Update: Nigeria’s military has released an additional 223 children from a maximum-security prison in Borno State, the epicenter of the conflict with Boko Haram. Some of the children had been in detention for up to four or five years. Since the release of Human Rights Watch’s report in September 2019, roughly 333 children have been released.
Several months ago, we traveled to northeast Nigeria to interview children who had been imprisoned on suspicion of being members of the extremist armed group Boko Haram. Their stories horrified us. We met a boy who was detained when he was only five years old. Another – whose village had been attacked by Boko Haram – told us he was detained for two years simply for selling yams to Boko Haram members in an effort to make money for his family. Many said they had actually been arrested while fleeing Boko Haram fighters.
Since 2013, Nigerian authorities have detained thousands of children. The vast majority are never charged with a crime or brought before a judge. They are held for months or even years, cut off from the outside world and their families. Children we interviewed described brutal beatings, deadly heat, frequent hunger, and being packed in squalid cells with hundreds of other detainees.
When we released our report in September, the Nigerian government issued a statement denouncing our findings and denying that they detain children. But within just 24 hours, the military initiated the release of 25 children from Giwa barracks, where most of the children we interviewed were held. The youngest was just 7.
This week the military released an additional 86 children and youth from the military prison. This is great news. With the help of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Nigerian Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development, they will soon be reunited with their families.
Releasing children from military detention is an important step. But the Nigerian military still denies the United Nations access to its military prisons. Without independent monitoring, we have no way of knowing how many children may still be imprisoned.
The Nigerian government should give the UN access to its military detention facilities, sign a formal handover protocol to ensure that children apprehended by the military are quickly transferred to appropriate child protection authorities, and end military detention of children once and for all.