ABUJA, Nigeria - Nigeria's anti-trafficking agency has welcomed an order by a leading traditional ruler revoking a voodoo ritual, saying it should sharply reduce the number of people being trafficked to Europe and improve the chances of prosecuting traffickers.
That followed a ceremony on Friday in which Oba Ewuare II, the leader of the historic kingdom of Benin in Nigeria's Edo state, dismissed the curses that voodoo priests place on trafficking victims.
The black magic rituals, known as "juju", leave victims fearing their relatives will fall ill or die if they disobey their traffickers, go to the police or fail to pay their debts.
"This is a very strong weapon to support anti-trafficking ... because our belief system is strongly rooted in traditional worship," Arinze Orakwue of the anti-trafficking agency NAPTIP said on Monday.
"This belief in juju has been a strong impediment to our prosecution. You can't prosecute when nobody comes forward to say this person did this to me," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
Some 37,500 Nigerians migrants arrived on Italian shores in 2016. More than 11,000 were women, up from 1,450 in 2014, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has said, estimating four in five women were forced into prostitution.
Most Nigerian women trafficked to Europe come from Edo, a predominantly Christian state of about 3 million people, which has a long history of migration to Italy, the IOM said.
Before leaving, they must sign a deal with the traffickers, incurring thousands of dollars of debts. They then seal the pact with a juju ritual performed by a spiritual priest.
"(The Oba) first released all those bound by juju ... the juju has been neutralised," David Edebiri, the second-highest ranking chief in the Oba's cabinet, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation via phone.
"Those who take money from people to help them to Europe without passing through immigration ... anybody who does will have a curse on his head," said Edebiri, 89, who was at the palace with other Benin chiefs when the Oba issued his decree.
Also present, he said, were juju priests and heads of shrines in Benin, and leaders of all sectors of Benin traditional society.
The Oba also banned juju priests from involvement in any ritual to aid immigration to any part of the world, and invoked curses on those who did, Edebiri said.
He said the Oba had become involved after repeated bad press in the international media.
"We saw our place being portrayed in the international media as a den of illicit activity ... There is going to be a drastic reduction."