Watchlist On Children And Armed Conflict (Watchlist), a network of international non-governmental organizations, presented a report to the United Nations last Thursday detailing the severe trauma directly and indirectly affecting the lives children living in northeastern Nigeria.
As the insurgency, its elements, and its effects are analyzed, there is little focus on the affected children, who make up a significant portion of the estimated 650,000 persons displaced by the violence.
The below results and recommendations are the findings of a six-week, comprehensive research endeavor conducted by Watchlist in early 2014. SaharaReporters was granted an advance copy for review.
Compulsory recruitment, attacks on schools, rape, mass slaughter, abduction, arrest, and more have become critical risks for children in the northeast. Watchlist has identified the following three factors, among the many, as the principal harms to the children of Nigeria's fragile northeast.
Attacks on Schools:
Boko Haram has aggressively attacked schools and other institutions with increasingly frequency of late. Watchlist’s research suggests that 414 students, teachers, and others have been killed or injured as a result of school-focused attacks.
A student of Federal Government College, Buni Yadi, 13, described a traumatic attack on February 25th, 2014, that left 29-59 boys dead, saying “[A] person pointed a gun at me…I fell down…I was hit with two bullets on my left foot…I pretended I died…because if I didn’t pretend they would shoot me again.”
These incidences are unquestionably crippling education in the northeast. Mass panic and violence have kept many children out of school. UNICEF reports, according to Watchlist, that one in every three primary school children and one in every four junior secondary school children are out of school in the northeast.
Several schools have been closed as a result of the violence as well. Teachers, their morale at staggering lows, have resigned from their responsibilities in great numbers, and concerned parents have kept their children out of school. These factors combined completely hinder educational growth and development for children in the northeast.
Following the abduction of over 200 girls from Chibok, in Borno State this past April, Boko Haram’s danger to children was publicized internationally. A significant, yet not isolated tragedy, the mass abduction highlighted a dangerous trend. Kidnapped children of both sexes have been subjected to conversion and recruitment, forced marriage, sale and trafficking, and sexual violence and exploitation.
Abducted girls have been a subject of Boko Haram leader Shekau’s focus. Shekau, who has stated that girls are being abducted in response to the military’s capture and detention of militant’s wives.
While these are known threats, less known is the reality that the few children who escape abduction by Boko Haram have minimal, if any, access to counseling and treatment. “[When I left the camp],” a formerly abducted girl told Watchlist, “it made me insane.”
Recruitment and Use of Children:
Watchlist interviewed a number of people who claimed that they had seen children as young as 14 recruited into Boko Haram. Whether threatened, abducted, or lured into enlisting with financial incentives, these children are wielded by Boko Haram to commit major atrocities.
One civilian told Watchlist that during an attack by JAS fighters on July 10, 2014, in Marte Local Government Area, Borno State, eyewitnesses said “girls from age 14 and other young women, armed with AK-47 rifles, were among the majority of the JAS fighters”.
The issue is further complicated by security forces’ attempts to curb the insurgency that end up arresting and detaining children suspected of involvement with Boko Haram. Once detained, these children often dangle in limbo in crowded, mismanaged facilities, the conditions of which have been the cause of much alarm. Reports of beatings, torture, and other abuses have emerged.
A detained child told Amnesty International that he had been “beaten with gun butts, batons, and machetes, having melted plastic and cold water poured on him, and being made to walk and roll over broken bottles. Authorities also forced him to watch the extrajudicial executions of other detainees,” Watchlist states.
Boko Haram is not the only group recruiting and exploiting children, Watchlist suggests. Civilian militias, like the Borno JTF, have also used children as combatants. One young man said “[Members of the Civilian JTF] suspected me of being part of Boko Haram…Three of us were tied up. Someone came as a witness and said I was not part of Boko Haram. Then I was released. After they released me I went home. I went to the market and bought a machete and stick to be part of the [Civilian] JTF… If you refuse [to join], you are killed.”
Watchlist makes considerable recommendations to the various stakeholders involved in the conflict, all designed to protect and safeguard the rights of children.
However, given the Nigerian government’s sluggish, fragmented response to the insurgency this far, it can be anticipated that such suggestions to ameliorate the dangers to children will receive little attention.
Such a response on part of the government begs the questions: are the children of northeast Nigeria not Nigerian as well? Do they not count? Do their futures, hopes, goals, not matter? What kind of childhood is one lived totally in fear? The world is now watching, and the impact of governmental neglect is beginning to be more widely felt. Hope remains that the needs of Nigeria’s most vulnerable, her children, will receive the support and assistance they deserve.
Read the full report here.