In Nigeria’s volatile northeast region, children remain direct and indirect targets of unrelenting jihadist fighters. From being killed or kidnapped to forced displacement, where they face complex humanitarian challenges. While many are predisposed to joining armed groups due to socio-economic challenges, others are recruited through coercive measures such as abductions and other life-threatening circumstances. About 300,000 children have been killed and over one million displaced in northeast Nigeria, according to United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). As the jihadist war, bandits’ violence, cultism, group conflict, and violent secession struggles and clampdowns rage on, the harsh realities of Nigerian children caught in the web of violent conflicts continue.
Violent conflict exacerbates the challenges facing children beyond the northeast. There are about 13.2 million out-of-school children in Nigeria, according to Nigeria’s Minister of State for Education, Mr. Chukwuemeka Nwajuba. Also, the recent sit-at-home orders in the southeast, attacks, and large-scale kidnapping in schools by bandits are threatening the efforts of many Nigerian children to access education. Since December 2020, about 800 children have been kidnapped in Nigeria. Cumulatively, over ₦1 billion have been demanded as ransom within this period. For example, in February 2021, bandits demanded ₦800 million to release the abducted Kagara schoolboys. Limited access to education prevents children from gaining knowledge and skills for self-reliance, which makes them vulnerable to conflict, its triggers, and consequences.
Many Nigerian children caught in the web of conflict are both victims and perpetrators. The likely challenges that are prevalent in violent hotspots also make children vulnerable to conflict entrepreneurs. In 2018, the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund reported that a local militia fighting Boko Haram insurgents released about 833 child soldiers in northeast Nigeria. According to UNICEF, the released children were among the nearly 1,500 boys and girls recruited by vigilante militias. Continued violence, gaps in security measures, and human capital deficits will continue until peace and security are restored.
To address the plight of Nigerian children affected by violent conflict is to engender children-tailored intervention efforts. In response to the 2014 abduction of schoolgirls in Chibok, Borno state, the Global Business Coalition for Education and A World at School launched a ‘Safe Schools Initiative’. Despite an initial $10 million fund and take-off with 500 pilot schools in Northern Nigeria, many kids still face grave dangers in learning places. State governments must review school arrangements based on conflict and security risks in violent zones. The practice of boarding schools without adequate security provision in areas prone to armed men’s attacks must be abolished to reduce school children’s vulnerability. In addition, the Nigerian government must increase the securitisation of communities prone to attacks.
The Nigerian government must focus on sustainable and verifiable solutions to out-of-school children. The country faces a severe challenge to ensure all children, particularly the most disadvantaged, attend, stay and learn in school. While enrolment rates are reportedly improving, actions must be sustained to ensure improved education and retention of children in school. The much-talked-about Almajiri programme is a contributive factor to the number of out-of-school children. Therefore, the federal government should collaborate with state governments, development agencies, faith-based organisations to tailor its school enrolment solutions to address the Almajiri situation. To promote the sustainability of school enrolment, government must produce a curriculum that will interweave formal education with Islamic education. This strategy will form the incentive for the massive enrolment of Almajiri children. Long-term benefits of school enrolment will add to efforts to stabilise conflict zones and upgrade degraded human capital development.