Children in Conflict Zones

About 3,500 children were recruited as child soldiers by armed groups in Northeast Nigeria between 2013 and 2017, according to the United Nations (UN). In 2018, the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) reported that a local militia fighting Boko Haram insurgents in the Northeast released about 833 child soldiers. According to UNICEF, the released children were among the nearly 1,500 boys and girls recruited by vigilante groups. As the conflict in the Northeast and other emerging vistas of violence worsens, the use of children as child soldiers may persist. Added to this, the vulnerability of children in the face of mounting violence and conflict is still dire.

Beyond recruitment as child soldiers, many young people are also vulnerable to violent attacks, especially in places they seek education. Between December 2020 and May 2021, about 800 students have been kidnapped by armed groups in Nigeria. Within this period, more than 1 billion have been cumulatively demanded as ransom. For example, in February 2021, bandits demanded ₦800 million to release the kidnapped Kagara schoolboys. On 4th May 2021, 17 out of 23 kidnapped students of Greenfield university were released by bandits. Five of the students were killed last week by the bandits in a bid to put pressure on the demanded ransom of ₦100 million. Many children in Nigeria’s violent hotspots are either victims or spoils of war, facing coerced membership of armed groups or kept as bargaining chips.

Multiple efforts by the Nigerian security agencies and their development partners have been to prevent the violence against children and the aftermath of the violent exposure. Nigeria’s security agencies have continually been deployed to the hotspots in reaction to and prevention of attacks. However, these efforts have not stopped new incidents. Also, the donor community’s efforts have been instrumental in securing the release of children used as child soldiers. For example, the 833 children released from the Civilian Joint Task Force (C-JTF) in 2018 is part of commitments to end the recruitment of children during armed conflict. In 2017, the C-JTF signed an action plan to put measures in place to end and prevent child recruitment. A UNICEF representative confirmed the effort of C-JTF as part of the commitment to upholding international humanitarian law, human rights, and other regional and national legislations, protecting children’s rights.

The end of children’s involvement in armed fighting may be the beginning of their struggle towards social acceptance and self-reliance. UNICEF, since 2017, has supported the social and economic reintegration of more than 8,700 children released from armed groups in Nigeria. The support structures include family tracing, safe return to their communities, psychosocial support, vocational training and informal apprenticeships. However, many more children are still trapped in armed groups as child soldiers, and others face consistent discrimination after disengagement from armed fighters.

Immediate efforts must be to sustainably support the disengagement process of children from armed fighting and creating a conducive environment upon their return. Therefore, new conversations and local engagements are needed in designated communities for the reintegration of children. The travails of frozen and existing conflicts form the basis of discrimination and possible mob attack of those formerly associated with armed groups. The Nigerian government must collaborate with its development partners to arrange grassroots advocacy frameworks to set the motion for the acceptance of children rescued from armed groups. This should also involve tailored psychosocial support to their families and communities. The overarching idea is to provide a safe environment for former child soldiers to live a more rewarding life and move above the vulnerability of re-joining armed groups.

Addressing security and socioeconomic deficits will aid the prevention of the recruitment of child soldiers and other challenges children face. A study conducted in Borno and Kaduna states that the high incidence of unemployment and poverty is a dominant factor for youth engagement in religious-based violence. Existing socioeconomic conditions, which are worsened by violence, predisposes young people, including children, to criminality and membership of armed groups. Investing in human capital will improve lives, provide better economic opportunities and empower the people to be self-reliant. Intervention programmes in the conflict zones must increase projects’ components that seek to socioeconomic challenges young people face..