Children released from military detention in Nigeria in July 2018. © UNICEF/UN038572/Naftalin

(Abuja) – The Nigerian government should comply with new United Nations Security Council recommendations to immediately release children from military detention for alleged association with Boko Haram, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should sign a protocol to hand children over from military custody to civilian authorities for reintegration.

In a new public statement on children and armed conflict in Nigeria on December 11, 2020, the Security Council’s working group on children and armed conflict expressed grave concern about the detention of children for suspected involvement with Boko Haram.

“Many children have been detained with no evidence of Boko Haram involvement, while for others, detention only adds to the suffering they’ve already experienced from Boko Haram,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Nigerian security forces should release any remaining children and immediately sign a handover protocol to ensure that children victimized by Boko Haram receive the help they need.”

Between January 2013 and March 2019, Nigerian armed forces detained over 3,600 children for alleged association with armed groups. A Human Rights Watch investigation in 2019 found that security forces detained children in severely overcrowded and squalid conditions. Children reported beatings, frequent hunger, and overwhelming heat. Most were never charged and held for months or years with no outside contact. Following publication of the report, security authorities released over 300 children from a maximum-security prison in Borno State.

The Security Council working group noted that security forces had released 1,591 children from detention facilities between January 2017 and December 2019. The current number of children detained is unknown, however, as the authorities have denied the UN access to detention facilities. The working group called on the government to provide the UN with unhindered access to such facilities.

In 2017, the Security Council working group urged Nigeria to adopt a handover protocol to ensure the swift transfer of children apprehended by security forces to civilian child protection authorities for reintegration. Such handover protocols have been adopted and put into operation in countries including the Central African Republic, Chad, Mali, Niger, Somalia, Sudan, and Uganda. In its new recommendations, the working group reiterated its call, urging Nigeria to expedite the review and adoption of a handover protocol.  

The working group condemned ongoing violations by Boko Haram against children, including killing and maiming, recruitment and use of children, abduction, sexual violence, and attacks against schools and hospitals. A report from the secretary-general issued in July stated that the UN had verified over 3,000 violations by Boko Haram against children in northeast Nigeria between January 2017 and December 2019, including over 1,000 child casualties and the use of over 200 children for suicide attacks.

The working group also commended the Nigerian government and the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) for implementing an action plan to end the recruitment and use of child soldiers. It noted that the CJTF had facilitated the disengagement of 2,203 girls and boys from its ranks and that the UN had verified no new cases of child recruitment since the plan was signed in September 2017.

“The Security Council has provided Nigerian authorities with concrete steps they should take to protect children affected by the conflict,” Becker said. “The government should carry out these steps as quickly as possible.”