10th January, 2014
Baby factories and child harvesting, emergent lexicons in Nigeria’s human trafficking history, have in recent times hogged the headlines non-stop. But why does the menace thrive in south-eastern part of Nigeria?
The mobile telephone on the edge of the table rang intermittently as he attended to a queue of women on routine ante-natal sessions. Many of the calls he answered, he ended with a consoling ‘Everything shall be well, madam’, apparently to assuage the pain of his caller. As he listened to my request for a chat, I felt his low-toned reply give him away as a man under pressure. Later in the evening at our rendezvous point, he would explain that most of the calls he took earlier were from patients seeking the fruit of the womb. The consulting room, a match-box sized space, has a sitting capacity for three to four women at once. And this was not yet the day set aside for fertility clinic at the Federal Medical Centre, FMC, Umuahia, Abia State.
On such days, Dr. Felix Agu’s work schedule, he told this magazine, doubles even though he entertains strictly infertility-related complaints. The Obstetrics and Gynaecology department of Abia State University Teaching Hospital, ABSUTH, Aba, is a beehive of activities daily. Apart from regular birth takings, doctors there have enough of reproduction-centred cases to keep them on their toes.
Aba, the state’s commercial hub, like most parts of south-eastern Nigeria, is also yoked with illegal maternity and charity homes popularly referred to as baby factories. So why the boom in baby markets in this part of the country? Our searchlights beamed at different directions threw up some factors. Here they are:
Male and female reproductive capacities are on the decline. Doctors are worried about the trend. Okoro Obi, a consultant gynaecologist and obstetrician at ABSUTH, believes that infertility is spiralling in the region. He avers that even age-old myths about the procreative challenges have also been breached by current circumstances. “The cases of infertility are rising these days. We also find that the male factor is also rising. Previously, the teaching used to be that one-third of infertility used to be caused by the male factor. But now, I’m sure it has risen to 45 per cent and may be up to 50 per cent of the number of cases that are reported here,” he said.
It is not only in Abia State that the infertility alarm bells are pealing. Across hospitals in the region, many parents who should be pushing prams many years after marriage are rather still seeking therapies for making babies. In Umuahia for example, although Agu, who runs a fertility clinic at the FMC won’t reel out figures to back his claim, says he is handling a trove of cases, some requiring artificial fertilisation procedures or assisted conception. He explained that the hospital had 53 per cent infertility cases reported in 2011. By 2012, he said, “for the cases that came to our gynecological outpatient clinic infertility-related matters formed 60 per cent,” implying a seven per cent rise.
This position is reinforced by Dr. Odidika Umeora, Head, Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the Federal Teaching Hospital, FETH, Abakaliki, Ebonyi State, is also worried about the prevalence of the condition as reported in his hospital. At FETH for example, this magazine learnt that this [last] year alone, about 490 fresh cases of infertility have been reported. And that excludes the period hospitals were on strike over working conditions. “I don’t think that as a department, we have seen less than 500 cases of infertility this year. And 500 is just on the low side. There is no day I go to the clinic and I don’t have a minimum of four, five or six cases of infertility. So if you take four, and we run five clinics per week; that is 20 cases. You are talking about 80 in a month. That is more than 1,000 a year,” the physician explained.
The two major hospitals in Enugu also have a worrisome turnover of patients with infertility issues. A senior matron at the Enugu State University Teaching Hospital, ESUTH, confided in this medium that patients with reproductive troubles are beseeching the hospital’s gynaecology section in droves. Despite not giving details of the number of patients on their treatment roll call, the long-serving nursing officer noted that the cases reported in the hospital last two years have been swelling.
At the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital, UNTH, Ituku-Ozalla, Enugu State, a senior nursing officer who spoke to our reporter expressed germane concern about the upsurge of reproductive challenges as reported in the hospital. The woman who spoke on condition of anonymity because she had no permission to do so, explained that activities at the fertility clinic were at a lull when our reporter called because of the nationwide warning strike embarked upon by medical doctors, noting that at normal times, the centre which functions as an arm of the gynaecology department thrives on high velocity. As the biggest hospital in the state, she said, UNTH receives referral cases from within and outside the state on a daily basis and offers treatment where possible.
Imo State which has been fertile for a thriving child trafficking network also boasts of high fertility troubles. A medical associate at Umezurike Hospital gives vent to the opinion that infertility is rising in Igboland. When TheNEWS called at the hospital, the doctor who was deputising for an absent colleague admitted that the medical condition is actually reaching desperation levels, noting that more and more people are coming down with it even at young ages. The situation in the hospital was burdensome. Passenger traffic there was high as some government hospitals in the state were heckling for welfare packages when TheNEWS called.
Medical experts say that the challenge manifests in two folds. First is primary infertility. This implies that an individual never had a successful attempt at child birth. In some cases, reasons have been adduced for this situation whereas others have remained shrouded in mystery. Secondary infertility is said to be a condition that sets in after a previous birth.
Both categories of infertility are rising in frightening dimension. Thus, Agu lists delay in child bearing and infections as the main causes of infertility, especially the second type. A consultant gynaecologist who wished to be unnamed also links the problem to long-distance relationships. He explained that “a situation where a spouse meets his or her partner once in a while and sometimes outside of the woman’s ovulation period is bad enough. Such sexual engagements will not produce a child and the woman could attain menopause without knowing it.” Agu posits that many people now patronise quacks for solutions to sexually transmitted diseases, STDs. Poorly treated STDs, he noted, destroy the fallopian tubes hence inhibiting reproductive process. In men, the result, according to Umeora, is poor sperm quality, which is incapable of performing its fundamental function of fertilising the ovary for gestation to occur. Improper drug use, alcoholism, smoking and medical operations on sensitive organs, researchers say, could also lead to futile attempts at procreation.
Unhealthy abortions are also in the mix of elements causing infertility. This is said to be a main causative factor in secondary infertility in women. To curb this, Dr. Okoro advocates that abortions should be legalised: “There is no question about that. Most gynaecologists will ask you to legalise abortion. It doesn’t make any sense the way it is now. It is not legalised, yet we probably have as many abortions as if it were legalised. What are you then trying to achieve?” He submitted that the problems of tubal blockage relating to abortions will be reduced if unwanted pregnancies were terminated by professionals in good sanitary conditions.
Many other experts who declined being named because of their religious leanings also support the call for the lift on prohibition of abortion in Nigeria.
How then does the rise of infertility fertilise baby factories in the Southeast? The correlation is not difficult to fathom. Mrs. Chibuzo Ogbo-Ehimere, President of the Federation of International Women Lawyers, FIDA, Abia State chapter, says her personal observations have linked the rise of baby factories to the infertility challenges in the region. “I think there is a decline in the fertility level in this part of the country because if you look around, you will see that there are so many couples with fertility problems. I think it is in the bid to close that gap that all these baby factories came into place to cover that lacuna,” the attorney whose association has been involved in handling matters relating to baby factories explained.
Ogbonnaya Geoffrey, an assistant superintendent of police, for example narrated to TheNEWS how some barren women connive with unscrupulous doctors to deceive their husbands about the state of their reproductive health. In a case on which his advice was sought, Ogbonnaya said a woman got herself injected with a substance to inflate her tummy. Her unsuspecting husband believed her in the first case. It was the controversial manner in which the lady was delivered of a second child that gave her away, leading to the crumbling of the marriage. Not wanting to directly link the problem with health issues however, Ogbannaya, who is the Police Public Relations Officer, Abia State Command, argued that poverty, as against what some people believe, can’t be the overriding reason why people indulge in baby trafficking. “I don’t think it is poverty,” he says of a man who sold his grandchild and intended to use the proceeds to process his travel documents. “There is no amount of poverty that should make you sell your child. There is something beneath it that we don’t know.” Infertility is the overriding factor not seen by the cop.
Elsewhere in the Eastern Heartland, the police have also heard stories from women involved in baby trafficking. Some have cited inability to conceive after long periods of marriage as the impetus for their actions. Answering a question on the sort of confessions he gets from child trafficking culprits for example, Alhaji Muhammad Musa Katsina, Commissioner of Police, Imo State, said: “Some have reasons to give but they are not legal. If you are saying that you are barren or denied the fruit of the womb, the law requires you to adopt…Some of them [operators of baby factories] say we are registered, we are this and we are that. I agree with you quite alright. But can you use legitimate platform to perpetrate illegality?”
Going by testimonies gathered from victims and culprits, it is now apparently established that there is a market for baby sale. From Cross Foundation Hospital operated by Dr. Hyacinth Orikara or Ahamefule Motherless Babies Home to Ezuma Women and Children Rights Protection Initiative, a big market exists in the underworld for baby sale and the patrons are mainly barren couples, voodooists and cross-border traffickers. Of this lot, buyers who want babies to smoothen their egos bruised by infertility top the list. Here is why the market is leaping in bounds
Government’s handling of the baby factory menace since the illicit trade was first reported ten years ago in the East has been tepid.
The traditional ruler whose Umuguma autonomous community in Owerri West LGA, Imo State, recently turned-in to the police a trafficker from Umunkpo village suspected of breeding babies for ritual killers, observed that the absence of proper checks on the activities of motherless babies’ homes has led to a deviation from standard practice by some of the organisations. The absence of government attention has led many of the homes to duck following the rules, he told TheNEWS.
Some of the homes so far raided have been in operation for many years. Yet, civil supervisory authorities or security agencies never bothered to find out how those homes carry out their operations. Igwe George Ugorji blames government’s indifference to its responsibility for the havoc wrought by the supposed charity homes. Abia State is probably most culpable in this regard. A section of citizens like Orji Eyinnaya who spoke to this magazine wondered what the state government through its Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development had been doing about the rise of baby factories in Abia. Another put it pointedly. “Don’t mind those people in government. They get settled and once they get their share, anything goes. That is why Ezuma was here and nobody bothered. Now the noise is high, they want to pull down the building. It’s a shame!” he spat. True, an interaction to find out what the public knew about the state’s adoption laws yielded low cut-off marks for the government. Many of those who offered answers were ignorant of the state’s adoption laws and processes for adoption.
Attempt to cross-check these allegations with officials met brick walls. A letter written to that effect and addressed to the Commissioner for Women Affairs and Social Development as well as several visits and phone calls fell short of getting them to speak.
Despite passing the Child Right Act, establishing a family court and having a rosy relationship with some organisations to deal with children affairs, Ebonyi State still falls short of sound service delivery. Checks by this medium show that the state has no available documents showing guidelines for establishing charity homes dedicated to children. Supervision of the existing homes is very minimal if not totally absent. Awareness relating to adoption procedures is also low. But responding to these questions, Mrs. Christiana Ogbu, immediate past director in the social welfare department who now heads the Human Relations arm of the Ministry, said the government is willing to invest in the welfare of children but she is hampered by lack of funds. Mrs. Ogbu mentoned that work is in progress to fashion a working document to guide charities working with children.
Like officials of Abia State, the National Agency for the Prohibition in Trafficking in Persons, NAPTIP, is also incurring public angst for its perceived leniency with child traffickers. There are allegations that Drs. James Ezuma and Hyacinth Orikara, frontline operators of baby factories in the southeast, had at different times been handed over to the agency for prosecution, yet, they were let off the hook to continue their trade. Although the agency’s Southeast zonal commandant declined to respond to these allegation without authorisation from the Executive Secretary, a source who is familiar with workings of the body says it is hampered by legislations. The informant explained that some of the offenders brought to the agency are left to go because the crimes they allegedly committed are not captured in the Act establishing NAPTIP, hence, the chances of getting favourable judgments in such cases are slim. To avoid litigations pertaining to human rights abuses and unlawful detention, the source said NAPTIP washes its hands off such matters. To give the agency teeth, the concerned citizen implored the National Assembly to pass the proposals for the amendment of the NAPTIP Act.
Ogbo-Ehimere thinks along that line too. According to her, it is the failure to cushion the effects of teenage pregnancy that has given vent to massive baby-for-sale rackets in the southeast. “Ordinarily, you find out that there are teenage girls who have been on the streets due to pregnancies or things like that. But they require a home if parents have chased them from home or have nowhere else to go. So, the private individuals set up these homes, they did so in the guise to cover up this lacuna because if the government had homes where these girls can go, they wouldn’t have been any need for private individuals to set up homes. They probably thought they were doing the society a favour. Before we knew it, there was a boom and from an innocent start, it has graduated to something else,” she lamented.
That favour has spiraled into a trade that threatens the future of the society. With a network of cells that acquires both pregnant teenagers and infants the baby trafficking cartels are still in active operation in many parts of Igboland. Among their modified tactics, particularly in Onitsha and Awka, TheNEWS learnt that those involved now give out pregnant girls to live with people pretending to be their parents or guardians. Once the child is born, the ‘owner’ pays off the supposed foster parent and the girl, taking the baby away.
A different situation also obtains. Here, paid agents such as 24-year-old Ifeanyi Christian Chinyere hunt for babies to snatch. In a chat with TheNEWS, the culprit, who is still being detained at the Anti-kidnapping Unit of the Imo State Police Command, feiged madness after a community caught and handed him over to the police for attempting to steal a child from its mother. He admitted his culpability in the crime but says he is mad. After a series of questions, he recanted his earlier statement about his health challenge. Chinyere who doesn’t show any signs of abnormality, said he never took medication for mental illness. The police think he is a hawk, hunting kids for some powerful baron somewhere.
If untamed, infertility and a lousy and inefficient civil service that is allergic to delivering quality service to the public will turn the Southeast to a huge dumpsite for trafficked children. Herein lies the root of the matter. Advancing poverty as the reason for trafficking is a ruse.
—Nkrumah Bankong-Obi/South-east, Nigeria