UK-based nurse used threat of voodoo to force Nigerian women into sex work

A UK court has sentenced a Liberian-born nurse to 14 years for leading a sex trafficking ring that forced Nigerian women to work in German brothels. The nurse threatened her victims with voodoo magic to keep them quiet.

A Liberian-born British woman was sentenced to 14 years under UK's modern slavery law on Wednesday, after a jury found her guilty of running a sex trafficking operation and perverting the course of justice. The ruling in Birmingham is the first such conviction involving victims outside Great Britain.

Germany | 12.03.2010

The 51-year-old Josephine Iyamu, also known as Madame Sandra, recruited women from rural Nigeria. In Nigeria's Benin City, she set up an organization campaigning for better lives for women and families, allowing her to get in contact with vulnerable women. After selecting candidates for trafficking, she would promise them a better life in Europe.

Iyamu forced at least five Nigerian women to swear an oath of allegiance to her before starting their journey to the European Union. The women took part in a "juju" ceremony performed by a voodoo priest, which included them eating chicken hearts, drinking blood containing worms, and having their skin cut with razor blades. They would promise to pay Iyamu's gang up to €38,000 ($44,000) for their passage to Germany and to not run away or go to the police.

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Children in Benin confined to voodoo convents

'You simply did not care'

The victims shared their experiences with the Birmingham court via a video link from Germany. The woman described the trip they took through North Africa and across the Mediterranean that put their lives in jeopardy.

"All five of your victims had to be rescued from the boat they were on, before being put into a camp in Italy," judge Richard Bon said during the sentencing on Wednesday. "You understood the potential dangers, you simply did not care."

After arriving in Germany, where prostitution is legal, they were forced to work in brothels. Iyamu demanded payments of at least €1,500 every month, threatening serious harm to the women or their families if the money stopped coming.

Read more: Traffickers use voodoo to threaten Nigerian victims into prostitution

A brothel owner in the German city of Trier, however, alerted the police after suspecting that one of the workers had a fake passport. This prompted a joint effort by security forces in Germany, the UK, and Nigeria, with the UK police arresting Iyamu last August.

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Voodoo public holiday

Benin's Voodoo Festival attracts followers of the traditional religion, tourists and people who are simply curious. Voodoo Day, January 10, was declared an annual public holiday by President Mathieu Kerekou in 1998. 

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Ouidah Voodoo Festival

The biggest of Benin's Voodoo festivals is held in Ouidah, the country's center of Voodoo worship, near the Point of No Return monument. The gate signfies the end of the old slave route, which runs through the city and has been proposed as UNESCO World Heritage site.    

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Walking on stilts along the beach

There is plenty to see along the Ouidah-Cotonou beach route during the Voodoo Festival. The emphasis is not just on religious rites or ceremonies but also on public festivities. For some local residents, this is one of the most important days of the year.

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Every village has its own ceremony

Voodoo plays a key part in Benin's national life not only along the coast, but also in the interior as well. Small ceremonies are held in many villages, such as here in Kpetepa, near Abomey, which was once the capital of the former kingdom of Dahomey.

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Voodoo: simply a part of everday life

Nobody knows exactly how many followers of Voodoo live in Benin. One official estimate put the figure at 1.2 million, but the true figure may be a lot higher, It is not unusual in Benin to claim to be a Christian while practicing Voodoo at the same time.

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God of smallpox

Because Voodoo is so widespread, nobody is suprised by the numerous Voodoo altars found in most villages. This one is devoted to Zappata, God of Earth - and of smallpox.

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Beer and spirits for the Gods

Altars on their own are not considered a sufficient sign of respect for the Gods. Ceremonies and offerings are also important. In order to placate the Gods, it is acceptable in Benin to bring them spirits, beer and cigarettes. Or perhaps a chicken or a goat. Every God has his own preferences.

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Fortune telling

Those who want to know what the future holds, can consult the Fa oracle. Not every question is permissible. You are not allowed to ask when you are going to die.

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Keeping traditional medicine alive

But there is more to Voodoo than ceremonies or oracles. There is also a fund of knowledge of medicinal herbs, which includes a centuries-old treatment for malaria. Victor Adohounanon is seeking to preserve such knowledge.

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Voodoo cliches

Fetish markets appear to conform to the usual cliches about Voodoo and for visitors they are often taboo. But that doesn't apply to the market in Lome in neighboring Togo. Here you can find everything you need for Voodoo ceremonies, leopard skulls included.

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A souvenir to take home

This is perhaps a better souvenir than a leopard's skull. It's supposed to bring you luck if you're in a long-term relationship and was probably made specially for tourists.

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Voodoo and politics

Voodoo makes its influence felt in many walks of life, including politics. Daagbo Heounon, Ouidah's highest Voodoo representative, says all candidates ask for his blessing before elections. Asked whether he exerts political influence himself, he declined to comment.

Curses lifted

Despite being in jail, Iyamu continued her intimidation campaign against the victims, bribing law enforcement officers and arranging for relatives of the victims to be arrested in Nigeria. The incident led to her being convicted for perverting the course of justice.

The United Nations believes thousands of sex trafficking victims from Nigeria take part in juju rituals before starting sex work in Europe. The rituals serve to convince the woman their relatives would fall ill or die in case of their disobedience.

In March 2018, the traditional ruler of the kingdom of Benin within Nigeria (not the independent republic of Benin bordering Nigeria) Oba Ewuare II, revoked all juju curses extolled by sex traffickers. The ruler, who wields authority over spiritual priests in the region, also cursed sex traffickers and priests performing juju rituals for them.

dj/aw (AFP, dpa, Reuters)