Niger's border prostitutes and the profits of Islam

Hadja Hadiza's open-legged posture speaks volumes about her view of Islamic law. "It is great for business," she says, seated on a lump of concrete, as yet another Nigerian man followed one of her girls into a hut on the brothel compound. If you took away the "harlots", the drunks and the gambling, Firgi would be back to what it used to be, a village with goats and camels, 200 metres from the border post, in Niger.

Hadja Hadiza's open-legged posture speaks volumes about her view of Islamic law. "It is great for business," she says, seated on a lump of concrete, as yet another Nigerian man followed one of her girls into a hut on the brothel compound. If you took away the "harlots", the drunks and the gambling, Firgi would be back to what it used to be, a village with goats and camels, 200 metres from the border post, in Niger.

But since shari'a arrived in neighbouring northern Nigeria, Firgi has grown into a den of vice. Hundreds of men flock here, day and night, to escape punishments under Nigerian Islamic law, 80 lashes for drinking beer, 40 lashes for playing a game of chance and 50 lashes for "procuration of woman".

Ms Hadiza, in her forties, has been a prostitute for as long as she has been able to count money. Chased out of Nigeria 10 years ago, when shari'a law was informally enforced, she settled in a straw hut in Firgi and her clients crossed the border for her. Two years ago, northern Nigeria's Muslim leaders brought shari'a officially into practice, complete with hisba, the vigilantes of Islam, in a political move to assert their authority after the end of military rule. Firgi, in the middle of the Sahe desert, boomed and Ms Hadiza was reborn a madam.

"The hisba chase prostitutes out of Nigeria," she says. "The girls come here because they have heard of me and they feel safe. I have six huts for their clients. Business is getting better and better."

Outside Ms Hadiza's compound, other shari'a "refugees" have built straw huts and hung awnings to conceal a multitude of sins. What is most startling about Firgi, a gateway to the Sahara, is the noise. Amid the sand and thorn trees, there is a red-light district without the light because Firgi has no electricity. Every straw hut reveals new possibilities for the shari'a exile: a drinking den here, a game of cards there, some buskers, or just Hadiza Abubakar, too old, perhaps, to rent her body but offering boulle snacks (millet mixed with water). "I am from Niger. I came to Firgi purely to make money, and business is great," she says.

Firgi may be colourful, but it is a place of desperation. A border guard on the Niger side says: "The women are not only prostitutes on the run. The strengthening of Islam in Nigeria has led to so many forced marriages that very young girls come here, just to escape from their husbands. Prostitution is their only means of living."

This gives rise, in a poverty-stricken country, to unwanted babies and children who hang around the huts while their mothers satisfy clients. Last month, the Niger government estimated that the village ­ census population 300 ­ has 325 prostitutes. The government said Aids was a big concern and ordered a nurse to make monthly visits and distribute condoms. But the measure is not sufficient and no charities are working in Firgi.

Doug Steinberg, country director of Care, said: "We are awaiting approval and funding for an Aids-awareness programme, including encouraging condoms and helping the sex workers to undertake other trades and settle in other places. The nurse in the nearest health centre has suggested that 45 per cent of the sex workers have one or other sexually transmitted infection."

Niger has its own Muslim extremists. Last year they ransacked hotels and bars in the nearby town of Maradi for hosting visitors to Fima, the "fashion show in the desert" organised every other year by the Franco-Nigerian designer, Alphady. But those who know Firgi's punters, the taxi drivers, police and border guards, say even the Muslim elders have been paid off.

Oumarou Abdou, a village chief who lives in a mud hut in the sleepy "old Firgi", seems happy. "We are at peace with the new inhabitants," he says. "We used to be a small village. The state wanted to close our school. Now we are the most important village in the area." Is he afraid the hisba will come? "The police will protect us," Mr Abdou says.

Damhanza Idriss, a Nigerian in his thirties, threw another 20 naira note (12p) on the straw mat where he was playing whist, and says: " Shari'a is a good thing. It keeps troublesome elements in line." Then he adds: "Every Muslim must say that shari'a is good or he is denying his religion."

Mr Idriss, a cross-border trader, comes to Firgi every week. "The place is open for business around the clock, every day. It allows us to do what we have always done, but which is risky in Nigeria."

Firgi has a rival hotspot, Birni N'Konni, another former pastoral desert village in Niger, 125 miles to the west, is another escape valve from the shari'a stronghold of Sokoto and a haven for "refugee" prostitutes.

Yet in Kano, the principal city of northern Nigeria, the powerful leader of the hisba claimed to know nothing of the vice dens.

Sitting behind a set of A4-size bound volumes of The Kano State Shari'a Penal Code, Sheikh Ameen Al-deen Abubakr says: "I am shocked. We will do something about this. People are so ignorant. They do not realise that he who flouts the law of Islam will get Aids."

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