The Director-General of the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons, Julie Okah-Donli, speaks with OLALEYE ALUKO on her life, career and other issues
How did you start your career and where are some of the places you worked before you joined NAPTIP?
Prior to joining the agency, I had worked in some law firms. I also worked with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Abuja. I worked also in a security institute and with the United Bank for Africa Trustees. I served as an executive assistant to former Bayelsa State Governor, Chief Timipre Sylva, who is also my mentor. I also established my own law firm that had a team of legal practitioners. I was the head of that firm before my appointment.
As a leader, what are some of the most valuable lessons you have learnt as regards managing people and motivating them?
I have always known that people are different. What works for one person may not necessarily work for another. I have learnt not to compare two people. I treat everyone based on his or her own individual merit. I treat everyone with utmost respect.
How would you describe your experience as head of NAPTIP in the last one year?
My experience has been a combination of everything. It has been tough. Tough in the sense that sometimes, we have issues like inter-agency rivalry where some other law enforcement agencies refuse to cooperate with us. It has also been exciting. Exciting because this is a job I am very passionate about. Therefore, I give it my all and that makes it very interesting. It makes it challenging sometimes too; challenging in terms of our operations, logistics and funding. Otherwise, it has been quite interesting.
What personal qualities have helped you get to where you are today?
I believe I am very passionate about whatever I decide to do. I believe that my passion for my job has been my driving force. I also believe that I am a very hard-working and committed person. I think I am very committed to my job and whatever I lay my hands on. With the focus, passion and dedication, I expect to win because I always have my way.
As a woman, do you have to work harder than your male predecessors to be noticed?
I actually believe that a woman heading this agency will do much better than a man. The reason is because a woman’s motherly instinct helps her to do this job with everything she has and not to compromise in any way. For example, if we have a case of human trafficking, which is what we do here, you can imagine how I will react and how I will do everything possible to ensure that the perpetrators are brought to book. I can assure you that I am even stronger than some of the men working with me. There was a time we had a walk-out tagged, ‘Walk against human trafficking’, and trust me, I ran all the way. Some of the men could not even walk far, much less run. It has to do with the physical fitness of whoever is in the saddle, and nothing to do with gender.
What are some of the great lessons you have learnt over the years?
I will not call them great lessons; I will call them sad lessons. Over the course of the one year I have spent as the NAPTIP head, I have realised that people, who are supposed to be close to you (who you trust), are the ones who really betray you. Sometimes, the parents, family friends and boyfriends of the girls are the ones who deceive them and engage them in human trafficking. I have also learnt that people can be hardened and wicked to do anything to get money even at the expense of their fellow humans. They don’t really care. They don’t care to know what happens to you as long as they are making money. People that should know better are even the ones that are involved in these cartels. People who you don’t expect to be in this business are the ones really fueling human trafficking.
It is believed that traffickers usually have godfathers and godmothers who sponsor their activities. What moves have you made to go after such high-profile people?
Well, as far as NAPTIP is concerned, there is no sacred cow. When we get information about anyone, we go after them; we don’t spare anyone. Yes, we have been able to get some of the gangs and heads of criminal networks. We have arrested agents, godfathers and some of the bigwigs behind these criminals. So, yes, we go after them and we are still going after those who are involved in human trafficking.
What innovations have you brought to bear on your job since you resumed office?
I think since I came on board a year ago, I have been able to get the Federal Government to approve the whistle-blower’s policy and to extend it to NAPTIP. We have also inaugurated the NAPTIP regional training academy, which will take off very soon. We also launched NAPTIP internationally in terms of ongoing joint operations with the police and other authorities in the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Spain and the European Union entirely. We hope to do a lot more of this. I have been able to bring in the organised private sector and corporate organisations to partner with us in the fight against human trafficking. We also have the NAPTIP Rapid Response Squad unit which is doing a great work too. We have also tried to rebrand the agency so that there can be more awareness among Nigerians.
Do you think human trafficking can ever be eradicated totally in Nigeria?
Definitely, it can be eradicated. That is why we are tackling it through prevention. You know, prevention is always better than cure. We are targeting the various local communities. If we are able to get the message to all of these local communities nationwide, I believe trafficking will be a thing of the past in this country.
What was your first reaction when you were appointed to head NAPTIP?
It actually came as a surprise. I was expecting an appointment but I did not think about this agency. What happened about my getting here was so spiritual. NAPTIP was the last place I hoped for. Meanwhile, I had a kidney foundation and NAPTIP was the last place where I carried out a free screening before my appointment. It was absolutely free for the agency’s workers. I did a kidney examination for all of them as a private person then. I came with my team and we did a one-hour presentation, telling them about how to protect their kidneys from harm. We gave out fliers on how to take good care of kidneys. Of course, it was a shock when I was told that I would be sent to NAPTIP. It was the place I went last. The truth is that I didn’t even remember the agency. It was one of my workers who reminded me that it was the place we went earlier. I was wowed by that and I realised that it was a divine arrangement.
From your experience on the job, what are the major reasons people engage in human trafficking?
For the traffickers, they are just greedy and evil. There is no other way to describe them. They are just wicked. And for the victims, most of them are actually ignorant. Many of them are also defrauded by the traffickers. That is also a case of fraud. Most of the victims lack knowledge. They are usually uneducated and ignorant. Sometimes, there is a little bit of poverty on the parts of the parents of the victims. Some girls and boys even spend over N500,000 to get themselves trafficked. Where did they get such money? I also know that upbringing plays a major role in falling into the hands of traffickers. Unfortunately, many of the victims were brought up to believe that anything outside of Nigeria is the best. That is where the trouble lies. When you are brought up to be someone who is timid and not confident, then there is a problem. When you are brought up to have an inferiority complex, anybody can tell you anything and you would accept it. For example, nobody can tell my children, ‘Let’s go to America to make it and let’s enjoy life’. My children would tell them, ‘Wait a minute! I can make it here in Nigeria’. There must be a national orientation on the part of the government. Nigerians must believe in Nigeria and in the government. The families must also bring their children up to believe in Nigeria and in themselves. That way, no one would be able to defraud you.
A lot of Nigerians are also involved in the Libyan slave trade. What is the update on the evacuation plan?
A lot of people think that this evacuation started with the Libyan incident. No! The International Organisation for Migration, a United Nations agency, has been helping for years. They have been bringing down victims from Libya for so many years and NAPTIP also goes to the airports to receive them. We have always profiled them and we usually deal with victims of human trafficking. We don’t deal with irregular migrants who went there and just came back. We have always been responsible for taking them to shelters and rehabilitation of the victims of human trafficking. It did not start with the Federal Government’s delegation to Libya. The Federal Government’s delegation to Libya was just to build on the existing structure.
What advice do you have for young people who have the desire to get to the top of their careers?
I always advise young people to be focused. They also need to be passionate about whatever they do, because trust me, it you are not passionate about whatever you do, you cannot even do well in the first place. This is because your passion for your job is the first driving force you have to excel. It gives you the spirit of excellence. I always advise young people to imbibe this spirit of excellence and to be passionate about whatever they do. They also need to be very focused, determined and hard-working. Everything else would follow naturally.
How do you maintain a balance between your home and career?
Balancing my home and my work is not a challenge to me. My first child is a 27-year-old, while the second born is about 22. What am I saying? I have adults who are working already. So, I really don’t have a problem managing my home.
How would you describe your childhood?
My childhood was very strict. It was also very interesting and extremely happy.
What were your childhood ambitions?
The truth is that as I was growing up, my mother was my role model. She was a very hard-working and successful businesswoman. I wanted to be like her and I am very happy I am like her in so many ways. It is not just about the physical appearance but in almost every aspect of her life.
I had always wanted to be a lawyer because I knew I could argue. I also wanted to be a broadcaster because I was told that I had a very good voice and I could read very well. I wanted to do something that was my strength because I knew that if I towed the line of my strength, I would function effectively in that capacity; I would not malfunction. And I know I have been able to do very well in NAPTIP because this is the place of my abode.
Which schools did you attend?
I attended elementary schools in the Yaba and Ikeja areas of Lagos State. For my post-elementary education, I attended Gbagada Girls Secondary School, Gbagada, Lagos. I then went to Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Kaduna State.
What other interests do you have?
I love to dance. I like cooking also.
How do you unwind?
I am an exercise-freak; I like to jog a lot. I also like to read and write.
How do you like to dress?
For me, looking good is good business. I dress appropriately, according to whatever the function is. If I am going to a party, I dress like someone going to a party. If I am going to a church, I dress like someone going to church, and the same way if I am going to the office. Every occasion has its dress code and I dress accordingly.
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