Letter to the 26 Nigerian women that drowned in Italy

People pay their respect to 26 teenage migrant girls found dead in the Mediterranean in early November, during the inter religious funeral service at the cemetery of Salerno, southern Italy, on November 17, 2017. The bodies of the victims were found floating in the water by a Spanish military ship and brought to Italy on November 3 after two separate rescue operations. Eliano IMPERATO / AFP


I would start this letter with a “Dear X”, but I do not know your names. I only know that your stories are familiar to us all by now: young people between your teens and your 30s, weathering storm and abuse, braving torturous paths and racist foreigners. You ran away from it, but you are everything we have come to know about who we are as Nigerians – persevering, enduring conditions that you probably thought you could never bear, probably believing that you may be among the few who will cross that mighty ocean safely, that you may meet streets that will welcome you with work, money, and maybe someday, even a passport.

You must have known that the path would be difficult. Surely, the news of deaths of hundreds in canoes heavy with the weight of hopes and dreams that may be swept away with a flippant wave at sea had reached you. I am sure you knew of many who had walked this path before you who had been manipulated, beaten, raped, shot at, treated as chattel. You may not have lived in air-conditioned living rooms with DSTV subscription fully paid for or maybe you never watched CNN, but surely you knew. And yet you went. And now, this.

According to the International Organization on Migration, up to 80% of those who attempt a crossing into Italy by sea might be trafficking victims. And you were not alone on that Spanish ship. According to news reports, we know that 64 of those who traveled with you are alive. Two of them, according to news reports, were pregnant. Many who traveled among you were as young as 14. One cannot begin to fathom what led you on this path.

Did you embark on this journey knowing fully well the dangers you were likely to face? Does that even matter now? Either way, there was no one at the borders to stop your crossing. Italy and Libya have struck a deal that has so far helped reduce the mass exodus of African youth into Europe by 32% from last year, so even if you had been stopped, it would have been in Libya where no one cares about your safety or protection, not unlike – I must confess – the country you left. We have seen the detention camps, not much better than dog pens, where migrants are kept until they can be deported. CNN has taken their cameras there, focusing on men and women like you, speaking on the way and who of what was to be their journey to a better life. Did you meet any journalists? Did anyone ever ask you your story? More recently, we have seen reports in the media of how people like you have been sold into slavery. What evils were you nose-to-nose with? How did you manage to stay alive in its face?

I write this on a day where a state has voted in a gubernatorial election. Social media is replete with stories of voters selling their votes for a sum (I want to call it a pittance, but I know that a pittance is in the eye of the beholder). This is not to single out the citizens of the state in question for abuse, however Nigerians from all over the country have been guilty of this. From a politician’s point of view, if votes are for sale, then one will be silly not to buy. This is especially if everyone else is buying, and if one is serious in one’s ambition to attain political office. The transaction on which our democracy depends – voting a leader into a political office in exchange for governance that addresses our needs – has been short-circuited by money. Their mandates have been bought and paid for in cash, and has nothing to do with their sensitivity to issues that affect us.

It makes perfect sense, then, that when the SSA to the Federal Government on Foreign Affairs and the Diaspora did release a statement on your deaths, it was to blame migrants for falling into the traps of traffickers like the ones who took you. It makes even more sense that no Nigerian government official was present at your burial. Who could blame them? Responsibility can be like an ugly baby that cries too much. Nobody wants to see themselves as complicit in the paving of the path that you went down, creating the conditions for your journey. I know I don’t want to. Yet, even I feel somehow complicit.

There seems no point to an apology, and yet that is what is owed to you, and not just by our government. I wish I could say “never again”, but it would be a lie. For now, we await the next tragedy, and another opportunity for us that you left behind to continue in our preferred roles as bewildered witnesses.

In this article:
Saratu Abiola


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