OPED: With longstanding armed conflict in the northeast, Nigeria risks losing a generation of boys and girls

M had just come home from school and was busy cooking the day four Boko Haram fighters came to her home in a village in Borno State. When his father heard the sound of bicycles, he rushed into the house and hid under the bed. It was a futile effort. One of the fighters dragged him outside and took him to a tree in the compound. As he pleaded for his life, one of the militants slit his throat. He died under the horrified gaze of his family. The fighters abducted M’s mother and her five siblings, but not M, and left.

Both sides – Boko Haram and the Nigerian military – continue to regularly commit war crimes, including against children.

It was in 2014. Six years later, M does not know where his family is. Or if they are still alive. She is one of thousands of children traumatized by the decade-long armed conflict in northeast Nigeria. Both sides – Boko Haram and the Nigerian military – continue to regularly commit war crimes, including against children.

As Africa commemorates the Day of the African Child, Nigerian authorities should recognize these crimes and begin to chart a new course rooted in human rights.

aggression on childhood

Boko Haram’s tactics and ideology have been an assault on childhood in North East Nigeria. Like M, many saw the group kill their parents or siblings. Others were abducted and spent years in captivity, often forced to fight or serve as a “wife”. These abductions, forced recruitments and forced marriages constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity. Their extent seems to have often been underestimated. Both nationally and internationally, the focus has often been on specific, high-profile incidents, ignoring the persistent and ongoing nature of these atrocities.

Children and adults risk death to escape Boko Haram. Yet for many, their trauma is compounded by the Nigerian authorities.

Children and adults risk death to escape Boko Haram. Yet for many, their trauma is compounded by the Nigerian authorities. The army, itself responsible for abuses, illegally detained thousands of boys and girls leaving Boko Haram territory, often without any proof that the child was affiliated with the group, let alone that he had committed crimes. In most cases, no charges are laid, even if the children are detained for months or years. Due process is routinely flouted. The true extent of child detention is unknown as the military has repeatedly denied access to detention centers to the UN and other independent observers.

Conditions in military detention centers are universally deplorable. There is severe overcrowding, poor sanitation, insufficient food and water, and sexual violence. Many children have been beaten and subjected to other forms of torture to extract “confessions” of involvement with Boko Haram. The inhumane conditions of military detention often resulted in serious illness, disease, and in many cases, death.

A safe corridor that is not safe

In 2016, the Nigerian Federal Government launched Operation Safe Corridor. This demobilization, dissociation, reintegration and reconciliation (DDRR) program brings men and boys to a detention center 30 km from Gombe. There they undergo vocational training, religious instruction and other activities intended to start the process of reintegration. Despite being told the program will last six months, most have been detained for over a year.

Operation Safe Corridor has made some achievements, particularly in terms of psychosocial support. The army is also more transparent about this DDRR program than about other aspects of its operations. But despite this, Safe Corridor remains plagued by human rights abuses. Above all, it marks the continuation of the widespread illegal detention of men and boys. Almost all of the people detained in Safe Corridor are there without a court order or any other legal basis.

Quickly reverse course

The federal government, including the military, must quickly end its widespread illegal detention. It should recognize that detention of children is appropriate only as a last resort. It should ensure the prosecution of those who have overseen large-scale torture and other ill-treatment, often resulting in deaths in custody. And it should fulfill its responsibility to “promote the physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration” of children who have suffered during the conflict, whether at the hands of Boko Haram, the Nigerian military or both.

Children leaving Boko Haram territory must be able to access education and psychosocial support, not be locked up for years in grossly inhumane detention cells.

This means that children leaving Boko Haram territory must be able to access education and psychosocial support, and not be locked up for years in extremely inhumane detention cells. UNICEF has reported that only around 25% of children in Borno state attend school, a devastating failure.

Finally, in its rehabilitation programs and other support for people affected by the conflict, the Nigerian authorities must ensure gender equity. Although patterns of violations differ, women and girls have been hard hit. Yet most programs, including Safe Corridor, appear to target men and boys, while initiatives that target women and girls are much more restricted, exacerbating existing power structures and inequalities in the north. -is.

Without an approach grounded in human rights, Nigeria risks losing a generation of boys and girls.

This article was first published in African Arguments June 16, 2020.