The ancient Benin empire was a formidable trading nation and was respected by all of its peers. At the height of its powers in the 15th–16th centuries, some historians believe the empire stretched as far as modern-day Ghana and Togo. During the 16th–18th centuries Lagos was a colonised vassal city-state and slave port for the ancient Benin empire.
One of the empire’s most powerful warrior kings, Oba Ozolua, ruled between 1481 and 1514 — and his thirst for new territory and wealth meant he needed a massive army. Ozolua’s problem wasn’t whether slavery was morally wrong — but rather how he could gain the revenue of slave trading without depleting the men he needed for his armies. So he created parallel markets for male and female slaves in the kingdom, deliberately under-supplying the male market. Later on, Ozolua banned the export of male slaves entirely and sold only women, a practice that continued long after his reign ended. Even when slavery was abolished in 1833, smuggling women was seen as profitable.
The human trafficking supply chain continues today. Despite making up less than 2% of the Nigerian population, the state of Edo 120 miles east of Lagos was responsible for about half the nation’s human trafficking victims as of 2020. Edo isn’t ideally placed to be a trafficking hub. It has no direct borders with the Gulf of Guinea. Nor does it have borders with Nigeria’s neighbours — Benin Republic, Chad, Niger or Cameroon. But its roots in slavery go back centuries. Madams, often middle-class women replace the royal slave merchants.
“The long-term effect of that from a cultural viewpoint is that’s what makes people from Edo state more likely to send their daughters out to prostitution in foreign lands,” says Cheta Nwanze, head of research at SBM Intelligence, a Lagos-based sociopolitical risk advisory firm.
According to the International Organization for Migration, 5,425 women went from Nigeria to Italy in 2016. Eighty percent were thought to be potential victims of trafficking, and 94 percent were from Edo state. Benin City, the capital of Edo state, saw only 34 convictions of human traffickers.
The sordid legacy of King Ozolua is the devaluation of women and it continues to this day.