COURT OF APPEAL CONFIRMS THE SENTENCING OF A WOMAN WHO ENSLAVENED HER YOUNG NIECES: LESSONS

The story*

Two young ladies, Chinaza and Favour, are nieces of a woman named Gift Nonye Ukatu. Their parents gave them to her to be placed in school and looked after. The girls were about 12 years old when they were brought to the woman. She placed them in school but after some time, she withdrew them.

While the girls lived with their aunt, she maltreated them by starving them of food, beating and inflicting injuries on them, stopping them from going to school, tying and chaining them at the balcony of her apartment (when they did something wrong), and locking them up in the toilet.

On 7 December 2015, one of the girls attempted to escape from the house of their aunt (two storey building) with a rope and was rescued. The matter was reported to the Police which in turn referred the matter to National Agency for Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP). Trouble began. 

The woman was charged

The woman was charged before the High Court of Lagos State, tried and convicted of the offences of harbouring persons under the ages of 12 years for the purposes of forced labour and as domestic workers and treatment as slaves contrary to the provisions of Sections 22(a), 23(1)(a) and 25(a) of the Trafficking in Persons (Prohibition) Enforcement and Administration Act, 2015 (“The Act”).

The trial Court sentenced the woman for terms of imprisonment for the said offences.

The woman appealed to the Court of Appeal. On 25 September 2020, her appeal was partly successful. 

On allegation of forced labour

The Court of Appeal held that there was no evidence that the woman recruited and harboured her nieces for the purpose of forced labour as provided for under Section 22(a) of the Act. The Court was of the view that forced labour entails coercion, force and compulsion (mental, psychological or physical), used by one person over another to do or provide service unwillingly and forcefully.

The Court concluded that washing of plates, children’s clothes, sweeping the house and bathing of the woman’s children by the girls cannot amount to forced labour.

On allegation of engaging the girls as domestic workers

Section 23(1)(a) of the Act states that any person who employs, requires, recruits, transports, harbours, receives or hires out a child under the age of 12 years as a domestic worker commits an offence.

The Court of Appeal found that the girls were barely or almost 12 years of age as at the time they began to live with their aunt. There was evidence too that the girls were taken to live with their aunt and to be put in school and not as domestic workers or servants who were to work for pay or salary. The Court concluded that doing some domestic chores does not constitute proof that the girls did so as domestic workers specifically employed, recruited or harboured to do so. The Court held the woman not liable.

On allegation of treating the girls as slaves

Section 25(a) of the Act criminalises the act of dealing, keeping, receiving or harbouring any person for the purpose of holding or treating that person as a slave. The punishment is imprisonment for not less than 7 years and to a fine of not less than N2 Million.

A “Slave” is defined by the Act as a person who is held in bondage, whose life, liberty, freedom and property are under the absolute control of someone.

It was here that the woman’s hopes of gaining freedom from the shackles of the law were dashed. Garba, JCA made certain of this. After a consideration of facts and evidence, His Lordship held (at page 560):

The way and manner the Appellant [The woman] treated PW1 and PW2 [Chinaza and Favour], from the evidence, was quite unusual, abnormal, inhuman, wicked and even cruel for any aunty to deal with her twelve year old nieces in the presence of her children. Of course, the Appellant was supposed to properly bring up PW1 and PW2 as disciplined children who would eventually be responsible adults, but in so doing, the law does not allow or permit her to subject them to servitude of chaining, tying, beating and starvation, thus denying them or curtailing their freedom and right to be children that should be be cared for and loved. If the Appellant could no longer keep or allow PW1 and PW2 to go to school and take proper care of them, as she understood and promised to do to their parents, as a mother and an aunty to them, she should have immediately taken or returned them back to their respective homes and not to resort to subjecting them to starvation, beating, tying and chaining and stopping them from going to school.

On his part, Ogakwu, JCA held (at page 566):

The evidence clearly established that the Appellant held her victims who were about twelve (12) years old in bondage and that they were absolutely under her control, such that the PW1 attempted to use a rope to escape from the two storey building apartment of the Appellant.

The Court of Appeal unanimously affirmed the conviction and sentencing of the woman for the offence of slavery under Section 25(a) of the Act.

Lessons

From the above, there are a number of lessons to learn. Men and women must be mindful in treating people, especially, young persons under their care. Just like the Court advised, if at any point you find the person you’re living with intolerable, terminate the relationship by letting the person go. The woman had no justiable excuse for treating the girls (her nieces for that matter) with such level of cruelty. Chinaza and Favour were favoured, in that they were timely rescued. There are others languishing in anguish.

 

*Ukatu v. F.R.N. [2021] 10 NWLR (Pt. 1785) 519.



Stephen Azubuike
Author: Stephen Azubuike
Stephen is a lawyer with expertise in Commercial Dispute Resolution and Technology Law practice. He is a Partner at Infusion Lawyers. He has successfully argued cases from the High Courts of various jurisdictions to the Appellate Courts on behalf of financial institutions, other corporate bodies and multinationals. He has worked with a number of startup tech companies. He tweets @siazubuike.

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