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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - 3-4 Month Fixed Contract - £30-£35k pro rata

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a 3-4 month pro rata fi...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £26,000+

£16000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Telesales Executive is requir...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map