More than five years of fighting in northeastern Nigeria has produced a replay of Africa’s catastrophic history. Nearly 10,000 have died, over one million people have been displaced. Many schools have been closed. Abduction of girls is on the rise. And another ghost of wars past is reappearing: the recruitment of child soldiers.
Kidnapped by Boko Haram fighters or drawn into the now famous self-defence militia widely dubbed "the Civilian Joint Task Force", children - some as young as 13 - are forced to become soldiers, spies and porters. According to a local report, children now make up about 40% of the insurgents' total force strength of around 60,000. On the Civilian Joint Task Force side, senior members admit, children are nearly a quarter of the more than 10,000-strong self-defence forces.
In Africa, child soldiers have fought or are fighting in Angola, Liberia, Mozambique, Rwanda, the Sudan, Congo, Uganda and Sierra Leone. There are now an estimated 300,000 child soldiers worldwide, a figure that has increased by one-sixth during the last three years.
The Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) justifies its use of child soldiers as a necessity following increasing attacks by Boko Haram. ''The insurgents are many in number, and we need as many people as we can to fight them,'' says Bukkar, a senior member of the self-defence militia. ''These kids have lots of energy and are very important in this fight.'' For Boko Haram, who kill with impunity, the use of child warriors needs no justification.
Philip Obajo Jr, right, at site of original Boko Haram camp at Maiduguri
In a region where the insurgents enjoy a stronghold and kidnapped more than 270 schoolgirls last April, young civilians have been taking protection and justice into their own hands. In June 2013, discontent with Nigeria’s official Joint Military Task Force (JTF) spawned an unofficial offshoot - the CJTF - a loosely-organised network of vigilantes who have been credited with pushing Boko Haram out of the metropolitan center of Maiduguri in Borno State.
A growing concern now is the impact of the five-year-old conflict on children in northeastern Nigeria.
Despite strong legislative provisions, including the 2003 Child Rights Act, state-level child protection networks and humanitarian initiatives post the abductions of the girls in Chibok to assist survivors of violations, several gaps still exist in Nigeria’s child protection system. According to research and advocacy group, Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict, most of these violations - maiming and killing, sexual violence and abduction, among others - have occurred in northeastern Nigeria.
During my trip to Maiduguri last October, I met children who have been gravely affected by the insurgency and had lost hope of ever getting a better life. Children like Hauwa, a 16-year-old schoolgirl who told me she was never going to walk on the streets of Maiduguri alone because she feared she could be raped a second time. Her story, just like that of 12-year-old Mu’azu who watched his parents and two siblings killed one black Sunday in Maiduguri, left me in tears. But the story of a kid on the verge of having his youth snatched away still worries me.
Usman was 13 when he joined the CJTF in 2013, understandably to protect his community from Boko Haram attacks. Sadly, he has found life as a soldier more comfortable than having to be forced every morning to attend “school classes that are boring,” as he puts it.
Ruined houses in Baga after fighting between CJTF and Boko Haram
Like other boys in the CJTF brigade, he has become hardened and knows perfectly how to use a gun. But, unlike his peers forcefully conscripted by Boko Haram, Usman is trained to protect his people and not kill at will. Despite his motive, Usman’s new militia life is of huge concern, as he is fast learning the mean ways of war actors.
With hundreds of children actively taking part in the war, Nigeria may just begin to witness a familiar African problem where child soldiers find it very hard to reintegrate into the society at the end of conflicts.
In fellow West African countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone, former child soldiers face lots of stigmatisation as many still think their old lives of killing, theft and drug abuse haven’t left them. The children themselves have found it hard adjusting to a new environment.
For kids conscripted by Boko Haram, who once had fun playing around the compound with their peers and visiting friends after school hours, returning to that life if and when the war ends won't be easy.
Even if the society decides to forgive their atrocities, memories of innocent people killed or wounded for no just cause,and of helpless children orphaned and made homeless in poor places will always live to haunt them.