LAGOS, Nigeria — The United Nations verified the abduction of 4,278 children in 21 countries last year in its recent annual report on children and armed conflict, but it failed to acknowledge widespread kidnappings throughout northwest and north-central Nigeria that were recorded by one of its own agencies in 2021.
Almost a quarter of abductions last year — 1,030 — were reported in Somalia, the country with the highest toll, according to the report compiled by the UN’s Children and Armed Conflict office. The office was mandated in 1996 by the General Assembly to advocate for the protection of children unwittingly caught up in wars. Virginia Gamba, who has specialized in disarmament in her previous work at the UN and in her native Argentina, leads the office as a special representative of Secretary-General António Guterres. Her team does the research for the report, but it goes out under his name.
Although Somalia’s numbers are documented in the study, at least 1,004 kidnappings from 25 school raids across northwest and north-central Nigeria, recorded by Unicef as of November 2021, did not make it into the report.
It is a grim, numbers-heavy catalog of some of the worst abuses known against children in conflict zones — including abductions, recruitment of children as armed soldiers, killing, maiming, sexual abuse and attacks on schools and hospitals. (Maiming was the most prevalent atrocity, stemming from land mines and other explosive devices.) The report indicates which countries should be a priority for the UN in its work protecting and advocating for children’s human rights in warlike settings.
Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, drew sensational headlines and spurred a global movement surrounding the 2014 kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls in Chibok, Borno state (in the northeast), including the attention of Michelle Obama, when she was the American first lady. But the crisis, which hasn’t disappeared, is back in the shadows.
“I do not like to speculate. If I have to, I will say the international community has not started taking serious note of the fact that terrorism has spread from northeast Nigeria to other parts of northwest and north-central Nigeria,” Confidence McHarry, a security expert with SBM Intelligence, a geopolitical analysis firm, told PassBlue from Nigeria. “If you recall, schools were even shut down due to the attacks.”
Unicef’s numbers not verifiable?
Gamba’s office told PassBlue in an email response why it did not include information about the northwest and north-central regions of Nigeria in the recent report, saying that the data do not meet its Monitoring Report Mechanism (MRM) standard to verify the crimes.
“The veracity and accuracy of the information provided in the reports are crucial,” the office said. “Information in the reports generated under the MRM identifies parties to the conflict as perpetrators of grave violations against children. Only the information verified to the highest standards used within the UN system can be reflected in the reports.”
The 4,278 total abductions in 2021 recorded by the children and armed conflict office are just one part of the annual study. It is presented to the UN Security Council every year in a public meeting to highlight the problem to the world as much as possible, given the severity of the crimes committed against children. This year, Gamba presented it to the Council on July 11. It records a range of violations against 19,165 children (13,633 boys, 5,242 girls and 290 children whose sex was unknown).
The report verified 5,555 instances in which children were maimed and 2,515 in which they were killed. In all, it recorded 23,982 instances of what are called “grave violations” committed against children in 21 countries and one region, with 1,337 of the abuses occurring earlier than 2021.
The one region that is cited is the Lake Chad basin, an area that spans northeast Nigeria, the Diffa region of southeast Niger, the Lac province of Chad and the far north of Cameroon. (Chad and Cameroon are classified as Central African countries; the others are West African.) UN human-rights monitors verified 928 violations against 826 children in the Lake Chad area. This region and five other countries, including Burkina Faso and all of Cameroon, where abuses against children were documented, were “not on the agenda of the Security Council,” the report states, referring to the formal list of “situations” and other matters that the Council monitors and acts on in its daily work.
Northeast Nigeria, where the Islamist militia group Boko Haram began its operations in 2009, is where most of the violations occurred in the Lake Chad region cited in the report, totaling 444 instances. The violations were followed by 224 violations in Diffa, 166 in Lac and 94 in northern Cameroon. All the precincts share borders with Nigeria in the northeast.
Of the total 826 children who were abused, 615 of them were abducted, with 211, or more than a third, documented in three northeastern Nigerian states: Adamawa, Borno and Yobe. Niger documented 207 kidnappings; 142 children were taken hostage in Chad; and 55 in northern Cameroon.
While the UN human-rights monitors focused on Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states, wholesale abductions of children were happening across schools in northwest and north-central Nigeria. In four occurrences, 461 students and staff were abducted by nonstate militias from four schools, including a primary one.
Kidnappings grab international headlines
On May 30, 2021, gunmen kidnapped scores of children from an Islamic school in Niger state in north-central Nigeria. The state’s officials later said the abductors took 136 children. They were held for 88 days; some were as young as four years old and at least six died in captivity.
On June 17, 2021, conflicting reports suggested that at least 102 students and staff at a federal government secondary school in Kebbi were abducted by a kingpin called Digo Gide. As of February 2022, all but 14 of the students were released after alleged payment of ransoms and prisoner swaps. While in captivity, 13 of the 14 were girls had reportedly been married off to gang members affiliated with the kidnappers. Between one and three of the students died in crossfire when the Nigerian military staged a rescue attempt two days after the abduction.
In early July 2021, 140 students were kidnapped from a secondary school in Kaduna, in the country’s northwest. As of February 2022, one was still reportedly being held by his kidnappers even after a ransom was paid. At least 75 students were kidnapped from a state government school in Zamfara, in the northwest, on Sept. 1, 2021. They spent 12 days in captivity.
None of these incidents made it into the UN’s children and armed conflict report, even though Unicef has been keeping its own records on the matter. In a press release in November 2021, Unicef said that it had recorded 1,004 kidnappings from at least 25 schools across Nigeria. These attacks led to the closing of schools deemed to be easy targets for the terrorists, many of whom do not seem to have direct links to Boko Haram.
Nigerian states affected by the attacks have developed differing initiatives to stem the tide, with the Nigerian military carrying out brief campaigns in some northwestern areas late last year. McHarry of SBM Intelligence said the reprieve enjoyed by schools in 2022 could end soon.
“There could be a likely repeat of such heists, given that the situation in the regions in question has yet to improve considerably,” McHarry said. “Although there has been an emphasis on school security following such mass abductions, the lack of improvement in general security may severely impede such attempts.”
Although the UN office on children and armed conflict does not have the power to prosecute any of the crimes, it strives to commit governments and other parties enmeshed in conflict to carry out action plans to end the recruitment of children in military activities and to stop attacking children altogether. In northeast Nigeria, the local government has agreed to work with the Civilian Joint Task Force — a volunteer militia that fights alongside Nigerian security forces and claims to have released more than 2,000 children, including those it has recruited since 2013.
But the Nigerian government prevented Gamba’s office from gaining access to a detention center in the same region, the UN report said. Gamba’s office confirmed to PassBlue that 45 children were detained by the Nigerian government in the northeast for having links to armed groups; 43 of them were released but two remain in detention. When pressed further on the matter, Gamba’s office said it could not share further details “due to confidentiality reasons.”
Yet the work of the UN office in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in central Africa, helped lead the government to imprison two military officials and begin the prosecution of two others for committing grave violations against children.
Meanwhile, the 13 girls who were forcibly married to terrorists in northwest Nigeria remain missing.
Schools in northwest and north-central Nigeria may have been free from attacks this year so far, but the price they could be paying is students’ education. On July 25, for example, the Ministry of Education ordered the closure of all government colleges in the capital city, Abuja. A similar directive was given to schools operated by the Nasarawa state government in north-central Nigeria. The summer holidays start from late July, but these orders indicate that states could never resume if the insecurity persists.
“Schools are closing, boarding schools have been closed across the northwest and north-central region,” Badar Musa, the advocacy and policy manager for the Save the Children organization in Nigeria, told PassBlue in an email. “Children are merged into schools that already exist and are operating above capacity in terms of population and capacity of school administrators. This is probably why we have not recorded mass abductions.”
Ukraine and the Sahel land on the agenda
Although there have been no known reports of school kidnappings in Nigeria this year, reports of major militias and possible state collaborators being held accountable for their past actions have not emerged, either. As Nigeria’s 1,000-plus children journey through post-abduction recovery, the UN report said that most violations it recorded in 2021 happened in Afghanistan, Congo, Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.
The report also said that due to the “severity” of conflicts occurring in Ukraine, Ethiopia and Mozambique, they would be added to its monitoring work immediately. That means that Gamba will need to hold discussions with Russia about its war against Ukraine and the children who are dying in the fighting there. Gamba and her team are also expected to intensify monitoring of the central Sahel region.
But there is only one way to stop the horrific abuse of children who happen to live in violent settings, Gamba told the Security Council on July 11, and that is to “promote and champion peace.”
“Let us strive to do so, for their sake.”
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Damilola Banjo is a staff reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.