"I abducted your girls. By Allah, I will sell them in the marketplace."
So said Abubakar Shekau, the mastermind behind the horrific kidnapping of roughly 300 girls from their school in Nigeria, in a video obtained by Agence-France Press. Shekau's motivation is both ideological and financial: his group Boko Haram is militantly opposed to educating girls, and also uses abductions to finance its campaign of killing in and around eastern Nigeria.
Normally, those abductions are kidnappings aimed at getting a ransom. But Shekau's threat to sell the 276 girls that he still holds prisoner in "the marketplace" is not in the least idle. West Africa is one of the hubs of the global slave trade. Selling these abducted girls as property would be horrifyingly easy for Boko Haram because slave trading is so common in and around Nigeria.
Modern slavery is widespread and horrifying. Walk Free, an Australia-based anti-slavery group, estimates that about 30 million people are still forced into sex slavery (either in brothels or as "child brides"), hard labor, or marching in armies as a child. Modern slavery thrives on human trafficking, the recruitment and transportation of persons marked for slavery or other kinds of exploitation.
Before we get into the depressing details of how modern slavery operates in West Africa, here's a map of the region for context — you'll see Nigeria on the right-hand side.
According to Walk Free, nine of these countries —Mauritania, Benin, Cote d'Ivoire, Gambia, Gabon, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Togo, and Cape Verde — are in the 16 countries globally where people are most likely to be enslaved and trafficked across international borders as property. That means over half of the world's worst slaving countries are in the same neighborhood as Nigeria.
While Nigeria itself isn't on that list, it has an arguably more dubious distinction. Nigeria is enormous: it has about 168 million people, over half of West Africa's total population. This means it has the largest enslaved population in the region — roughly 700,000, by Walk Free's estimate. That's the fourth largest slave population in the world, surpassed only by those in India, China, and Pakistan.
The prevalence of slavery in Nigeria and around it makes it terribly easy for Boko Haram to sell the kidnapped girls if it so chooses. Human traffickers coexist alongside other criminals around the region — drug smugglers, arms dealers, and Islamic militant groups. Each of these groups, in their own ways, weaken and corrupt local police and border enforcement so they can ply their trades. These weakened institutions are part of why West African countries have had so little success cracking down on the local slave trade.
There's a bit of a chicken and an egg problem here, as weak state institutions are also what allowed the slave trade to flourish in the first place. Many West African countries are poor and plagued by conflict, weakening already-weak border controls. Others, like Gabon, are fairly wealthy, and have become net-slave importers.
Nigeria is more of the former. Most Nigerians today are poorer than they were when the country became independent in 1960, and the government can't keep up with many of its citizens' basic infrastructure and health needs. The country has never really had the resources to stamp out the slave trade.
And the people who are trafficked are often children. Here's what the UN found among the number of actually detected instances of human trafficking, which of course vastly understate the scale and horror of the problem.
So Boko Haram's willingness to threaten to sell girls into slavery is not a one-off event. It's part of a vast web of human trafficking and slavery in West Africa — one that neither local governments nor the international community have been able to shut down.