Saving The Armed Children Of Borno
History has shown us that over time, children have been extensively involved in military campaigns. In times of turmoil children represent one of the most vulnerable groups and are often exploited by warring parties for various reasons including combat, espionage, and sexual purposes.
The world over, an estimated 300,000 children under the age of 18 are involved in military forces or armed rebel groups. The role of children in warfare is fairly well documented, and as recent history shows, such exploitation has been common. Popular examples include World War I and II, the Spanish civil wars and more recently the use of children in suicide bombings by terrorist groups.
The recruitment and use of children by armed forces and armed groups has been a focus of international attention and has been widely condemned, yet children continue to be involved in adult wars. Many of these children, upon their release and reintegration into civilian life have returned home on their own, often to face an uncertain future and a further fight for acceptance from their families and communities.
Since 2002, Nigeria has unfortunately had her share in terrorism and child exploitation, having been ravaged by Boko Haram. The armed group has carried out targeted attacks against police, religious leaders, politicians, and public and international institutions, and has looted, burned and destroyed schools, houses, churches, and mosques. Boko Haram has abducted and forcibly recruited thousands of boys and girls.
Dr. Hussein Abdu, Country Director, Plan International Nigeria, disclosed that 14.8 million people have been affected by the Boko Haram crisis in the North East in the last six years. He stated that “in Borno State alone, it is reported that over 300 schools have been severely damaged or destroyed and at least 196 teachers and 314 school children were killed from 2012 to 2014 December. Children have become deliberate targets, often subjected to extreme violence from sexual abuse and forced marriage to kidnappings, slavery and brutal killings. Apart from being recruited as child soldiers, children have also become weapons used as suicide bombers. In the last three years, nearly 100 women and girls have been deployed for attacks”.
Boko Haram’s campaign of violence has had a severe impact on children. Schools in Borno State, many of which have been closed since March 2014, are only now re-opening. Boko Haram has stalled the development of children across the state. Perhaps of more immediate concern is the pervasive issue of Children Associated with Armed Forces and Groups (CAAFAG). Boko Haram has recruited thousands of minors – mostly through force. In addition, concerted and continuous acts of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) have led to a situation where a significant number of women held in Boko Haram camps are pregnant with offspring of members of the violent extremist group. However, Boko Haram is not the only armed group in Borno State that has used children. Although the leadership of the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) denies it, the vigilante group has used children extensively.
While there are no verified population figures for CAAFAG, research indicates that children have been used extensively by armed groups in Borno State. CAAFAG likely reside in every ward and community in Maiduguri. Children who are, or have been, associated with armed groups are likely to exhibit higher levels of psychological trauma, a greater propensity for violence and a higher incidence of drug abuse.
The CAAFAG problem is an issue that needs to be tackled with a sense of urgency before it degenerates into another nightmare; Neem Foundation a non-profit, non-governmental organization established as a direct response to the problem of insecurity in Nigeria, has a special focus on providing rehabilitation, reintegration, and psychosocial support services to victims of insurgency in the North East in partnership with UNICEF, organized a three day forum in Maiduguri from 7th-9th of November 2016, to define the roles and responsibilities of all key stakeholders with regard to identification, rehabilitation and reintegration of CAAFAG.
The organization hopes to improve awareness and strengthen capacity and coordination among child protection actors in order to establish the foundation for the development of a long term strategy for the reintegration of CAAFAG. The organization has equally organized technical sessions structured to design and develop a Strategic Action Plan on the Reintegration of CAAFAG, taking into account the recommendations and experiences of diverse stakeholders currently providing services to children in the North East.
The post-conflict denouement comes with an entirely different set of challenges as these children need varying degrees of psycho-social support, re-socialization, drug rehabilitation, remedial education, skills acquisition and economic empowerment in order to be fully reintegrated into
society. Neem Foundation intends to initiate a process where stakeholders are sensitized on the needs of CAAFAG, aware of the different challenges surrounding them, and crucially make a case for the prevention of child recruitment and the provision of adequate treatment for all CAAFAG. The rehabilitation and reintegration of CAAFAG should remain a priority if we are to ensure the long term peace and stability of insurgency-affected areas.
As a people we need to put in practice the African tradition of honoring children before they can honour us. Borno State CAAFAG, having had key years of educational and skills development substituted by indoctrination and violence, may be liable to turn to violence and crime in future. There are already concerns that the neglect of CAAFAG could lead to a similar sense of marginalization and disaffection that fuelled the rise of Boko Haram.
By Mustapha Alhassan, Emmanuel Bosah, Ahmad Jumare, Ashraf Usman, and Faisal Wando