Julie Okah-Donli: On War Path With Traffickers
Words By -Jemi Ekunkunbor
Julie Okah-Donli is a woman of parts; a lawyer, author and philanthropist. A member, Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administration of Nigeria; Chartered Arbitrators of Nigeria and Nigeria Institute of Management, she is a graduate of the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.
After a work-life in both the public and private sectors, the Knight of the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Anglican Church in Nigeria got appointed as the Director General, National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP). She brings to bear, her over 25 years post bar experience.
In the face of the ongoing violence against persons going on in and around the country, we spoke to the Founder of Julie Donli Kidney Foundation. This is what the beautiful native of Bayelsa State said:
Where were we with the fight against trafficking in persons before the pandemic?
Before the lockdown occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic, NAPTIP already had a work plan for the year strategically targeted at deepening the fight against human trafficking. Part of this strategy was to accelerate the establishment of State Task Forces against Human Trafficking in at least 16 states during 2020. We also planned to review some of our policy documents such as the National Policy on Protection and Assistance to Trafficked Persons and the National Referral Mechanism, to validate the Protocol for Identification, Safe Return and Rehabilitation of Trafficked Persons, and to develop a new National Action Plan on Human Trafficking.
We also planned to, more vigorously, investigate and prosecute cases of human trafficking and violence against persons, while continuing our robust public enlightenment campaigns on all fronts.
We had started making progress on all these issues before the Covid-19 lockdown.
Shortly before the lockdown, I was in Delta State on the first anniversary of the State Task Force, and we had an appraisal of the achievements of the Task Forces with His Excellency, Dr Arthur Ifeanyi Okowa. I also interacted with key stakeholders including the Dein of Agbor and the Asagba of Asaba. We had also conducted workshops for the review of the National Policy on Protection and Assistance to Trafficked Persons, but couldn’t hold the validation workshop that was scheduled for first week of April. However, we will soon hold a virtual validation workshop so the work on that document can be concluded.
We had also scheduled a retreat for judges and judicial officers on human trafficking for late March but have now rescheduled it for September.
Between January and March, NAPTIP secured eight convictions, and the most cheering was the life sentence imposed on a man that raped a teenager that was in his care.
Before the lockdown, NAPTIP was already on the go because we had a full calendar for the year.
We are now reviewing our work plan to determine what we can realistically achieve, without losing focus of our strategic vision for the year.
How has the pandemic affected the war?
The pandemic did not have much impact on the war as the agency, being an essential one, was opened throughout the lockdown period. During the lockdown, cases were reported, victims rescued and suspects arrested. However, most people who would have reported cases did not do so as there was restriction on movement.
Now that most work and business transactions have moved online, do you think traffickers would also take their activities online?
In fact, some of the activities of traffickers were done online before the lockdown. With the recent development, traffickers would explore more opportunities online.
From your work, what are the common tricks used in recruiting persons, especially females?
They do this through control mechanisms such as swearing to an oath; deception such as promise of a job abroad; educational opportunities abroad; modelling opportunities; and football career opportunities.
What system failures help to aid recruitment of persons?
The widening gap between the rich and the poor is largely responsible. In fact, about 70% of Nigerians live below the poverty line. Lack of job opportunities, social security, inadequate infrastructure, inadequate housing and gender inequality have also contributed.
What is the punishment prescribed by law for traffickers and would you say it has helped check trafficking so far?
The law prescribed for traffickers as enshrined in the Trafficking in Persons (Prohibition) Enforcement and Administration Act, 2015, include the following:
Any person who recruits, transports, transfers, harbours or receives any person by means of any control mechanism, is liable, on conviction, to imprisonment for a term of not less than 2 years and a fine of not less than N250,000.
Importation and exportation of persons/ procurement of persons for sexual exploitation attract a fine of not less than 5 years imprisonment.
Imprisonment for a term of not less than 7 years for any person who procures, or recruits any person under the age of 18 years/ foreign travel that promotes prostitution.
The Violence Against Persons Act (VAPP) Act also prescribes life imprisonment for rape.
Without any doubt, the punishment prescribed for traffickers in the Act is a deterrent against the commitment of human trafficking offences. However, the agency is embarking on more sensitisation in order to call the attention of the populace to the penalty for offenders.
During the lockdown, concerns were raised about women who were locked down with violent husbands. Did your office address such issues?
Yes. NAPTIP was inundated with heart-rending cases of spousal abuse, battery and rape. NAPTIP has had to rescue many battered children and victims of rape, incest and sodomy during this period. I have since been on social media to: create awareness where violence is endemic, enlighten the public and provide quality information and proper channels of reporting incidences of domestic violence, as well as create awareness about the sexual offenders’ register which will serve as deterrence for potential offenders.
Women are never in a hurry to leave violent relationships because of children and sometimes, because of economic reasons. How would you advise them?
It is important that women protect themselves from violent partners, by exposing and reporting them immediately to relevant authorities before they are rendered paranoid or killed.
Are some of these men handled as mentally-ill or straight-up criminals?
Once a crime is committed, the suspect is arrested and investigated. However, some of the suspects’ psychological/mental status may be tested if the gravity of offence is high.
In what ways are you collaborating with countries through which traffickers pass?
Human trafficking is principally a transnational organised crime; therefore fighting trafficking requires close collaborations among a broad spectrum of governmental, and nongovernmental agencies in the source, transit and destination countries.
NAPTIP engages with relevant countries in this chain at policy, tactical and operational levels.
At the policy level, we have entered into Memoranda of Understanding, Agreements, Treaties and Protocols. We’re constantly negotiating and fine-tuning agreements and reviewing our relationships with many countries in Europe and transit countries like, Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger. At the tactical levels, we have technical meetings to evolve actionable plans and programmes to ensure effective responses to the threats posed by human trafficking.
At the operational level, our officers collaborate with their counterparts in those countries to carry out joint investigations, intelligence sharing and operations. Indeed NAPTIP officers have worked with law enforcement officers at some foreign airports in the UK, Spain and Austria. We have also been involved in multinational operations that have netted notorious traffickers in many countries in Africa and Europe
What are the challenges you face in the course of this work?
There are several; from inter-agency rivalry to paucity of fund, bureaucracy and the clandestine nature of the crime. This refers to the fact that most crimes associated with human trafficking take place behind closed doors, among people who are known to each other. Also, traffickers go to great lengths to ensure that their victims are under their psychological and physical control. Such victims never acknowledge their status and neither see their traffickers as their benefactors.
That is why the crime of trafficking is very difficult to investigate; same with sustaining cases of trafficking through the court process.
We hear of diabolical dimensions to which traffickers take their trade; for you in the battle front, do you have any reason to worry?
We took the war against traffickers to the Oba of Benin. The herbalists were summoned to the king’s palace to desist from placing victims under oath, and break the ones they did.
To us, the diabolical dimension is a mere control mechanism used to enslave the victims. Nothing much to be worried about.
What advice do you have for youths?
I’ll advise them to be diligent in their studies/engagements and follow life’s process. They should also desist from get-rich-quick syndrome which could give them out to traffickers. Youths can definitely become whatever they want to become in life without travelling out of the country.
In what way has your work changed your perspective on life?
The desperation of traffickers to get rich at all cost at the expense of the vulnerable ones, has made me resolved to passionately protect the victims and go after the traffickers with everything within me.
When you are not after traffickers, how do you relax?
I do aerobics, dance or play golf.
What beauty routine do you keep to maintain your good looks?