A recent report by UNICEF has highlighted the growing use of children as suicide bombers by the terrorist group Boko Haram in West Africa. The increased attacks developed in the wake of a military offensive conducted by the Multinational Joint Task Force, composed of troops from Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria. UNICEF reports that 117 children – 80 percent girls – have been used in suicide attacks since January 2014.
“In the first three months of this year, the number of children used in bomb attacks is nearly the same as the whole of last year – this is the worst possible use of children in conflict,” UNICEF’s Regional Director for West and Central Africa, Marie-Pierre Poirier says. “These children are victims, not perpetrators. Forcing or deceiving them into committing such horrific acts is reprehensible.”
The report comes three years after the abduction of 276 schoolgirls by Boko Haram in Chibok, Nigeria, an event that garnered worldwide attention. Boko Haram conducts abduction to maintain its armed insurgency and raids villages and towns across the region to fill the gaps in its fighting forces. In 2015 alone, 1500 children were deprived of liberty in the region and 592 remain in captivity. The report outlines how abducted girls are subject to sexual abuse, sold in slave markets and forced into marriages with Boko Haram fighters. Abducted boys are trained as armed guards or to provide logistics on the front lines.
The children who manage to escape Boko Haram face significant obstacles. Forces operating in the region capture children who manage to escape, and place them in camps to determine the extent of their indoctrination. Children who are returned to their families often keep their ordeals secret in order to avoid stigmatization in their communities. A number of NGOs work in the camps and communities to provide basic amenities and psychosocial services, but UNICEF realizes that more needs to be done to facilitate reintegration of these children. Only 40 percent of the organisation’s $154 million funding appeal for the Lake Chad Basin was met in 2016, resulting in gaps in essential services and delays in implementing community-based solutions.
The increase in ‘suicide’ attacks comes as Boko Haram becomes increasingly subject to military scrutiny. The Multi-National Joint Task Force has forced ISIS-linked Boko Haram’s estimated 7,000 fighters to retreat into Nigeria’s Sambisa Forest. In response, the group has switched tactics, from holding towns and territory to a scorched-earth guerrilla-style insurgency. This has resulted in an increased use of hit and run attacks and suicide bombers.
The Lake Chad basin provides a fertile breeding ground for the insurgency which began in 2003. The group preaches a fundamentalist interpretation of the Qu’ran, rails against Western influence (its name translates roughly as ‘Western education is forbidden’), and exploits the region’s ethnic and sectarian tensions. According to UNICEF, “Decades of extreme poverty in the region and inadequate education may have facilitated the recruitment of the local population, in return for food security, power at the barrel of a gun and moral righteousness with spiritual rewards”. The governments of the region have failed to address these root causes. While negotiations are being conducted to secure the release of the Chibok Girls, this represents the furthest extent of the talks. A January 2017 report from UN Assistant-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Tayé-Brook Zerihoun, to the United Nations Security Council argued that only a comprehensive solution that addresses the humanitarian consequences and root causes of the conflict will be successful.
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