International Human Rights organization, Human Rights Watch (HRW), has published a report accusing the Nigerian Military of illegally detaining children suspected of being involved with Boko Haram. According to the report, many of the children are arbitrarily apprehended and detained during military operations, security sweeps, screenings procedures outside of IDP camps, and based on information provided by informants.
Some of these children who are as young as five years old are held in detention for up to 18 months in squalid cells without contact with family members or a notification by the military of their whereabouts. The detention may be for short periods in local prisons or detention facilities, or lengthy periods at the Giwa military barracks in Maiduguri, Borno state.
Based on the interviews conducted by HRW for the report, these children were never taken to court and never appeared before a judge as required by law. Some were beaten by soldiers during interrogation or at the point of arrest and others by other child detainees in their cramped cells. Out of the 32 children and youths interviewed, ages 10 to 21, 27 of whom were under the age of 18 at the time of the interview, 15 were detained for over a year, and nine were detained for over two years for alleged association with Boko Haram.
These allegations have been debunked by the Nigerian Military, stating that apprehended children are well taken care of and that children caught in the act of terrorism are managed as victims of war, not suspects. “[They] are kept in secured places, where they are adequately fed, profiled and de-radicalized before their release,” the army said in a published statement.
The military also denies beating or torturing detained children and leaving them without educational and recreational activities. “The children are provided with regular feeding, clothing, requisite medical attention, in-house spiritual and educational tutoring and other welfare needs,” reads the statement.
A military official told Ventures Africa that the report by HRW is “one-sided, given only from the accounts of presumed victims.” However, he concurred that there could have been “very few cases of illegal detention of minors.”
The Nigerian military is no stranger to allegations of human rights abuses. The 2017/2018 report by Amnesty International (AI) which states that the military arbitrarily arrested and detained thousands of young men, women and children without access to lawyers and family members is akin to the recent report of HRW. “At least 200 children, as young as four, were detained in an overcrowded and unhygienic children’s cell. Some children were born in detention,” AI states.
Moving forward, HRW has advised the Nigerian government to take steps to protect the rights of children detained in connection to the insurgency. First, by signing and implementing a UN handover protocol in line with international standards. Secondly, an immediate release of all children currently in detention.
Thirdly, children liable for criminal offences should be transferred to civilian judicial authorities to be treated in accordance with international juvenile justice standards. And finally, grant unrestricted and unannounced monitoring of all child detention facilities by the UN and other appropriate humanitarian and child protection actors.
According to the UN, over 3,600 children were detained by the Nigerian military between 2013 and the first quarter of 2019. In 2017 alone, over 1,900 children were detained. This number is said to have dropped significantly with at least 2,200 children having been released since 2013.