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We’ll rather perish in the desert (3)

NIGERIA RETURNEES FROM EUROPE

After failing to actualise their ambition of crossing into Europe through the desert, many returnees in Edo State who took to agriculture in order to stay away from crime appear to have had their expectations dashed. In this report, INNOCENT DURU examines the frustrations of the returnees in their venture into agriculture and the implications for the fight against illegal migration which is thriving in the state.

In line with the promises of successive governments in the country to provide farmers with the necessary support to succeed in their endeavor, many Libya returnees from Edo State took to farming, believing that it would end their misery and make them self-reliant. Not only did they take to farming, they also formed cooperative societies through which they train members and also campaign against illegal migration, using their unsavoury experiences as examples.

The venture, according to the President of the Initiative for Youth Awareness on Migration, Development and Re-integration (IYAMIDR), Comrade Solomon Okoduwa, took off well with many returnees joining the cooperative groups and jettisoning their plan to embark on illegal migration.

Narrating how the idea began, Okoduwa said: “When I was in Libya, I emerged the secretary of the Nigerian Community. Then, things were working very well until the crisis that ousted Momar Gadaffi. When we returned to Nigeria, we met a country that only said welcome without any concern for our wellbeing. We had nothing to fall back on. Along the line, we were able to start a programme, using the idea we got from Libya to mobilise our people.

“It was then that we formed and registered the IYAMIDR. We registered it with the Ministry of Women Affairs and Ministry of Youth and Sport in Edo State. We collaborated with like-minded organisations and spoke about the dangers of illegal migration and the benefits of getting engaged back at home.

“In 2012, we were able to set up Returnees Re-integration Farm with the help of the monarch of Benin Kingdom. We paid him a courtesy call and told him the plight of our people. He said that he would advise us go to our various local governments and start farming. With his support, we went back to our communities and people gave us large expanses of land to farm. The royal father told us not to sell the land but use it to propagate the gospel that we believe in.

“As we speak, we have 15 hectares of land in Ekiadolor area. We also have another 60 hectares in Oke Irhue community. We have not cultivated half of that land. This was an initiative that we adopted to engage our members because we know that government cannot employ everybody.

Most of the returnees did not go to school before they left the country, so they needed skill. We have cassava cooperative, rice cooperative, plantain, poultry, piggery cooperatives, and so on.”

Laudable as their plans appeared, Okoduwa noted that the absence of capital made it impossible for the members to put the skills they had acquired into practice as most of them returned to the country poorer than they were before they embarked on their failed attempt at going to Europe.

Okoduwa said: “A ray of hope eventually appeared when the Central Bank launched the Anchor Borrowers’ Programme. Our members keyed into the programme and fulfilled all the requirements registering the cooperative groups and opening accounts with two banks, namely Bank of Agriculture and Sterling Bank. Unfortunately, we are yet to get a dime from the N220 billion while farmers from other states have received loans.

“The official banks are Sterling Bank and the Bank of Agriculture. Each of these two banks collected N10, 000 from each cooperative society. We have 32 cooperative farmers’ groups in all. Each cooperative group has about 25 members. Each member of the cooperative society paid N2,000, making N50,000. If you add this to the N10, 000, it will amount to N60,000.

“In all, each group paid about N60, 000 to each of the banks to open accounts. The poor returnees have put over N3 million into this and have got no penny. The painful thing is that the Edo State Government has paid the counterpart funding. We don’t know why the money has not been released to us.

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“Members travelled from distant places to come to Benin for this purpose, but it is an effort in futility. Our members cultivated land from January up till now but have not planted corn. How do you want food to be available? The reason why people are leaving the country on a daily basis is hunger and unemployment.

“The government must stop paying lip service to the issue of illegal migration. They have been trivialising and politicising it instead of facing the problem squarely and tackling it from the roots.”

A member of the Dosaro Multipurpose Cooperative Group and the Head of Department of poultry farmers, who gave her name simply as Idonije, said many of her members have been going through depression as a result of the frustration they are going through.

Her words: “We cleared the ground but didn’t have the resources to buy the seeds and other things we needed to plant. We have not been getting support from anywhere.

“The loan we were looking forward to is not forthcoming. So many people who started this project with us have left to take another shot at going abroad. They are leaving for the desert on a daily basis. They would tell you that they cannot cope because the situation here is worse.

“I must tell you that those of us who decided to stay back are going through frustrations and depression. Many of our members are incapable of feeding and some who have health challenges don’t have the means of going to the hospital for proper medical attention. We are looking for money to boost our business since the government is not helping us.

“We have poultry farms with over 500 birds, which we borrowed money to start. If we have enough resources to enlarge the farm, we would be able to make better profits that can sustain us. If the government supports us, we would not have any reason to think of traveling again.”

Leader of Returnee Group 2 Cooperative group, Kelvin said: “When we came back home, we were thinking that we would be reintegrated into the society. But after several months of waiting, the government failed to respond to us. We formed these cooperatives since 2012. About 280 members have received training in various areas of agriculture but got no financial support to start what we learnt. They just abandoned us thereafter.

“We need equipment to farm but when we approached the government for this, they didn’t respond. We met TB Joshua in 2012/2013. He sent his men to Edo to come and assess the farmland. When they came, somebody started demanding huge money for the land that was given to us free of charge, and by so doing discouraged the TB Joshua team.”

Implications of returnees’ predicament

Examining the effects of the returnees’ challenges on the fight against illegal migration in the state regarded as the hub of the menace in the country, Okoduwa said: “We have become objects of ridicule before vulnerable youths we have been discouraging from embarking on illegal migration. How can we convince them to stay back in the country and take to agriculture when all they see in us is poverty and want?

“Our people are not finding fulfillment in the agric programme because we started it with the hope that it would make us to have a means of earning a living, but that is not happening. We have been hoping since 2012 to get help, but that is not forthcoming. We have not been able to access help from anywhere, making members to be quitting. We have vast land to farm but members have abandoned it because there are no resources.

“In fact, many of our members are leaving the country to go and face the dangers squarely. You will not blame such people; it is the government that is to blame. This time around, they are going with fresh, vulnerable youths. Each returnee will take along at least 10 new people who would each pay them at least N300,000.

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READ ALSO: We’ll rather perish in the desert (2)

“When you get this number, you have N3 million within a space of time. The profit margin in human trafficking is very high but totally immoral because a trafficker doesn’t care about what happens to the victims.

“We will continue to blame the government for the lives of Nigerians who died in the Sahara Dessert. We will continue to blame the government for the lives of many Nigerians that drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. We will continue to blame the government for the lives of many Nigerians who are languishing in Libya because they pay lip service to the problems of the people. The primary responsibility of the government is the welfare of its citizens.”

Decrying the alarming rate of illegal migration and human trafficking in the state, Kelvin said: “We can’t stop this illegal migration, and that is just the truth. Out of about 500 that came recently, 450 are from Edo State. Tell me how crime rate will not be high. These people are already on the street idling away because there is no empowerment or encouragement from anywhere.

“As I am talking to you now, many are still embarking on that dangerous journey. If we had been given a soft loan after the training, we would have started something. Only some of us who could raise money from elsewhere are left in the farming business. If I see anybody who wants to embark on illegal migration, I will not discourage the person. Because if the person asks me to empower him, do I have the means?

“If we had a system that is working, why would I go and risk my life when I know the dangers?”

In spite of the huge challenges confronting the cooperative groups, Okoduwa still believes there is a silver lining behind the cloud.

He said: “The future of our cooperatives is bright, because I believe in God. We made good money from the sales of palm oil recently because of the price increase. We were able to make more than N500,000 after expenses, and it is a manual milling machine we are using.

“With government support, it will improve and encourage our people and also enable us to employ others in the business of farming. Nobody is asking the government to give us money to go and eat or get married.

“If interest-free loans are given to potential farmers who are potential migrants, things would be better. After all, what they do in Libya is to care for Arab man’s farms. If Ghadaffi was able to turn the dessert into arable land, we can do better here in Nigeria where we can even grow crops without using fertilizer.”

Buttressing Okoduwa’s statement, Kelvin said: “The cooperative farming will work out if we get some soft loans. Commercial farming requires money. Some of us who sold our properties to embark on the journey to Europe were imprisoned in Libya for between six months and two years and came back with nothing. How do you want us to get money to start commercial farming? We already have the zeal to go into agriculture, but we need the support of the government to make it work.”

The optimism of Okoduwa and Kelvin was not shared by a cleric in Upper Sakpoba who gave his name simply as Pastor Henry.

The cleric, who claimed to have spent some years in Libya before returning to the country, said: “The government is only deceiving those returnees. Has anybody given them any attention since they have been making noise? This is why illegal migration cannot stop. Here, there are no companies, no industries and nothing meaningful for people, especially the youth, to engage in.

“Even though I am a pastor, I don’t see illegal migration ending in this state. I have a cousin who left for Europe through the desert two years ago and has built a beautiful two-bedroom flat within that short time.

He sent a message to his brothers that all he does in Europe is begging. It was begging that gave him that huge house that people who work like jackal here cannot afford all their life. Two of his brothers have also gone to join him, and before you know it, they will begin to live big too.”

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When The Nation contacted the Head of External Communication of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Isaac Okoroafor, he declined comment, saying “call the Bank of Agriculture and Sterling Bank.” He also declined comment when he was asked whether the CBN had released funds to the banks.

The spokesperson of Bank of Agriculture, Aderemi Olaoye, said the apex bank had not given them any money to disburse to the aggrieved farmers.

Olaoye said: “We don’t have that money and you can find out from the Project Management Team (PMT) of CBN in Edo. The money has not been released to us. They don’t allow us to keep the money for more than five days the moment it is released to us. If we have not disbursed it, it means we don’t have it yet. CBN gives us as per client and when they give us, we release it.”

Calls and text message sent to the mobile phone of the Chief Marketing Officer, Brand Management and Communications Group, Henry Bassey, had not been responded to at press time.

How government empowers returnees

Speaking with our correspondent, the spokesperson of National Agency for Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), Josiah Emereole, said the federal government had through the agency been empowering some of the returnees.

“The returnees are a mixed bag. There are those who are victims of human trafficking. There are those who committed one crime or the other and were brought back. There are some who committed immigration offences and were brought back. Those we are interested in are those who are victims of human trafficking and the suspects.

“We always give the victims protection because we know that even when they are rescued, their traffickers will still be lurking around, looking for them. Our job is to ensure that they are protected until such a time when we know that they can stand on their own.

“One of the things we do is to counsel and remove from their minds some of the things that have happened to them, because they have been abused and exploited in diverse ways.

We also expose them to skill acquisition. There are some of them who go back to school, based on their qualification.

“Many have actually graduated through the university while some are still in the university today based on sponsorship by the agency.

After the skill acquisition, we empower them so that they can go and do their own work. We even help those who have learnt one trade or the other to look for shop and be monitoring their activities.”

Edo begins clampdown on traffickers

The anti-trafficking team recently set up by the state governor, Godwin Obaseki, is said to have begun a total clampdown on traffickers in the state.

According to Okoduwa, who is a member of the team, “We have arrested six traffickers. Just on Tuesday, we arrested two people, bringing the total number of arrested traffickers to six within this short period. We would leave no stone unturned in making sure that our state is rid of traffickers. We appreciate our able governor for taking the bull by the horn.”

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