Eze, as we’ll call him, is an agent involved in Nigeria’s infamous baby factories.
In a local restaurant in Nigeria’s south eastern city of Enugu, dozens of people gather every evening to eat the city’s popular goat-meat pepper soup. It is also where all kinds of gossip is exchanged.
I overheard Eze talking to a middle-aged woman about the possibility of getting her a newborn child of any sex she required.
I walked up to him after the woman had left, and wanted to find out if he truly sells babies.
“Do you want a baby fresh from the womb?” he asked me.
He thought I wanted to buy a baby, but in fact I was on a fact-finding mission.
Eze claimed to be able to get me babies in less than 24 hours. He said that a baby, due to be born in a couple of days, was meant to go to a couple in Sweden but could be mine if I paid the cash in full immediately.
“We’ll get another baby for this couple. They won’t even notice we’ve given them something else,” he said.
I then told Eze I wanted to be taken to the factory, to make sure the business was genuine before saying anything.
“It wouldn’t work that way,” he said to me. “For security reasons, the women are kept in a hidden place. We don’t want any encounter with the police.”
I was eager to find out how this trade was carried out, so I paid the money, and off we went - driving for about 20 minutes in a cab through slum neighbourhoods late at night.
Eze may be the agent for the business, but he isn’t very familiar with the area where his employer lives. On the two occasions he’s been there, it was under the cover of darkness, he said. He told me his boss deliberately took him to her home at night so he would not recognise the location of the place. That suggests some of the secrecy that shrouds this business.
On the last part of the trip we were guided by a young boy who knew the woman we were looking for. He soon pointed at a gate, saying, simply, “It’s here.”
“Do you want a baby fresh from the womb?”
We meet a middle-aged woman who introduces herself as “Madam Sarah” and asks us to follow her to the sitting room. She bids us to have a seat and then turned to me. “Welcome, my son,” she said.
“I have about six girls in my custody, and they are all heavily pregnant and expecting soon,” she said. “They are not here. I keep them in a secret location.”
As we were talking, a young man walked in and whispered to her. After he had left, Madam Sarah turned to me and said: “That man is the biological father to many of the children we sell,” apparently to convince me that the babies she sells are not stolen.
“His job is to get the girls pregnant, and he knows how to get the job done,” she said with a big smile.
She went on to tell me that she charges 400,000 naira ($2,000) for a girl and 500,000 naira ($2,500) for a boy.
She talked about the cost of caring for the mothers, justifying the price of the babies. “It’s expensive catering for these girls,” she said. “I give them food and shelter and pay the guys who sleep with them, but I let them go after they have given birth.”
She claims she can arrange court orders and is able to get children of all ages, genders and complexions, and at any time. The police, she said, are not a problem for her.
“What sex do you want?” she asked me. “A boy or a girl?”
“He just came to find out if what I told him about this business was true,” Eze told her. She then turned to me and said: “Now you know it’s real. Come back when you’re ready.”
I stood up and left, winding my way back to the waiting taxi, having glimpsed up close how the child trade mafia operates in Africa’s most populous country.
Every year, the Nigerian security operatives discover several new baby factories. Young girls are held captive to give birth to babies who are then sold illegally either to adoptive parents, into slavery, or, it is said, for traditional rituals. There are rumours and fears that newborns are being sold to witch doctors for rituals in a country where there is a widespread belief in traditional communities that a powder made from infants brings luck. But, such sensational claims notwithstanding, the vast majority of buyers almost certainly are married couples struggling to conceive.
A huge amount of the trade is carried out locally in Nigeria, but authorities suspect that babies have also been sold to people from Europe and the United States, and despite the controversy surrounding adoptions in Nigeria, many foreigners continue to seek infants here.
Security agencies say most places where the illegal baby trade occurs masquerade as non-governmental organisations or charitable homes for marginalised women. Operators of these places present themselves as humanitarians who take care of the pregnant teenagers in need.
Human trafficking, including selling children, is prohibited under Nigerian law, but almost 10 years ago a UNESCO report on human trafficking in Nigeria identified the business as the country’s third-most common crime behind financial fraud and drug trafficking, and the situation certainly has not improved. At least 10 children are reportedly sold every day across the country.
The scourge has intensified in the south east, which is populated mainly by the Igbo ethnic group. Security officials have several ongoing undercover operations targeting suspected baby trafficking rings in Enugu State, underscoring the severity of the problem in this region.
One measure taken by the government to examine the proliferation of baby factories in the state has been to set up a committee on child adoption. Its research has suggested that the incidence of child trafficking and illegal adoptions has been on the rise because some security agencies and unscrupulous state officials aided the baby-sellers.
“They are now being sold like commodities and, as a responsible government, we cannot allow this to continue to exist in Enugu State,” Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, governor of Enugu, said while inaugurating the committee last month.
“While we acknowledge the right and the necessity for the childless or benevolent couples to adopt motherless children and orphans,” the governor declared, “we believe that there is a need for strict compliance with due process and the provisions of relevant laws to guarantee the security and well being of the affected children."
Eze and Madam Sarah, of course, have other ideas.
*Philip Obaji is the founder of 1 GAME, an advocacy and campaigning organisation that fights for the right to education for disadvantaged children in Nigeria,