‘I was desperate’: Young job seekers scammed, abused in Nigeria
Warning: This story contains details of sexual assault.
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Uyo, Nigeria – When Blessing* boarded a bus early on a January morning in 2017 for the 60km (37 miles) journey from her home in Calabar, in Nigeria’s Cross River State, to a village in neighbouring Akwa Ibom State, she thought she was going to meet a corporate executive about a potential job offer.
The 10-hour ordeal that followed still haunts her, years later.
It all started with a job posting on Jiji, an online trade platform, in December 2016.
At the time, Blessing was 24 years old. She had just finished a diploma course and was planning to begin university the following year. But first, she needed to save money for her fees and living expenses. And that meant finding a job.
Like many other young Nigerians seeking employment in the digital age, Blessing made a social media post in search of job offers, leaving her contact information so that prospective employers could reach her.
A few weeks later, she got a call from a man who told her there was an opening for an entry-level role at ExxonMobil, an American oil and gas company with a drilling licence in Nigeria. He asked that she bring a hard copy of her ID to an address in the neighbouring state to continue the application process.
She had doubts but hoped her weeks of job hunting were finally about to pay off.
“I told [the man] that I wasn’t comfortable [travelling so far to meet him], being that I don’t know him. But he insisted that I didn’t have a choice. And I was desperately in need of a job at that time,” Blessing, who is now 30, recalls.
When she told her mother about the call, she too tried to persuade the man that Blessing could simply scan her ID and email him a copy of it, instead of travelling across states. But the man insisted, so Blessing’s mother borrowed the money for her bus fare.
‘Beware of dogs’
After four hours on the bus, Blessing arrived in the town of Uyo in Akwa Ibom State at 10am.
“When I got there, I called him. He sent me the location [an address in the village] via SMS. He told me to take a taxi to Oron road, then I should take a [motorcycle taxi] and look for a house with [a] ‘beware of dogs’ [sign],” she says.
The road to the village of Nung Ikono Obio is untarred and lined by thick vegetation on both sides. When she saw the condition of the road, Blessing contemplated turning back but reasoned that she had already spent too much on travel.
“I did not want to go home without feedback [for my mother],” she recalls.
But when Blessing arrived at the house with the “beware of dogs” sign, she was shocked by what she saw. It was the site of ongoing construction; outside, labourers were moving sand from a heap to mix concrete which they used for the foundation.
The man she had been speaking to on the phone also surprised her – he looked too young to be a corporate executive. It later turned out that he was just 16.
Blessing says he asked her to sit on a bench and wait for his father, who would discuss the job offer with her. Meanwhile, the labourers continued working around her.
“There were people working so I did not suspect anything,” she recalls. “At about 2 o’clock, I became uncomfortable because time was running fast and I was supposed to be heading back to Calabar.”
The boy told her not to worry, that they would leave as soon as he had paid the labourers.
But at 5pm, when the labourers left, the boy locked the gate, and Blessing was left alone with him inside the compound. When she protested, he threatened to kill her and demanded that she enter a nearby room.
She describes what happened next. “He told me to obey him and not hesitate, otherwise he would hurt me and no one would come to my rescue. The room was so dark but there was a small mattress. He told me to sit on it. He told me to undress. That was when I started pleading.”
Blessing started crying. She told him that she did not want the job any more.
“He brought out a knife tied with red cloths and [said] that if I did not undress, he would stab me.”
Then he raped her.
Rape and murder
In August this year, Uduak “Ezekiel” Akpan, now 22, was found guilty of raping and murdering Iniubong Umoren, a 26-year-old job seeker, in April 2021. After Umoren’s case started trending on social media, Blessing saw posts and realised the attacker was the same man who had raped her in 2017.
Like Blessing, Umoren had made an open call on social media for a job. “#AkwaIbomTwitter please. I’m really in need of a job, something to do to keep my mind and soul together while contributing dutifully to the organization. My location is Uyo. I’m creative, really good at thinking critically, and most importantly a fast learner. CV available on request,” she tweeted on April 27, 2021.
As with Blessing, Akpan had then lured her to his home – the same one, still under construction all these years later – under the pretext of a job interview.
While there, Umoren sent a one-second WhatsApp audio message to her friend Uduak Obong. When Obong called her back, she heard her friend’s screams. So she sent a frantic tweet suggesting Umoren might be in danger. Online, Nigerians began investigating. Within a few hours, they found Akpan’s Facebook pages and dug up his digital footprint. A Twitter user got a leak of Akpan’s call log. With the call logs, he geolocated where Akpan was when he had last called Umoren’s phone.
The following day, Umoren’s body was found in a shallow grave in the same compound in Nung Ikono Obio where Blessing had been raped years earlier.
After Akpan attacked Blessing, she was too traumatised to report it. She did not even tell her mother what had happened. But she did go to the hospital to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases.
Blessing came forward after Umoren’s death, and prosecutors called her to give evidence against Akpan at his trial. Although she did not end up testifying – she was told her testimony was no longer needed – she sees her decision as a first attempt at seeking justice for what happened to her.
In the statement Akpan gave to the police before his trial commenced – a confession he later tried to recant, saying it was obtained under duress, although the judge ruled against him – he admitted to having attacked six other women, including Blessing. Umoren was the only one he killed.
Twenty-five-year-old Miriam Akpan (no relation to the perpetrator) was one of Akpan’s other victims. In December 2020, desperate for a job, she posted on a Facebook group called Job Vacancy in Uyo, advertising her interests and qualifications.
“Please, anything, I can do,” she wrote, mentioning that she had the equivalent of a high school certificate and would take any job. No one offered her one until Akpan said he would pay her 35,000 Nigerian naira ($80) a month as a secretary in an “integrated farm”. Miriam was excited. For someone without a university degree, a job that paid more than the minimum monthly wage of 30,000 naira ($69) felt like a great opportunity.
She agreed to meet him to discuss the details of the job offer. But instead of an interview, she was drugged and raped.
For more than a year Miriam had suppressed the memory of what happened to her. She kept it from her sister, the only immediate family she has. But as people tried to locate Umoren, she saw Akpan’s picture being shared on Twitter and all the emotion she had tried to bury came rushing back. “I did not even think about it, I just commented [on Twitter] that this person robbed me last December,” she says.
But her last name raised suspicions, and some accused her of being related to Uduak Akpan. Umoren’s relatives did not immediately trust her when she advised them to go to Akpan’s house that night to search for the missing woman.
The following day, Miriam’s directions led the police and Umoren’s relatives to the compound where they found her body.
Miriam’s court testimony also helped convict Akpan.
He was subsequently sentenced to death by hanging for the murder of Umoren, and life imprisonment for her rape.
But Akpan is not the only person to have taken advantage of Nigeria’s employment crisis.
It is common for Nigerians to announce on social media that they are seeking jobs. With a soaring unemployment rate, many explore unconventional ways of finding work. Graduates are sometimes seen holding placards at major bus stops and expressways pleading for jobs; others make online banners; and members of the National Youth Corps who finish their service also post their certificates on social media, announcing that they are ready for employment.
Nigeria’s unemployment rate stands at 33.3 percent, according to data from the National Bureau of Statistics, which means that more than 23 million people either have no job or work for less than 20 hours a week. Among those aged between 15 and 35, the unemployment rate stood at 42.5 percent in 2020.
The high number of unemployed people seeking jobs also makes Nigeria’s labour market a “breeding ground” for criminals who lure applicants in with job interviews, said Taibat Hussain, a youth and gender equality advocate. “Criminals … lure applicants in with fake job interviews, and then rob, rape and, in extreme cases, kill them. This category of youth, after spending years without employment opportunities, falls prey to the tactics and is left with no other choice than to give in,” she told Al Jazeera.
As part of reporting this story, Al Jazeera met a 26-year-old man arrested in Cross River State for the alleged rape of an 18-year-old woman to whom he had promised a job. We are not naming him as he is awaiting trial.
When Al Jazeera met him at Calabar Correctional Centre, he was wearing a blue shirt with its collar raised and a pair of too-small slippers. He had already been behind bars for more than a year. He told Al Jazeera he had slept with the woman but denied raping her. “I was going to help her get the job but she is angry because the job did not come as fast as she wanted,” he said.
But in a statement the woman gave to the police detailing her experience, she told a different story. She met the man while looking for work vacancies, she said. He told her there was a cleaning position open in his workplace – a manufacturing company in Calabar.
“He asked me to bring my application to his house so that he can help me correct it and submit [it]. He looked at my application and said it is not correct. He wrote another one and told me to recopy it with my handwriting. After I finished copying it, I wanted to go but he did not let me go. He started kissing me and touching my breast. He used his right hand to hold my hands together and his left hand to cover my mouth,” her statement in the police report reads.
Experts say that most victims of dubious employment scams are younger women seeking low-skilled jobs, who make up a significant number of the unemployed population, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.
Extorted by ‘jobs for sale’
While predators like Akpan take advantage of desperate job seekers, there are registered companies that also extort these desperate people in other ways.
Oladeinde Olawoyin, a Nigerian journalist who has investigated fake employment agencies, found 50 cases of applicants being extorted. These agencies get applicants to pay for a registration package – usually charging 5,000-10,000 naira ($11-23) – with the promise of finding them a job, yet most never do. Some of these companies are registered as consultancies to circumvent the law that makes it illegal for a person to pay to gain employment, Olawoyin explains.
“Many of the agencies do not have jobs to give,” he says. “They charge applicants for registration forms and don’t really get them any job. There are a few who might have [a] few jobs but they recruit more people than the [number of] job[s] they have. In a pool of about 1,000, they might throw in maybe 20 jobs or less.
“These agencies know that Nigeria is [a] free for all. So they … gamble with people’s life and extort them. Most often they change their location when their notoriety spreads. They change their name and location. So it is possible that a job seeker might get scammed two, three, or four times by the same set of people with different names and addresses.”
John Nyamani, the director of employment and wages at Nigeria’s Ministry of Labour, told Al Jazeera that “desperation”, social media and job seekers wanting a quick fix were to blame for people being preyed upon.
“We don’t want to follow the rules because we are in a hurry to get employment,” he said.
Nyamani advised job seekers to be circumspect of opportunities advertised on social media that cannot be traced to an established organisation. “They are deceived with jobs and it is because of the situation of things. The government can only try its best through the security agencies to educate people on how to be careful. Not every advert you see on social media [is one] that you respond to. If you have to respond to it, make clarifications, and ask the Ministry of Labour. The Ministry of Labour has a good, functional website,” he added, referring to the National Employment Electronic Labour Exchange (NELEX).
The website has a pool of vacancies and a list of legal organisations where Nigerians seeking employment can carry out background checks on their prospective employers, Nyamani said.
However, advocate Hussain, who has looked into the government’s youth unemployment reduction scheme, says such initiatives only provide “temporary relief”, and that there is a need for permanent and sustainable connections between the labour market and government initiatives that hope to help young people.
For many, Umoren’s death highlighted how dire the unemployment situation is in Nigeria, and the risks young people are willing to take to find a job.
Miriam has gone back to school where she is learning to become a data scientist. She said facing Akpan again was one of the toughest things she has ever done but, after the incident, she decided to relocate to Lagos to start afresh.
“I have left Uyo and everything else behind me,” she says. “I can now build a future that I want. I bought a laptop. I am going to start learning how to code.”
For Blessing, it has been harder. She will only feel that there has been justice when Akpan hangs, she says, adding: “I don’t think he will ever be killed.”
*Name changed to protect the victim’s privacy