An international pressure group, the Human Rights Watch has accused the Nigerian military of detaining thousands of children as Boko Haram suspects, and without contact with the outside world.
The 50-page report released yesterday also said 250 or more detained children share a single cell, approximately 10-by-10 metres, with children as young as seven years old being made to experience the harsh conditions.
The Director, Children’s Rights Advocacy, HRW, Jo Becker said the report revealed how Nigerian authorities were detaining children often based on little or no evidence, adding that the children described beatings, overwhelming heat, frequent hunger, and being packed tightly in their cells as some of their ordeals.
The report is tagged: ‘They Didn’t Know if I Was Alive or Dead’: Military Detention of Children for Suspected Boko Haram Involvement in Northeast Nigeria,’
Becker said: “Children are being detained in horrific conditions for years, with little or no evidence of involvement with Boko Haram, and without even being taken to court. Many of these children already survived attacks by Boko Haram. The authorities’ cruel treatment adds to their suffering and victimises them further.
“The Nigerian government should sign and put into effect a United Nations handover protocol to ensure the swift transfer of children apprehended by the military to child protection authorities for rehabilitation, family reunification, and community reintegration. Other countries in the region, including Chad, Mali, and Niger, have already signed such protocols,” he said.
According to him, between January 2013 and March 2019, the Nigerian armed forces detained over 3,600 children, including 1,617 girls, for suspected involvement with non-state armed groups, adding that many were detained at Giwa Military Barracks in Maiduguri, the main military detention facility in Borno State.
He said in June 2019, HRW interviewed in Maiduguri 32 children and youths who had been detained as children at Giwa barracks for alleged involvement with Boko Haram, stressing that none of the children said they were taken before a judge or appeared in court, as required by law, and that only one saw someone who he thought may have been a lawyer. “None were aware of any charges against them. One was detained when he was only five years old.
“Nigerian authorities arrested the children during military operations, security sweeps, screening procedures for internally displaced people, and based on information from informants. Many of the children said they were arrested after fleeing Boko Haram attacks on their village or while seeking refuge at camps for internally displaced people. One said he was arrested and detained for more than two years for allegedly selling yams to Boko Haram members.
“Approximately one-third of the children interviewed said security forces beat them during interrogation after their arrest or at Giwa barracks. One girl who was forced to marry a Boko Haram member said after soldiers captured her, she was beaten with their belts, while being called Boko Haram wife. Others said they were beaten if they denied association with Boko Haram,” Becker noted.
The report described children sharing a single cell, approximately 10-by-10 metres, with 250 or more detainees.
“They said the stench from a single open toilet was often overwhelming and that detainees sometimes fainted from the heat. In Maiduguri, the average annual maximum temperature is 35 degrees Celsius and temperatures can exceed 40 degrees. Nearly half of the children said they saw dead bodies of other detainees at Giwa barracks. Many said they suffered frequent thirst or hunger.
“Fifteen of the children had been detained for more than a year, and some had been held for more than three years. None had been allowed to contact family members outside the detention center, nor had the authorities contacted their families. Such cases may constitute enforced disappearances, a serious human rights violation.
“The children said that Giwa has a cell for boys under 18 with children as young as seven, or even younger. The military also detains children in adult cells, where children said food and water were scarcer and conditions even more crowded. Very young children and babies are kept with their mothers and older girls in a separate cell. Three girls said they saw male soldiers making sexual advances toward female detainees or removing girls from the cell for long periods for what they believed was sexual exploitation,” the report said.
HRW therefore called on Nigerian authorities to immediately release children currently in military custody, adding that if military or intelligence authorities have credible evidence of criminal offenses by children, they should transfer them to civilian judicial authorities to be treated in accordance with national and international juvenile justice standards.