Tobore Ovuorie’s story: Fact or fiction?

On January 23, 2014, Premium Times of Nigeria shocked the world with a horrific story under the screaming banner: INVESTIGATION: Inside Nigeria’s Ruthless Human Trafficking Mafia. It is a horrible story and I am saddened but not surprised that the Nigerian authorities are indifferent to any attempts to investigate the serious claims in the story. In a sane country, all sorts of investigations would commence, the nation would be in a turmoil. A young reporter, Tobore Ovuorie, outraged and inspired by a friend’s experience as a prostitute in Europe, having been shipped there by some wicked madam in Nigeria decides to go undercover to study and expose the crime syndicate(s) hawking this sordid tale.

Tobore Ovuorie (whose twitter handle is @DaughterOfMit) is enthusiastic, if anything else, as evinced by her vociferous testimonies on her timeline. If her narrative turns out to be true, Ovuorie and her sponsors (Premium Times and The Zam Chronicle deserve the Pulitzer. And her sponsors deserve to be censored for reckless endangerment of a reporter. As far as I can tell, Ovuorie is walking the streets of Nigeria unprotected after making serious claims against powerful interests. It is a mystery to me why she so brazenly attached her name to the story. If indeed there is a mafia, she is being quixotic and reckless to boot. She could be badly hurt or killed. As for the external sponsor of the adventure, The Zam Chronicle based in Amsterdam, it seems highly unusual for a Western outfit to sign on to such a risky venture without putting many things in place to minimize actuarial risk, the financial consequences may be too much to bear. What if she had been murdered? Her family could have sued the sponsors.

It is a shocking story on many levels. The scale of human trafficking of young girls to Europe for prostitution is big “multibillion dollar” business. There is an added horrific dimension; young people are being killed for their organs. There are beheadings, I mean, Ovuorie witnessed murders on at least two occasions. In one particularly horrific episode, early on in the journey, two girls are casually beheaded before her eyes. When this story broke, it went viral on social media, many of us rightfully traumatized and enraged by what this young reporter had gone through. The poet Emman Shehu put the story up on his wall. Please go read it and pay particular attention to the comments by his Facebook friends (here). Many are concerned, but there are a few skeptics and they back up their skepticism with reasonable questions that need to be responded to. One Hasan Gimba seems to sum up the cynics concerns reproduced verbatim thus:

“I concur with Bedu and those who see this story as the fiction it ought to be. In the first place, a cub reporter knows better than to embark on such “investigative voyage” with an identity, in this case, phone with informations. 2. Without it (phone, which, in the fashion of Nick Carter, conveniently refused to “charge”) she was at a loss as to how to contact Reece (implying she could not access her phonebook) but was able to give her number to a driver who eventually took her to the one she had “practiced” with but “recognised” her from her facebook picture. If she had her number offhead, she wouldn’t have regaled us with the fear of how to contact who. 3. A “soldier” running after you, yet the “crowd” failed to help him? 4. And for God’s sake, despite unleashed corruption in our country, view our security forces with some fairness. Nigerian soldiers guarding a human abbatoir in the middle of the forest? Nigerian soldiers and police escorting pick-pocket trainees to the training field? And this kind of chumminess and banter with the customs, is too hilarius to be true. Human trafficking sure takes place but not in this fabulous nollywood style! Haba! This is a script for Mercy Johnson, whose body contours immensely qualify her to be a “special force”.”

I must say at the onset I was one of those openly upset by Ovuorie’s story. I had to do a closer reading of the story thanks to the goading of a Facebook friend of mine, Lesley Gene Agams who seemed skeptical and asked my thoughts openly after I had posted the report along with a long wail about how bad Nigeria is. Here is the exchange:

Lesley Gene Agams: Ikhide you are a literary critic, what do you make of this type of ‘investigative journalism’? I would really like to know.

Ikhide R. Ikheloa: I am not a literary critic, I am a noisy reader, thank you. I have to say, to be frank, I stayed up all night, all the sentences in my head, trying to figure out the question: How can this be real, even in Nigeria? Why have the authorities not stormed the places she seemed to know geographically? We will never know for many reasons, we don’t bother investigating stuff. I have done some investigations myself (Abani, Emeagwali) but on my own time. You know what, journalists are lazy, most of the “investigations” were cut and paste jobs of my work. So we will never know.

I will say that human trafficking is real and brutal, I come from Edo State and it is a major source of revenue. What is happening to girls from my ancestral land (Italy, etc.) is beyond the speaking of it. Even if only half of it is true, it should horrify us and galvanize us to action. Chika Unigwe has done excellent literary work on the subject of human trafficking and prostitution in Europe.

Even if it is fiction, it is rooted in harsh, harsh, brutal reality. You have no idea how bad things are in Nigeria. I know someone who could tell you about extra judicial executions by the Nigerian police. Human life is nothing to us.

Please do not come for my head. I am not about to declare the story a fabrication, only Ovuorie knows. I just don’t know who and what to believe anymore. I have so many questions that I would love Premium Times and the government of Nigeria to clear up in everyone’s interest. Please take a closer look at the story. These are some of my questions:

1. Why is the Nigerian Police silent on this story? Ovuorie seems to know many geographic details of the places where she was taken to and where she witnessed horrific crimes. She knows names of important personalities, there is even a name of a policeman provided. Has Premium Times contacted the Nigerian authorities? What is the status, if any, of the investigation? She mentions specific geographic locations, for example: “The party is held at a gorgeous residence along the Agunyi Ironsi Way in Maitama, Abuja.” And the Police is silent? Where is the outrage? “The policeman doesn’t even bother to cover his name badge: Babatunde Ajala, it reads.”

2. When she witnessed the beheading of two abducted girls, she had her phone (or seemed to). Who did she text? Who did she call? Forensic experts can learn a lot from these transcripts.

3. At what point did she and her sponsors realize that this was possibly an unwise venture and she needed to be rescued? Where there any discussions about this?

4. I am having trouble believing that she did not text any of the pictures that were in her cellphone to someone else. That just seems unlikely. Does anyone have pictures or anything?

5. How sophisticated can this syndicate be if they allow the girls keep their cellphones and presumably let them continue to chat with the outside world? There are so many tracking devices on a cellphone, you wonder if and why the game plan of the reporter did not include these free tools. I was recently in Abeokuta, where GPS works; I imagine depending on the phone there were  GPS mapping tools available to Ovuorie.

6. Ovuorie seemed close to the two girls who were beheaded, does she have their phone numbers? Can they be traced back to their families? Why are people silent about all this?

7. The report talks of a “multibillion dollar syndicate” but the “syndicate” doesn’t appear very sophisticated, a reporter walks the streets asking for the leader and is promptly hooked up with one, gains the trust of the syndicate and along with the other “abducted girls” has access to her cellphone and even a charger. Interesting, but then we are talking about Nigeria. Nothing seems to stretch credulity:

“As we are about to leave, I lose my phone to the army officer. Searching all of us, he has taken Isoken’s phone already and she has pointed at me to divert attention from herself, saying I had a phone too. He takes mine at gunpoint. I can only thank the heavens that it is dead. I had been upset because it didn’t charge the previous night, but the fact that it won’t switch on is my second lucky break: it has a lot of pictures and conversations I have recorded in the camp. The disadvantage of losing my phone is that I can’t contact our colleague Reece, who is to help me once I get to Cotonou.”

I desperately want to believe this story but there are so many problems with the story, Lesley is right, if this was a work of fiction I would savage it with my unsolicited personal opinions. For one thing, the end is too neat, too tidy, it screams “contrived.” But again, we are talking about Nigeria. I tire sha. Somebody do something, say something, what happened here? There are many reasons to confront this story, its veracity being the least, but still a crucial reason to deal with it. The credibility of a nation is pretty much gone, but once our journalists lose their credibility, it is all over.

We need answers, lots of answers. What just happened here? I have said my own.

20 thoughts on “Tobore Ovuorie’s story: Fact or fiction?”

  1. You voiced my concerns about Tobore’s account of her ordeal. I too I’m of the opinion that her employers owe Nigerians the duty to follow up this ‘investigation’ with the Police. That, I suppose, is the point of all this, right?

  2. Dear Ikhide, please do some Googling. Premium Times and Ovuorie are among the most reputable, multiple award winning investigative journalists in Africa and the world. Reece Adanwenon, who assisted Ovuorie in Benin, is a former Board member of the Forum for African Investigative Reporters and so is managing editor of the Premium Times, Musikilu Mojeed, who supervised the assignment. ZAM was involved throughout. You may have missed our full dossier.

    We would appreciate your consideration of the above. It is OK to check what you read, but then you should do just that: check.

    1. So, how exactly does being Premium Times or Ovuorie make one immune from lies and telling trash? But why would anyone hold on to lies and nonsense even after being busted? Just answer the questions raised in the issues without any banter. That should not be hard to do.

  3. My question has to do with the brutal beheadings for organs. Victims of organ harvesting are carefully selected and tested to be sure of the quality of the organs to be harvested. These pple had a lot to chose from carefully, after proper testing, but rather picked randomly. Decomposed organs are not re-usable in organ transplants, yet there was no mention of efforts made to stabilise the organs. And beheading in a medically unsterile environment raises the question of the organs being infected/contaminated. They may actually be more into kidnapping/money ritual than organ stealing and maybe less organised/sophisticated than they seemed to Ovuorie at the time. But there is still need for proper investigations to be carried out.

    1. I hadn’t even thought of that, lol. Tobore’s story is an insult to the intelligence of ordinary Nigerians.

  4. Dear Taiyelolu,
    I doubt the organs harvested were for transplant purposes, rather they were for ritualistic activity. The need for preservation with regards to medical usefulness is not there.
    We have to view this issue less with Western eyes and more with an African eye and then sadly the context is clearer.
    A lot of savagery happens amongst us and the earlier we realise that we place much less value on human life than others, the sooner we can begin to grapple some of these problems.

  5. Ikhide, I have been travelling so I missed your posts the past couple of days. I am so glad you asked these questions. Indeed, we must keep our print media and our journalists accountable too. Especially them. Especially the ones that may have won an award or two before. As we well know despite the temptation to believe otherwise an award is no guarantee of the quality of future output.

    You have articulated some of the questions I had. I could have written a thesis with all the questions that the article first raised in my mind but in true Nigerian fashion I didn’t want to pursue it. I wasn’t being being paid for my analysis so why would I want to truncate another persons hustle even if I think its a hustle? Nigeria gets to you like that some times and one ends up feigning indifference rather than risk accusations of bad belle.

    I also appreciate your honestly in admitting that you may have been a bit quick to accept the story. It takes a real pro to admit that. Thank you for role modelling positive behaviour too.

    I really look forward to getting to the bottom of this, true or false there is much work to be done in the aftermath

  6. This is a great work of fiction. Please don’t believe any of this nonsense by Tobore. Human trafficking is a terrible crime against humanity we all know. For sure, we must do everything possible to fight it but journalism is about truth not fiction.
    Tobore was one of the selected journalists that attended a media roundtable organised by the National Agency for the Prohibition of Traffic in Persons (NAPTIP) and the Nigeria Country Office of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) on December 5 and 6, 2013. She appeared there with her head shaven. At the event, the journalists were briefed by the organisers about the evil of human trafficking,how the traffickers operate and the increasing involvement of Nigerians. They were urged to help bring the heinous crime to limelight. If indeed, Tobore went through the kind of ordeal she painted in her story, that venue would have been the best forum to draw attention to her plight. As a matter of fact she asked the organisers after one of the presentations if NAPTIP and UNODC would support her if she wanted to do an investigative story and she was assured of whatever support she would need.
    You can then imagine how surprised those who attended the roundtable meeting barely two months ago, must have been to suddenly see a story she was supposed to have been investigating over four years supposedly inspired by the loss of a friend who fell victim of human trafficking and died of HIV AIDS. Haba. Of course, we her colleagues are not surprised. We know her too well.
    As a journalist, I think Ms Ovuorie should face the appropriate professional body for disciplinary action for presenting fiction as an investigative story. Premium Times should also face some sanctions for this unethical practice.

  7. I forgot to mention that the venue of the media roundtable was Ema Darl Hotel, Judges Quarters, Gboko Road, Makurdi, Benue State.

  8. I’m an Italian journalist based in Italy and I have done some research about human trafficking and sexual exploitation. I read Ms Ovuorie’s article and – with all due respect – it left me wondering how much of it could be true.

    I assume that everybody read the interview she gave after the story was published. What struck me as problematic is the supposed “risk analysis” that she and her team did before she decided to go ahead with the assignment. Clearly, any serious journalist who has dealt with these issues (let alone a female Nigerian journalist) knows that to embark on such an investigation means above all to put your life at risk – no question about it. I cannot believe that all they considered were things like losing a cell phone, losing money, learning a few French phrases for the taxi ride from Benin etc.

    Also, it’s hard to believe that these girls could keep their cell phones on them for so long. I’d say that in such a situation, a device to communicate with the outside world is the first thing criminals would take off you. Also, if Ms Ovuorie really managed to take pictures and videos (which begs the question: how? Did nobody else see her doing it?), why didn’t she send them straight away, so they could be used as evidence? It could have been invaluable material to press criminal charges against individuals or groups.

  9. I’ve only just come to this story and I have to say that I’m once more baffled by the level of contempt an outfit like ZAM has for Africa and Nigeria in particular, and the ambitions of Nigerians like the journalist and premium times.

    I’ve read the story trying my utmost to believe it. Trafficking is a horrible fact of human existence.

    I have gone through the comments as well.

    Ms. Tobore should come out and defend her investigation or at least take the supposed info (pictures on her phone that was lost) to an international body since she’s so connected with international agencies.

    To learn that Tobore was in a workshop only 2 months back and now this?

    There’s a lot of work to be done. Tobore should respect the profession she chose: journalism and provide a more substantive investigative work than a mesh of bad writing and wild, horrifying claims. Claims that ought to be treated extremely seriously.

    I have met ZAM (Nicole) and I know these are Europeans with smug, extreme ways of thinking about Africa, that underneath their bid to be seen cool and relevant through ‘promotion of African Arts’, they advocate for demeaning, contemptuous images as representational. It is the way their magazine looks good to their own people.

    As for Premium Times, they do their country a great damage to take such a matter as journalism and reportage merely as ways to make notoriety.

    Premium Times owes Nigerians a lot of clearing up of this issue. Responding to this blog or ‘Pa Ikhide’ however popular is even an insult to their country. They should take their country seriously and investigate the investigative journalism which they have publish. If you rubbish your country, people like that racists at ZAM Magazine will come and rubbish you even more.

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