In January, Watchlist conducted a field visit to Nigeria to coordinate with local partners and follow up on its 2014 report Who Will Care for Us? Grave Violations against Children in Northeastern Nigeria. Watchlist visited Abuja and Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state and epicenter of Nigeria’s conflict in the northeast, to engage with various partners from national and international nongovernmental organizations, United Nations agencies, and government bodies working on child protection.
Watchlist confirmed ongoing recruitment of children by Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (JAS), commonly known as Boko Haram, and the Civilian Joint Task Force (Civilian JTF), a self-defense militia formed in Maiduguri in 2013 to support national security forces in identifying and apprehending confirmed and suspected JAS members. The term Civilian JTF is now used quite loosely to describe a number of self-defense groups operating in the northeast, some of which have tenuous ties to the Maiduguri-based Civilian JTF.
The tactics adopted by JAS to recruit and attract children vary, but forced recruitment through abduction during targeted raids on villages remains a great source of concern. Boys are trained for fighting or are used as informants and messengers. Girls are used for domestic work, sexual exploitation, and as suicide bombers. Children are also reportedly used as human shields.
Many children, mostly boys and young men, take part in the Civilian JTF. Most engage willingly while some may also feel pressured to join for fear of being perceived as sympathizing with JAS insurgents if they fail to clearly assert their opposition. Boys are mostly used to man check points, conduct patrols, act as messengers, and to apprehend suspected insurgents. As a growing number of women and girls are used by JAS as suicide bombers, women are also playing an increasingly important role in searching and controlling female community members in markets, hospitals, parks, and schools.
In addition, many interviewees expressed concerns about the so-called “errand boys” who are used by the Nigerian military as messengers or to run errands in exchange for money or protection. Children who are suspected or found to be members of JAS are often detained by Nigerian security forces, most often outside of the protection of the law, in military detention facilities that are known for the mistreatment of detainees.
As part of the national counterterrorism strategy led by the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA), a group of women and children who were found during military operations against JAS were sent to a military facility in Kaduna State where they participated in a de-radicalization program. While the participants have now completed the program, access to former participants has been significantly limited by the government to better facilitate their reintegration into the community. There is also great uncertainty as to whether the program will remain a priority for the government.
Child survivors who have been under the control of JAS have most often been separated from their families; they have gone through serious trauma and are highly stigmatized by many groups in society. Given the high vulnerability of those children and those that are eventually released from detention facilities, the government of Nigeria should ensure proper handover to the appropriate child protection actors who can take the necessary steps to facilitate family reunification and reintegration. Working with communities and families to overcome the stigmatization and increase acceptance will play a critical role in ensuring that children can recover and go on to live fulfilling lives.