UNICEF has released a report to coincide with the three-year anniversary since the devastating abduction of the Chibok girls in 2014. The report has called attention to the alarming number of children being used as suicide bombers by Boko Haram; a terrorist organisation based in Nigeria, with links to Islamic State. In the countries, Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad where Boko Haram is fighting, 27 children have been used in suicide attacks since the start of 2017.
The Boko Haram campaign is in its eighth year and has claimed more than 20,000 lives. The organisation gained global attention in 2014, after the abduction of more than 276 girls from the town of Chibok in Nigeria’s northeast. Amnesty International in solidarity with the ‘BringBackOurGirls’ campaign, has urged the Nigerian government to ensure that all abductees are accounted for and given support. Since 2014, 41 other cases of mass abductions by Boko Haram have occurred. These victims of less-publicized abductions have not received similar support from the Nigerian government. According to Amnesty International since April 2015 “thousands of women, men and children who were abducted by Boko Haram have escaped or been rescued, but thousands more remain in captivity”.
A defining feature of the Boko Haram campaign has been the increasing use of suicide attacks. Since January 2014, 117 children, of which 80 percent are girls, have been used in suicide attacks in the Lake Chad Basin region. In most cases, these children are not active participants but frightened victims who are coerced into these armed groups after their abduction by the Boko Haram. For those children who do manage to escape from Boko Haram, and makeup 1.3 million of the 2.3 million people displaced by the conflict, they are often held in custody by authorities and ostracized by their families and communities. Local militias have also formed to protect their communities from Boko Haram violence, but again have used children in their operations, causing these children to suffer from further trauma.
The UNICEF report has urged for improved conditions in camps for internally displaced people and the refugees from this humanitarian disaster. The suggestions include establishing programs to support and reintegrate children back into the community. Many communities are suspicious of children who have been linked to Boko Haram, causing these children to feel even more isolated, and vulnerable to martyrdom by again being coerced into accepting deadly missions.
For these reasons, the victims of Boko Haram need to be removed from being held in custody in armed groups, to a civilian environment as soon as possible. UNICEF has advocated for the development of ‘handover protocols’ to facilitate “a process of identification, age verification and quick transfer of a child from a military to civilian environment”. Once in the civilian environment, UNICEF has stated that these communities need to prevent children from being separated from their families and that they need to receive psycho-social support, safe accommodation, family tracing and reunification services.
Last year, UNICEF’s $145 million (US Dollars) appeal for the Lake Chad Basin was only 40 percent funded, meaning that much-needed services and community-based solutions were not fully implemented. Additionally, the Nigerian government has failed to aid the crisis. Just last week, activists in the capital city Abuja tried to urge President Muhammadu Buhari to do more to free the nearly 200 Chibok schoolgirls who still remain captive.
The Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Lamido Sanusi called for Nigerians to end their ‘culture of silence’ and to end “forced marriages, maternal and educational challenges, and other vices against the advancement of the girl-child.” He added “we ask ourselves where are they being brought back to when they are eventually released? What kind of society? How much better is the normal environment we all take for granted than Boko Haram camps? These questions ultimately force us to face the reality that the kind of society we have created is, in fact, the root cause for the emergence of groups like Boko Haram and occurrences like the Chibok tragedy.”
The Interim Country Director of Amnesty International Nigeria, Makmid Kamara has also commented on the Nigerian government’s actions. “The Nigerian government is making progress in recapturing territory held by Boko Haram but more needs to be done to prevent further abductions, bomb attacks and provide proper support to all those who have already been rescued or escaped Boko Haram captivity…This bloody Boko Haram insurgency and the security forces’ efforts to end it, has displaced more than two million people across the north-east and brought many to the brink of starvation. It is vital for the Nigerian people that those responsible for atrocities in the conflict are brought to justice.”
In response to the UNICEF report, a ‘call for action’ is needed to ensure those children who have escaped from the Boko Haram abductions receive support and that more children can be rescued. The Nigerian government needs to work with the international community and humanitarian organisations to ensure these needs can be met. In words of UNICEF’s regional director for West and Central Africa Marie-Pierre Poirier, “These children are victims, not perpetrators.”