, a socio-political danger in Nigeria, no matter the shortfalls in her narrative. Turning the object of political irresponsibility and human torture into an artistic pleasure is not a choice an investigative reporter should make in any attempt to gratify critics, or to paint a more compact picture of a supposedly story-telling cooptation. Thusly Tobore's literary choice nay faction for the representation of her experience with the human trafficking syndicate, which debuted on Premium Times, January 14 2014, arouses a troublesome breadth to the evolution of investigative journalism in Nigeria, as i shall attempt to argue. Also, given that the story generates many textual and ideological glitches as it resolves a crucial national challenge, engaging with this paradox the essay argues that Tobore's human trafficking faction that attracted vigorous critical debate on the social media has become a palladium for political redemption- making recommendations for the government to adopt the piece as vital to the termination of human trafficking in Nigeria.

Tobore Mit Ovuorie is a social researcher, health editor, Ph.D. student, senior investigative journalist with the Premium Times in Nigeria. Tobore Ovuorie rose to national prominence in 2011 for her award winning investigative report -Travellers Shun Vaccination. She has gradually become a role model in investigative research in Nigeria. According to Premium Times 14 January 2014, she was driven to carry out the risky human trafficking investigation “by a desire to expose the syndicates that caused the death of her close friend Ifueko, who returned from sex work in Italy with full-blown Aids in 1999 and died shortly thereafter. Ovuorie hopes that this story will help to improve anti-criminal policies and their execution”. Tobore stands as an enigmatic bull-dog barking at the resurgence of slavery and slave trade in Africa after it's over 200 years abolition. Her work deserves a political consideration given its radical importance to politics and survival in Nigeria. It also struggles to enact that here is no longer a man's world.

Nigeria as depicted in Tobore's story paints a picture of a phantasmagoric landscape only perceivable of the gallows, or of the ganglands of the transatlantic slave trade era where people vanish –uncounted for and forgotten- as the society moves on and on in the poverty of such savagery.

There is a persistent trouble in Nigeria that perhaps border on the likelihood of history recapping itself, which I shall attempt to elucidate herein:

a. Mr President, political analysts and social activist, I want you to look back on the contemporary debate on the abolition of transatlantic slave trade,-the impact of Olaudah Equiano- and perhaps you will recall that there was a study by Imo State University scholars on Olaudah Equiano, a Nigerian slave author, whose work contributed immensely to the end of trans-atlantic slave trade and slavery in the world. Compiled by Prof. Catherine Acholonu, Prof. F.N. Madubuike, Prof. Chima Korie and Prof. Isidore Diala, under the title:"AFRICA AND THE TRANS-ATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE: REVISITING THE OLAUDAH EQUIANO GLOBAL LEGACY", 26th -28th JULY 2007, IMO STATE UNIVERSITY, OWERRI, NIGERIA, the work is a historic tool and a politico-literary blessing. It was sponsored by United Nations Forum of Arts and Culture, Nigeria. In the report Acholonu et al. testified that: “In 1789 Equiano's autobiography was published under the title The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African, Written by Himself. In the book, Equiano presented himself not only as a victim of slavery, but more importantly, he gave the first ever from the point of view of a black African and an ex-slave: "The kingdom is divided into many provinces, in one of the most remote and fertile of which, called Eboe (Igbo), I was born, in the year 1745, in a charming fruitful vale, named Essaka."

This is very outstanding that an African, Nigerian Igbo for that matter, courageously published the first book that seriously led to the end of slavery and slave trade in the world. Acholonu's team fought to establish the Nigerian origin of the author slave boy; they fought to establish his achievement in contributing to the end of trans-atlantic slave trade; they fought European critics, American critics and even Igbo scholars who could not assist the study; they fought to establish that the menace of slave trade and slavery that saw to the horror that took over four hundred years off our civilisation should not be repeated; they fought to unravel that Nigerians were very much amongst African men and women who were traded as commodities with the connivance of local chiefs on the African continent : "By the 1780s, the high point of the African Slave Trade, when more than eighty-eight thousand Africans would be brought to the New World every year, the Atlantic Slave Trade was a well-established mercantile system connecting Africa, Europe and the Americas in a web of (illicit) commerce" (Robert J. Allison, Introduction to The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, 1995). That book can be compared to the recent work of Tobore Ovuorie, which does appear to be a repetition of history scholars fought against. I shall explore further in the next point the human trafficking story which is in the main our case study.

b. Mr President, political analysts and social activist, Tobore Mit Ovuorie's story is prodigious. City Express, on the 14th January 2014, wrote, “Tobore Mit Ovuorie went undercover to investigate the sex-trafficking industry in Nigeria and emerged beaten but alive after witnessing orgies, big money deals and horrific ritual murder”. In the report just as Equiano's work, Tobore presented herself as a victim of human trafficking. The difference however may seem that she willingly joined in disguise, far from it. She was coerced into it due to the experience of her friend who died of a full-blown AIDS due to involvement in human trafficking in Nigeria, slavery of the 21st century. She may appear to be an undercover superwoman, but evidence shows that she was involved in the experience under compulsion. Yet, you cannot avoid the monstrousness of this story given its capacity to give the current government and our people a bad name. In the excerpts on Premium Times, - the online newspaper that spearheaded the study with their European counterpart, Zam Chronicles, -you will be shocked, you will be discredited, you will be indicted, you will be totally forced to take a more substantial step, within the shortest amount of time, concerning the recommendations I shall make at the end of this study.

Andre Brink in his novel “A Dry White Season” serves as a dissident passionately appealing for social justice in South Africa, then a country riddled with apartheid- a social injustice as crude as human trafficking. Mr. Brink argues that one must continue to act, protest, or one forfeits his humanity. Similarly, in her report Tobore Ovuorie privileges on genuine compassion to sustain her humanity, a patriotic pose that pongs of the need for urgent termination of the human trafficking and the wicked syndicates who trade our women and men in exchange for money even in a democracy. It is most poignant and cantankerously disconcerting that there has not been any presidential press briefing nor televised discourse on this issue. This story deserves more attention than it is given today by the ruling government.

c. Mr President, and stakeholders you should also get to read this report: SHOCKING: 'I Gave 20 Naira To A Beggar, Then I Found Myself Where They Slaughter Human Beings', by Osun Defender, 5th February 2014. The protagonist of this story is “Abdulwaheed Saliu, an indigene of Tunga Maje in Gwagwalada Area Council narrates how he gave an old man N20 which landed him in the ritualists den where people got slaughtered daily and the women kept serving in a baby factory,” Osun Defender, 5th February 2014. It is a shocking story of how Allah saved a devoted Muslim from human trafficking. This is a story of slavery and slave trade taking a spiritual dimension. You will be bewildered by this story. It happened in Nigeria. You are the most educated president of this country. Outsiders who read this stories and yet do not get any direct press responses from your office will never be contented with your administration.

d. Wole Soyinka addressing UNESCO on the 200th year of the abolition of the slave trade in the Haiti professed,'' ... we know those who would be first-in-line (today) to stock the slave ships on the African coast. They are the spiritual descendants of those ancestors, inhuman yet superstitious, who not only waged wars to keep up the supply of their own kind across the Atlantic, but devised internal rituals to wipe of their memory, fearful that, if they died overseas, their ghosts would return and haunt them. They are scattered all over the continent and known by different names such as Mobutu Sese Seko, Idi Amin, Macias Nguema, etc., etc. They are the unrepentant perpetuators of a dismal history that is again turning Africa into one vast slave encampment.''

Was he not by accident addressing the (b.) and (c.) mentioned above? Are the perpetrators of the crimes in (b.) and (c.) not enemies of the people as Mobutu Sese Seko, Idi Amin, and Macias Nguema ?

Before I go further to the nuts and bolts of this discussion, I want to remind you, Mr President, that you have a lot to do this year with regards to constructive improvements on the nations' SPERESTEL (Security, Power, Educational, Religious, Economical, Social, Technological, Ecological, Legal) challenges. Power there stands for the electricity or energy problem and the political issues ravaging our country. Also, without security everything you do in government can be dashed. You can understand others as you are doing your best to ameliorate them. Human trafficking is connected to the failure of meeting with the SPERESTEL requirement of a 21st century government. Failure in the economy, failure in education, failure in leadership, failure in technology can lead to that. They are connected. Are we moving back to the 17th century, during the heat of slave trade and slavery? This is a pre-election year. Human trafficking is enough to cause the failure of the country. You have a lot of workshops to organise especially on this Tobore's case on Human Trafficking. It is a huge menace in our time that requires your prominent attention.

To engage in investigative report in Nigeria is dangerous. Nigeria lacks human security but has millions of ignorant leaders making it hard to locate avenues of restoring security to the society. Sad. Where is Dele Giwa? Investigative journalism, that which requires research, disguise, risk, brave reportage, confronting the forces of evil, -and in this case imperialism through human trafficking- is of a dualistic endangerment, to engage is to live in terrorem or to cease to live in toto. Nigeria is a “labyrinth of squalid bamboo huts, thatched with palmleaf, winding all over a steep hillside”, to borrow from George Orwell's 'Shooting an Elephant”. It was my literary hero of all time, George Orwell, who also alleged that, “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf”. Investigative journalists are 'rough men' including the likes of Tobore Ovuorie. However, there is something unique about Tobore's condition, her contravention of stylistics, her grotesque tribulation, and the resultant social media uproar that attended her reportage. The question that is very paramount in this discourse analysis is not the impossibility of her assignation with the human trafficking underworld in West Africa, but how she reported her tribulation and the succeeding rejoinders. She was at most a heroine in the faction. She was part and parcel of the fact, only that she was a victim as Olaudah Equiano and Abdulwaheed Saliu.

It is the faction and the probable censure. Faction is a portmanteau of fact and fiction. Unlike fiction, it depicts actual events woven together with fictitious dialogue whilst using the storytelling or real-time techniques of fiction.

Like people who traffic human beings, politicians think disparately about life. Money is more important than life in their world view. Such is the effect of power to many. When power corrupt at the centre, it will like a virus spread across. African presidents always have distorted views far different from the views of the ignorant masses they are leading, and that is why Africa is in slavery again. Leaders should not be adversaries of the people. Every problem in the African society happens under the nose of political leaders. They find it difficult to invest in investigative journalism or to invest in the strategic human security. The case of Boko Haram in the North of Nigeria is a painstaking example. This is why the appreciation of Tobore's tribulation becomes a justified mission. It was a task beyond media capitalism. It was a combat against power and the politics of evil mercantilism.

On the 20th November 2013, International Labour Organisation in a Press release noted that, “Those who benefit from exploitation need to be swiftly punished; those who suffer abuse and coercion need to be empowered to raise their voice.” ILO Acting Regional Director for Africa, Hans Hofmeijer, at the opening of a two-day high-level conference in Zambia addressed various avenues of combating forced labour, human trafficking and slavery in the continent.

Investigative journalism requires insight into the happenstances, the sources, and bearing of the events one is researching. It requires structural evaluation of the subject of societal cohesion. Whatever happens in the society does not happen in isolation. There are strings. It is in locating these strings that the investigator encounters risk. It is risky to climb or work through ropes. Ropes of uncertainty that always lead to political action or inaction. Research focused on investigation takes voyages through the corridors of the strings in view, no matter whose ox is gored. The fact is that humans die, disappear, and are trafficked in Nigeria. The foci of the investigative researcher which navigate through the involvement of people in the subject of study, crochet on four dominant questions: who does this; when, why; and how? To take a voyage for the answers to these questions requires risk as Tobore Ovuorie has done. ZamChronicles Amsterdam, the source of the funding for Tobore's investigation, is not my concern, and they are not as important to me as the source of her postulations. The fact that she allegedly risked her life to engage in this exercise is quite imposing.

Tobore's tribulation is what is happening and people are quite aware of the political chaos that hatches human trafficking in Africa. It is a current issue that concerns current people in government. ILO's report in 2013, a submission after very robust fact-finding compilations by the participants in the conference in Lusaka, demonstrates that, “With some 3.7 million men, women and children still trapped in forced labour – the second highest prevalence rate worldwide –, the African continent needs urgently innovative solutions to combat forced labour and human trafficking”. Child labour in Cocoa farms in Ivory Coast is as real as human trafficking story explored in Tobore Ovuorie's tragedy. Certainly, to me, the faction is a tortuous African tragedy.

Admittedly, the structure of the narrative is risky and complex. Reports from phones where not well presented afterwards, the events were not recorded in real- time, certain issues do not cohere for all its boldness, yet there is still faith in the story, at least for the storytelling's ancient claim that truth in lies may exceed the truth in fact.

Two weeks ago, the tragic story, portraying Tobore's tribulation debuted on Premium Times, and it began thus: “Six out of 10 people who are trafficked to the West are Nigerians. PREMIUM TIMES investigative reporter, Tobore Ovuorie, was motivated by years of research into the plight of trafficked women in the country, as well as the loss of a friend, to go undercover in a multi-billion dollar criminal enterprise. She emerged, bruised and beaten but thankfully alive, after witnessing orgies, big money deals in jute bags, police-supervised pickpocketing, beatings and even murder. This is her story.” When I read this I had wanted to stop there. How could Premium Times make such a statement without any citation? Who arrives at such quantitative stance without evidence? Yet, I persisted, just as Tobore did through her escape. It disappoints the pen, the story plot. At every curve of the chaotic story you perceive amateurish employ of faction. At all the five pages you recognize the perspiration of a journalist asking for fame and credibility (and she got it, by the award she warn in December 2013). At every leitmotif you perceive a gaunt underdog reporter who claims she was treated as special amongst other prostitutes. At several points, from Mama C's native doctors to the narrations about her co-labourers, across the people at the point where she was nearly murdered, the bulk of the chronicle oppose authenticity. Did she ever have intercourse with anybody?

Take a look at this transcript:
All along the road leading up to the border, police and customs officers wave and greet Madam Eno and our head of operations, Mr James. Nigerian Immigrations and Customs officers also greet us warmly at the border post itself, whilst enquiring if there is anything in it for them today.

“Welcome, Madam! How have sales been?”
Eno: “Not much.”
“But your batch was allowed entry yesterday, so why claim you haven't been making sales? “

Eno: “We are not the owner of yesterday's batch of girls. We own these ones in this bus.”

“Haaa!You want to play a smart one? Not to worry, your boss will sort all this out with us.”

The officers then wave the minibus through without any form of documentation.

The original plan was for me to go with the transport as far as Cotonou, the capital of our neighbouring country Benin. But I don't want to stretch it any longer. The border is usually very crowded and I plan to escape as soon as we are there. It works. Just after the Seme border post, in front of a crowded, muddy market, I run. Merging with the crowd, I take my top off – I have another top under it – and cover my head with a scarf. The army officer is following me, looking for me. I dive into a store and lose him.

Tobore should have researched further on Truman Capote and several writers of non-fiction to see how the genre has emerged over the years. The story would have served as a perfect irrepressible abolitionist tool. Here, Tobore struck a particular resonance in the post-aviation saga climate in Nigeria when Stella Oduah, the country's Aviation minister's certificates were erroneously reported by Premium Times. It appears as much as her testament, the border experience, as Premium Times insistence that Stella Oduah presented a forged certificate from St Pauls College in America- such was a rather shambolic investigative production, so putrid, schismatic and downgrading. It is a refrain from rationalisable veracity. As it attracted massive social media condemnation on the tabloid, so is the premises and conclusions of Tobore's tribulation. Her story was so easy to destroy by critics. Some critics have, as expected on Nigeria's embryonic social media, committed the blunder of debunking her story outrightly without having ever researched investigatively on human trafficking.

Not escapist, in deed. Am I to believe that this encounter is real as reported? Am I to believe that the syndicate who are meant to interact at higher level will willingly, before the girls, discuss and chat all these along the border? Allow her to have her phones? Are every officer at the borders always involved in the deal? While this paints a picture of the drama at Nigeria's borders, it does not sound authentic. Like faction it is meant to be so sometimes. The reporter has no brain of a god. The reporter may not have recorded every conversation. You reckon, that there should be a bit of fiction. You reckon, also, that the reporter may have added some connotation to the conversation. The reporter's life was also in danger. Yet, she uncovered a social and current menace perpetrated by goofballs. She compelled the government to think. She espoused the human security problem in Africa.

Thus the reporter achieved three things: the expose of political and economic poverty in Nigeria; because of the poverty, human beings are lured into trafficking/prostitution; and it happens in Lagos and Abuja and in some cities in Africa. The fruit of Tobore's turbulent story is the focus of this expose. Today, there is ongoing work on the findings of the story. At a meeting with the newspaper's editors and lawyer in Lagos, Thursday, the National Agency for the Prohibition of Traffic in Persons and other Related Matters, NAPTIP, said it would collaborate with PREMIUM TIMES and other relevant agencies to bring the culprits to book. Arinze Orakwue, NAPTIP's head of media and publicity, said, “We have a responsibility to make sure that the reporter is safe. We also need to commence investigation to bring the syndicate to book.”

Nevertheless, the ruckus that lavishly fetter all over the criticism of Tobore's reportage has a lot in common with the report itself. There are several questions that reverberate across the spectrum.

i. Critics of Tobore's story who haggle about the surrealism and impossibility of the undercover investigation, have they engaged in any investigative research on human trafficking?

ii. Critics of the story, who are mostly stretching the bounds of doubt, what evidence have they that the story was not as it was told; can they tell us the whereabouts of Tobore during the period of the investigation; any alibi?

iii. Critics of the story who are mostly focused on the style of report, have they no sympathy for Tobore, her alleged tribulation and the endangered lives in her story?

iv. Critics of the story who do not want to believe the story, are they saying that human trafficking is not real and a menace in our society today?

v. Premium Times who handed the information to NAPTIP what have they done to verify the story further so as to improve the reliability of the story?

vi. Premium Times and Zam Chronicles who sent Tobore on this death mission, did they not break the ethics of the profession?

vii. Premium Times who has been accused for scandalous publication of fabrications are they doing anything to improve their integrity so as to reduce future doubt in a matter as crucial as this?

viii. What is in it for Tobore? As a Ph.D. student in Psychology the fact that Tobore had to abandon her pursuit just to uncover this story offers a new dimension to this investigative journalism.

The involvement of a Nigeria-based online Newspaper, Premium Times, in this report, must be taken rather seriously. The Presidency must do anything possible to work with this newspaper to get into the gallery of truth so as to arrest, ban, and openly restore security in Nigeria. People are afraid. The level of human insecurity in the country is high.

Human trafficking obviously is an international or trans-border business. Just as transatlantic slave trade, this case involves a sophisticated syndicate working with powerful people. This requires the government of Nigeria to support the police with the needed influence, and also to share intelligence with our neighbouring countries. This will enable the security agencies to understand the enormity of the crime and further lead to the arrest of the criminals.

All officers working alongside West African borders should help the government in unravelling this huge menace. They should be held accountable.

There is need to put CCTV on every road in Nigeria, Ghana, Togo and neighbouring countries. This video recording of roads, hotels, shopping malls and buildings, will aid surveillance, abating and apprehending kidnappers and murderers who are serious links to the human trafficking syndicates. Tobore Ovuorie must have more titbits on this case that government can use to stop human trafficking. The security agents must investigate her further to understand her line of research. Abdulwaheed Saliu of the Osun Defender case must be invited for serious discussion. This innocent Muslim was saved by God, and as well, he witnessed the brutal beheading of so many people in the alleged unidentified location. He may have some Intel. The beggars must be investigated. The location must be unravelled. The silence of the government in this issue is not good for our democracy.

Government in West Africa must get to talk and work on this. Citizens need to hear government opinion on this enormous human trafficking cases. Government cannot afford to remain silent on this issue. It is a clear failure on the part of this current government. There is need for urgent political response. The relevant agencies must organise a workshop immediately to sensitise the public on how to avoid prostitution and human trafficking.

In any case, religious, educational, and community organisations must always be made accountable in the case of missing people. They should account for their members and their whereabouts. It is also surprising that most public schools do not follow up on absentee students. Other stakeholders can be involved in investigating ways of improving security in Nigeria. It appears that people get missing in Nigeria without government and security agents knowing and conducting investigations.

To unravel the activities of human traffickers you must first of all unravel the powerful cream of the crop involved in the crime. Human trafficking in Nigeria is currently a social virus perpetrated by powerful people. Adopting structural functionalism when engaging in this kind of investigation makes sense. Thanks to the sociological works of Émile Durkheim , A.R. Radcliffe-Brown and Herbert Spencer. To investigate crime, you cannot ignore those who came to power through crime, those deviants whose forces of darkness we see through roadside, low-level criminals, one of which Tobore describes as Mama Caro. Although, the current landlords of the syndicate machinery, a part of Tobore's investigation that was not reported in detail, are yet to be uncovered, hitherto there seems to be a farcical attempt at pointing towards Abacha's regime alone, a dead regime for that matter, whereas the facts on several international studies show that human trafficking in Nigeria is a current menace perpetrated most possibly by current political office holders in Nigeria. It is currently perpetrated by more powerful forces, whom we shall soon believe, are more powerful and are capable of stopping the Colonel and Police officer mentioned in Tobore's story, if they do not indeed pledge allegiance to them.

About the Author
Stanley Ndukwe is a research fellow at the London School of Commerce. He is a publisher and the President of Mercy Culture London. He is a poet, and the author of The Merciful Mind.

Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of The Nigerian Voice. The Nigerian Voice will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."

Articles by Stanley Ndukwe