UGBAGUE STREET: Inside Benin’s oldest prostitutes’ den

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FREEPRESS – Since Buhari took over, business has been very low, they lament. They are called queens of the night. Many refer to them as women of easy virtue. In Benin City, capital of Edo State, these young women, known as asewo, are more domiciled at the popular Ugbague Street in the ancient city.

Investigation reveals that most of the girls trading their bodies at this joint are cheap prostitutes willing to accept any amount from potential customers. They are usually lowly priced by male customers. For N1, 000 or even less, the prostitutes are willing to strip and engage in a round of sex. The sex workers are not the only occupants on Ugbague Street though. There are a few residential houses on the street just as there are traders that sell different legitimate commodities. However, when one mentions Ugbague in Benin and its environs, it connotes a place where hundreds of ladies sell their bodies for money.

Prostitution at Ugbague, according to sources, dates back to the 1940s and 1950s, and most of the prostitutes were said to have migrated from other states. They took abode at Ugbague area in the lively Benin City. According to history, Ugbague happened to be one of the busiest places in the region then, where one could get suya delicacies 24 hours of the day. Therefore, the street gradually evolved into a centre of attraction for young ladies, who found it strategic to solicit for men financially buoyant because they could afford some suya and bottles of drinks. The trend continued and as at the last check, more than three hundred girls are now plying their trade on this same street, selling their bodies to willing men. On this day, at about 1.pm, this reporter, in a company with a friend, Bright Izehiuwa, walked into the right side of Ugbague, connecting the ever-busy street from Mission Road. The visitors were immediately accosted by about six ladies.

The girls were speaking at the same time: “Follow me to my room to choose any style you want and enjoy your money.” “There is AC in my room.” “I will entertain you with blue film before we start action.” “Do you want to enjoy touch your toes style”? Everyday and every night, these ladies line up, flaunting their buttocks and breasts in an inviting manner. Unfortunately for the ladies, they are currently working harder and standing longer in the dead of the night to solicit for customers because business is no longer as booming as it was. One of the prostitutes, who spoke with our reporter on the condition of anonymity, complained that the lull in business might not be unconnected with the unhealthy economic situation in the country as a whole. She lamented: “There is bad market here at the moment. It really started when the new government took over power from President Jonathan. I watch and listen to news all the time. I hear how people complain that there is no money in circulation. There are times no man would come to ask what we are selling let alone buy. It has never been as tough as this since I started this job three years ago. Is it a man who has no food in his stomach that will remember the road that leads to a hotel? But the owner of this place will not understand that customers are no more coming to have fun with us as it used to be.” The walls in some of the walkways leading to the brothels where the transactions between the harlots and their customers are confirmed were decorated with salacious posters. The hotels are ancient houses, built with mud that had only seen skeletal renovations in decades. You may not be wrong if you call the houses shanties. The ladies, some teenagers, others adults, walk about, puffing cigarette smoke into the air. Every now and then, they utter uncharitable remarks at any male passerby who doesn’t look their way. Their services are available day and night, but patronage usually hits the peak at nights.

When one enters the street from Mission Road, the right part of the hotel has assumed considerable notoriety. It is a place where prostitutes accept any amount for a quick round of sex. These prostitutes, of all shapes, it was gathered, take a position and stand all through the night to solicit for men. Those who can’t go through the ordeal of standing for endless hours in front of their building for men to come loiter around Ugbague and adjoining streets. Streets like Akpakpava, Mission Roads, Lagos Street and others, then host a large number of the prostitutes, all in search of customers. Our reporter further gathered that for as little as N500, a hard-pressed man can have a quick sex, waggishly called ‘touch your toes’ with the desperate prostitutes at any of the dark corners outside the buildings. At night, they swarm like bees. One might not be wrong to conclude that sex has become the main commodity for sale on Ugbague Street. For N1,000, some of the prostitutes would be willing to rush inside a parked car to satisfy any randy man for what is usually referred to as ‘sharp sharp’ sex. A waiter at a popular bar on Ugbague Street explained that kind of sex to be shorter than even the popular ‘short-time’ service. The ladies, in their hundreds, and between the ages of 17 and 45, congregate in the area everyday and are clustered, ready to melt into the waiting arms of their one night sex partners. Most of them come out in see-through dresses in the hunt for Benin men. Yet for some of the ladies, business is smooth. “What they only need to do is have their bath, make-up and sit down just by their doors to make passes at customers who come in,” a trader on Ugbague Street, who simply gave his name as Osas, explained. It was also discovered that some of the ladies take the risk to have sex with men without the use of condoms, but with a higher charge. With a bottle of big stout and two sticks of cigarettes as enticement, a prostitute at the hotel, who engaged in a long conversation with this reporter, revealed all.

Said she: “The director of this hotel can flog any of the girls if she misbehaves. There was a day he hit me with stick when I didn’t clean the floor very well. He does not tolerate nonsense from any of us. And that is why there is some level of discipline at this our side when compared to the lodge opposite us, where the girls fight dirty almost everyday. “It is dangerous for men to go to those girls at the other side for sex. They can fight anybody over little arguments. The other day, a young man ran out from one of the rooms naked. People were shouting and laughing at the man. “Once we refuse to comply with the rules and or pay the necessary fees, the manager will simply padlock our doors. That means, you are out of business for as long as you are ready to pay. If you are tired of the job, other ladies are ready to take over your room. People come from different states, especially the East and Delta. We even have a few Yoruba girls hustling here.

“Each of us at this side of the hotel pays N1, 000 everyday for a room. We pay N2, 500 monthly to the Oodua People’s Congress (OPC) and we pay N5, 000 for the police. We also pay huge amount as electricity bill.” FREEPRESS learnt that the contributions from the girls, allegedly given to the police through the director of the hotel, help calm the officers from coming there to raid the area.

The amount charged for ‘short time’ depends on the pattern of sex the whore and her customer bargain for. But the least amount is N1, 000. It was gathered that the higher the money that a customer pays, the better the service he gets from the prostitute. “If you pay me very well, I am ready to give you map of Nigeria style. That means any style you demand from me. You can turn me around as much as you wish because ‘na better money cook better soup’. My twin brother and many others in my family members don’t know that I do this job. My twin brother lives in Abuja; I came to Ugbague six months ago to hustle and I will soon go back because the business is not paying me much. There is also stiff competition here these days. The most annoying thing is that Benin men price us here just like women who want to buy tomatoes at the market,” one of the girls, who gave her name as Chizoba, told this reporter. There are over 300 rooms at the brothels, which face one another. Dark, narrow and winding passages link the rooms where the acts have been carried out for many decades now. when the reporter visited, beside the biggest and seemingly most patronised brothel stood some of the harlots. These were bony and of short and average heights. There were also others that were quite fleshy. They were sex workers who meant business – strutting their stuff and soliciting for patronage from men.

Some of the ladies seen around there were neatly dressed in expensive clothes and hardly spoke to any men, especially the ones they rated not capable to pay their bills. Their colleagues call them ‘big mamas’ and ‘sakara ladies.’ Ugbague Street is a haven of sinful sex. The prostitutes – both ugly and beautiful – compete for men’s attention. Some of the girls were seen adopting aggressive marketing strategies in desperation, totally throwing decorum to the wind.

While the reporter was there, some of the ladies dished out suggestive stuff, as the music blasted from the speakers. Some of them simply sat at tables and made tempting passes at men. The women were dressed in provocative attire. Some of them wore bum shorts and revealing tops, while others put on micro-mini skirts that barely covered their underpants. Their breasts, most of them sagged, spilled from the bra. And they threw their breasts in the faces of the men.

In their desperation, they approached any man in sight, promising him a good time for his money. Some spoke fluent English while the majority depended on Pidgin English to convince prospective buyers to purchase their ‘market’. Heavy smoking and drinking went on freely at the bar.

FREEPRESS was reliably informed by one of the barmen that business comes into full swing from 10pm. Most of the practitioners peg their asking price at between N2, 500 and N5, 000 for an all night dalliance. There is also the time factor in the profession. As the night winds down, the price crashes. Between 12.30am and 1.30am, the prostitutes deprived of customers would accept any amount from men. One of the ladies, who gave her name as Angela, told this reporter that it was an ugly condition that led her into the business. Asked why she was bartering her beauty and womanhood for cash, she quipped: “No condition is permanent. If you are ready for enjoyment, let’s go inside. I don’t have time for this your useless questions,” she hissed and immediately walked away aggressively. Some of them, as gathered, do legitimate work during the day but at night they transform to sex providers to augment their pockets.

When this reporter and his friend feigned interest, one of the prostitutes, who quickly gave her name as Maureen, swore to give her guests value for their money. She voluntarily gave out her phone number and assured them that a trial would have them coming back for more.

Prostitutes and those patronising them might not be aware that prostitution is a crime. Sections 223, 224 and 225 of the Criminal Code prohibit the existence of brothels and the practice of prostitution. Penalties for setting up brothels range from six months to two years jail terms. But it is worrisome that these laws are not enforced. A top ranking policeman, who pleaded not to be mentioned, said the police do raid and arrest prostitutes, always.

He explained: “What people often overlook is that the Criminal Code itself does not help matters. It does not clearly define who a prostitute is. Really, there is no law against prostitution. What the law opposes is soliciting for men, not prostitution. Even the issue of brothels, how do you define what constitutes a brothel? These are difficult terms to prove. But we raid them notwithstanding, not because of prostitutes but because of other related vices like crime.”

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