Photo credit: Mohammed Lere / IPS. March 18 (IPS) – Due to growing insecurity, Nigeria is gradually becoming one of the most dangerous places to live. The Global Terrorism Index 2020 identified the country as the third most affected country by terrorism. Boko Haram’s target audience for civilians increased 25% year over year and shepherd killings increased 26%. The two countries that are higher in the index are Iraq and Afghanistan.
According to the Nigeria Security Tracker, there were 2,769 violent deaths recorded between February 2020 and February 2021 in Borno state alone. Similarly, ransom kidnapping by armed groups has increased significantly over the past five years. Between 2011 and 2020, over $ 18 million was paid in ransom for abducted victims.
While uncertainty is widespread in Nigeria, the northern region is hardest hit. This is due to attacks by Boko Haram, banditry, conflicts between farmers and shepherds, kidnappings and ethno-religious conflicts. Unfortunately, children were not spared.
In the northeast, children have been murdered, kidnapped and used as sex slaves, forcibly recruited as child soldiers, and suffering from diseases and malnutrition in camps for internally displaced persons. According to the United Nations, almost 4,000 children were killed in just one year from 2015 to 2016. UNICEF reported that an estimated 1.9 million people are being displaced – and around 60% of them are children; many under five.
The growing phenomenon has manifested itself further in the recent wave of attacks on schools and kidnapping of students.
My study, published last year, shows why children have become targets for armed groups in northern Nigeria. This paper focuses on children in the Boko Haram conflict, which has been devastating northeastern Nigeria and Lake Chad for over 10 years.
Despite the fact that children in northern Nigeria have increasingly become the face of insecurity, the literature on child safety issues has remained silent. My study therefore aimed to examine the perspective of children in conflict.
I found that children were of strategic interest to both the terrorists and the state security forces. I came to the conclusion that insufficient attention was paid to child safety in Nigeria and that child safety should be included in the peace effort in northeastern Nigeria.
Children and Conflict in Northern Nigeria
The child dimension in violent conflict in northern Nigeria gained momentum in 2013 when Boko Haram adopted the strategy of direct attacks on schools, hospitals and centers for internally displaced persons.
It began with the midnight attack on a dormitory in Gujba, Yobe state, which resulted in the terrorist group killing 44 students in September 2013. Another boarding school was attacked five months later and 59 boys were murdered in the same state. In April 2014, 276 schoolgirls were kidnapped in Chibok, Borno state.
UNICEF said in its 2018 report that the group had abducted over 1,000 children since 2013. Between 2015 and 2016, the UN estimated that 3,909 children were killed.
Over the past five years, the rise of banditry has given attacks on children a new and dangerous dimension. On December 11, 2020, 333 students were abducted in Kankara, Katsina state. On December 20, 2020, 80 students from an Islamic school in Mahuta, Katsina state, were kidnapped. 27 students were abducted on February 17, 2021 in Kagara, Niger.
The last one happened on February 25 with the kidnapping of 317 school girls in Jangebe, Talata-Mafara, Zamfara state.
Why children are primary goals
Our study used a qualitative approach and relied on data from institutional reports from intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations, the United Nations Children’s Fund and the International Organization for Migration. Non-governmental organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, Mercy Corps, Open Doors, and media coverage.
The research showed that children were of strategic interest to the armed groups for many reasons. First, targeting children proved to be a powerful tool in negotiating the release of members of the group in prison and obtaining huge ransom money to buy weapons and finance their operations.
Second, the armed groups were interested in children in order to gain local and international attention, to show their strength, to seek international cooperation with similar groups and to increase their demands on the state authorities.
Third, children were useful in their military operations, especially terrorist groups. They could plant explosives, act as human shields or suicide bombers and spy on the other parties for not arousing suspicion.
Fourth, the attack on schools was in line with the central ideology of terrorism in the region, based on opposition to Western education. The mounting attacks indicated that the plan was to make the region unsafe for teaching and learning.
Fifth, girls were of interest to the armed groups for sexual exploitation. Kidnapped girls were sometimes raped or forced into marriages in the camps.
Nigeria needs to protect its children more
Child safety has not been properly considered in Nigeria. This explains the recent successful attacks on children. Child safety underlines the essence of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Nigeria is a party.
The government must take serious action to keep children safe by addressing the growing problem of insecurity that ravages the country. The paper underlines the need for specific programs that address the particular challenges of children in conflict areas, and not just include them in adult-oriented or general programs.
The international community, including key non-governmental organizations working for the rights and well-being of children, must also force the authorities to protect children and internationalize the problem of child insecurity in Nigeria.
Hakeem Onapajo, Lecturer at the Institute for Political Science and International Relations, Nile University of Nigeria
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