In 2019, a colleague and I interviewed dozens of children in northeast Nigeria who had been detained in horrific conditions in a military prison for alleged association with the armed group Boko Haram. The children described beatings, overwhelming heat, frequent hunger, and being packed tightly in cells with hundreds of other detainees “like razorblades in a pack.” Most were never charged and held for months or years with no outside contact.
Since 2013, at least 4,000 children have been detained in Nigeria. Many were abducted against their will or apprehended when fleeing Boko Haram attacks. Some were only five years old.
Our report, published in late 2019, helped prompt the release of 333 children from prison, but authorities refused to allow the United Nations access to the prison or to enter an agreement to ensure children were not military detained and were provided immediate reintegration assistance.
Last week, the Nigerian government finally signed a “handover protocol” with the UN agreeing that children taken into military custody on suspicion of involvement with Boko Haram should be transferred within seven days to civilian authorities for reintegration. This is an important milestone that will help prevent the military detention of children and ensure they receive needed support.
Nigeria is not the only country where children have been detained for alleged involvement with armed groups. Last year the UN reported that 2,864 children were detained for suspected association with armed groups in 16 countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Libya, Myanmar, Somalia, and Syria.
Handover protocols are practical measures to ensure that instead of prison, children affected by conflict can be reintegrated into their communities. In Mali, for example, dozens of children have been transferred from military to civilian authorities for reintegration thanks to a handover protocol signed in 2013. Chad, Niger, and Burkina Faso have also signed protocols.
Children affected by conflict need rehabilitation and schooling, not prison. Nigeria’s new agreement should help children get the support they need. Other governments should follow its example.