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Amnesty International (AI) on Wednesday told Nigerian government to urgently address its failure to protect and provide education to an entire generation of children in the Northeast.
A 91-page chilling report released to NigerianEye said the region has been devastated by “years of Boko Haram atrocities and gross violations by the military”.
The document titled ‘We Dried Our Tears’, addressed injustice against northern children, examined military’s “detention and torture” of kids in Borno, Adamawa States, and crimes against humanity perpetrated by Boko Haram.
It also revealed how international donors have bankrolled a “flawed programme that claims to reintegrate former alleged fighters, but which overwhelmingly amounts to unlawful detention of children and adults”.
Joanne Mariner, Acting Director of Crisis Response at Amnesty International, lamented that the past decade of bitter conflict between Nigerian military and Boko Haram has been an assault on children.
Mariner said Nigerian authorities risk “creating a lost generation unless they urgently address how the war has targeted and traumatized thousands of children Boko Haram has repeatedly attacked in schools and abducted as soldiers or ‘wives,’ among other atrocities”.
She stated that, “From mass, unlawful detention in inhumane conditions, to meting out beatings and torture and allowing sexual abuse by adult inmates – it defies belief that children anywhere would be so grievously harmed by the very authorities charged with their protection.”
AI recalled that between November 2019 and April 2020, it interviewed more than 230 people. 119 were children when they suffered crimes by Boko Haram, soldiers, or both. 48 children were held in military detention for months or years while 22 adults had been detained with underage.
Citing the abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls in Chibok in 2014, AI decried that Boko Haram continues to force parents to hand over boys and girls, under threat of death; continues to forcibly “marry” girls, young women, and continues to murder people who try to escape.
A 17-year-old girl who escaped Boko Haram after being abducted and held in captivity for four years described life in the Sambisa forest: “[My] wicked ‘husband’ always beat me. My daily activities included praying, cooking if there was food, [and] going for Quranic lessons. No movement was allowed, and no visiting friends.
“It was a terrible experience, and I witnessed different punishments, from shooting to stoning to lashing. I’d like to go to school, but there’s no money. The biggest help for me would be to go to school.”
She and most other former child “wives” interviewed — including some who returned with children born during captivity — had received little or no assistance in returning to school, starting livelihoods, or accessing psychosocial support.
On military detention, the report said the United Nations (UN) told AI it had verified the release of 2,879 children from military detention since 2015, although it previously cited a higher figure of children detained between 2013 and 2019.
“These statistics are likely to be a vast underestimate, and the UN has said its access to military detention is restricted so it cannot provide the actual number. Children are never charged and are denied the rights to access a lawyer, appear before a judge, or communicate with their families. The unlawful detentions may amount to a crime against humanity.
“Almost everyone fleeing Boko Haram, including children, is “screened” by the military and Civilian Joint Task Force – a process that, for many, involves torture until the person “confesses” to affiliation. Alleged members and supporters are held, often for months or years, in squalid conditions in detention centres including Giwa Barracks in Maiduguri and Kainji military base in Niger State.”
The report disclosed that every former detainee interviewed offered consistent, highly specific descriptions of the conditions: extreme overcrowding; a lack of ventilation amid stifling heat; parasites everywhere; and urine and faeces on the floor, because of the lack of toilets.
It bemoaned that tens of thousands of detainees have been held in these conditions and that the situation, “so extreme that they constitute the war crime of torture”, remains the same even after mass releases in late 2019 and early 2020.
AI quoted a 14-year-old boy Boko Haram abducted as a child before he fled and kept in military detention, as saying: “The conditions in Giwa are horrible, they could make you die. There’s no place to lie down, it’s hot. All your clothes were wet, like they put you in a river. Nobody has told me why I was taken there, what I did. I wonder, why did I run from [Boko Haram]?”
AI also documented violations at Operation Safe Corridor, a programme backed by millions of dollars in support from the European Union, United Kingdom, United States of America and other partners. The detention centre outside Gombe was set up in 2016 to rehabilitate alleged Boko Haram fighters or supporters.
In mid-May, Nigeria’s Defence Headquarters referred to repentant terrorists in the Deradicalization, Rehabilitation and Reintegration programme, as “clients” during a briefing by the Coordinator of Media Operations, Maj.-Gen. John Enenche.
Enenche confirmed that 280 “clients” have successfully undergone the programme and reintegrated into the society.
He added that 25 of them were repatriated to Niger Republic, while “603 clients are due to pass out in June 2020.”
In its findings, AI remarked that conditions are better at the Safe Corridor than other military detention-locations. Former detainees spoke positively about the psychosocial support and adult education there.
“But most of the men and boys there have not been informed of any legal basis for their detention and still lack access to lawyers or courts to contest it. Their promised six-month stay has in some cases extended to 19 months, during which time they are deprived of liberty and under constant armed guard.”
AI revealed that medical care was sorely lacking. ”Seven detainees died and the authorities did not even notify their families; released detainees conveyed the information instead.
“A vocational training programme that is part of Safe Corridor may amount to forced labour, since most detainees, if not all, have never been convicted of any crime and make everything from shoes to soap to furniture for no pay. Some detainees suffered serious injuries. A 61-year old former detainee said, “The caustic soda is dangerous. If it touches your body, it will remove the flesh”.
Osai Ojigho, Director of Amnesty International Nigeria, expressed dismay that none of the major donors to Safe Corridor – EU, UK, USA and others – would “sanction such a system of prolonged and unlawful detention for its own citizens, so why do they do so in Nigeria?”
“Nigeria’s armed forces must release all children being arbitrarily detained and halt other violations that appear aimed at punishing thousands of children, many of whom were also victims of Boko Haram’s atrocities. A commitment to children’s education and psychosocial recovery could pave a new path for the Northeast”, Ojigho counselled.