On Tuesday 22nd August, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) stated that the number of children being used as suicide bombers by the deadly Islamic group – Boko Haram – has quadrupled since 2016.
According to the UN agency’s report, a total of 27 children majorly girls were used as “human bombs” from January to April. The number as of August has greatly increased to 83. Among the 83 children, 55 were girls with many of them being under the age of 15 while 27 were boys. One was an infant strapped to a girl. This is a sky rocketing value from its last years report Beyond Chibok which centered on the recent use of children as “human bombs.”
Now in its eighth year, the Boko Haram insurgency has claimed over 20,000 lives and forced more than two million people to flee their homes. Children make up 1.3 million of the 2.3 million people displaced by the conflict.
According to Reuters, the frequency of suicide bomb attacks in north-eastern Nigeria has increased in the past few weeks, killing at least 170 people since June 1. The attacks have majorly been conducted in crowded markets, mosques and camps for internally displaced people.
UNICEF also stated that it is “extremely concerned about an appalling increase in the cruel and calculated use of children, especially girls, as ‘human bombs’ in northeast Nigeria. The use of children in this way is an atrocity.”
Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF’s regional director for West and Central Africa also said: “these children are victims, not perpetrators. Forcing or deceiving them into committing such horrific acts is reprehensible.”
Boko Haram which literally translates to ‘Western education is forbidden’ is trying to create an Islamic state in the Lake Chad region, which cuts across parts of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad.
While the insurgents once controlled a sizeable amount of land area in the north-east, a Nigerian military push in 2015 forced them back to camps in rural areas including the Sambisa Forest. Thus, the loss of territory has been accompanied by an increase in rebel tactics and bombing designed to terrorise civilians. Borno State, which is one of the worst affected areas, puts the death toll from the conflict at almost 100,000.
Furthermore, according to the report a 16-year-old girl from Chad lost her legs after being drugged and forced by Boko Haram to take part in an attempted suicide attack on a crowded market. Though the girl survived, her family initially rejected her “out of fear of stigma.”
Children who escape Boko Haram are often held in custody by authorities or ostracised by their communities and families. This further puts a strain on their possible re-integration into the society.
A Nigerian aid worker Rebecca Dali, who runs an agency that offers counselling for those who were abducted, said children as young as four were among the 209 escapees her organisation had helped since 2015.
Mrs Dali told Reuters on Monday at the United Nations in Geneva, where she received an award from the Sergio Vieira de Mello Foundation for her humanitarian work that “the former abductees are highly traumatised.”
Her team, which makes up former police officers, identified some returnees as having been trained as suicide bombers.
“There were two girls taught by Boko Haram to be suicide bombers … The girls confirmed that they were taught that their life was not worth living, that if they die detonating the bomb and killing a lot of people, then their lives will be profitable,” Dali said.
Alongside the brutal conflict and child bombers increase, north-eastern Nigeria is also experiencing a major humanitarian crisis. About 450,000 are expected to suffer from life-threatening malnutrition this year alone.
In response to the attacks by the insurgent group, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said on Monday that the country would “reinforce and reinvigorate” its fight against the group.