Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria is facing an unprecedented crisis in the Northeast which has now spread to the entire Lake Chad Basin region including parts of Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. The Crisis caused by the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram has displaced 2.5 million people making it the second largest displacement crisis in Africa. The danger of a protracted crisis in the Lake Chad region can have serious implications for the stability of the entire Sahel, a region already impacted by the explosive mix of violent extremism, hunger, displacement and climate change. The international community is about to meet in Oslo on Feb 24th to bring more attention and funding to the crisis in Nigeria and Lake Chad region, including the sensitive issue of continued abduction of children, especially girls and continued forced child marriage.
The Humanitarian crisis is well documented: ten million people are desperately in need of life-saving aid in the Lake Chad Basin region with 7.1 million people facing hunger on a daily basis and living on the edge of famine. 4.4 million of these people are living in Nigeria alone. Yet it is arguably one of the most unreported crisis anywhere in the world. While the world hears about terrorist attacks in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Europe, the brutal acts of violence against civilian populations in Northeast Nigeria go largely unnoticed.
Child protection and Mitigating the abduction of Girls
Behind the severe humanitarian crisis lies another crisis of child abduction with major gender implications as thousands of young girls in the region have been or are being used in conflict hostilities.
A recent New York Times article reported from Maiduguri, the capital city of Borno state, quoted the Executive Chairman of the State Emergency Management Agency’s estimate that 13,000 girls, above the official report of 9,000, have been abducted since 2009. The abduction of the 276 Chibok schoolgirls nearly three years ago, in April 2014, from a government girls secondary school in Borno state of NE Nigeria, brought some media attention to the issue and to the havoc caused by Boko Haram terrorists.
A social media campaign: #Bringbackourgirls put the spotlight on the situation in Northern Nigeria but it petered out after the failure to recover the girls despite international efforts. Thanks to negotiations between the Nigerian Government and Boko Haram, mediated by the Swiss government and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), 21 of the girls were reunited with their families last October. About 200 of them are yet to be found.
The Chibok girls, however, represent only about 0.1 percent of the girls abducted according to the Borno State Emergency Management Agency. Brutal violations of human rights and humanitarian law including forced child marriage as a weapon of war remain underreported. For example, refugee camps are being targeted by suicide bombers who are frequently children, and 75% of them are girls. “In late January, in the Borno capital, Maiduguri, a teenage girl blew herself up. “She had a baby strapped to her back – a way to evade checks and body searches,” said a recent article by the UN World Food Programme.
Last month the UN Assistant Secretary General and UN Humanitarian Coordinator for the Sahel spoke in Washington about a visit to a town that was devoid of any children under the age of five as anecdotally the community said they had all died. Given the vast majority of people displaced are children (54%), these challenges and ways to strengthen the protection of children in armed conflict and the use of girls and boys in hostilities should be openly discussed.
Throughout January 2017 there were repeated attacks by Boko Haram in Nigeria as well as in Niger and Cameroon, and more attacks in Borno state in an effort to topple the government and create an Islamic state. On Jan 29th motorists were ambushed just outside Maiduguri. In December 2016, 70 incidents were reported in the region of the Lake Chad basin. But casualties are relatively low compared to other terrorist hotspots such as Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq, yet the brutality and crimes against destitute people, including the use of young girls as suicide bombers, continue. The attacks on these camps of displaced people rarely reach the international media. So why does this aspect of the crisis remain so underreported?
With so many unresolved crises around the world, the ability of the international community to deal with yet another one with no solution in site seems to be limited. And in a country like Nigeria, considered middle income with oil revenue and capacity to manage its own problems, the international focus has been to provide humanitarian support and support for the presence of a multinational joint military force authorized by the African Union. But there is also international frustration at Nigeria’s well-known corruption and interaction with the military in their handling of the crisis in the North. The humanitarian community was horrified at the accidental bombing by the Nigerian military of a refugee camp in the north killing more than 100 and injuring over 400 including six Nigerian Red Cross workers.
The UNHCR has increasingly raised the need to protect civilians in NE Nigeria through measures such as respecting International Humanitarian Law and the incorporation of human rights principles into the rules of engagement for the Nigerian Military Forces. An estimated 6.1 million people are in need of protection services, out of whom 2.4 million are targeted by humanitarian agencies for assistance.
To date, humanitarian agencies are planning to reach 5,500 children and women associated with armed groups, and victims of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) for reintegration services. So far, 555 children and women associated with armed groups, and victims of SGBV have been assisted with reintegration. Among them were 143 girls aged under-18 years who were subjected to sexual violence by Boko Haram. There are also plans to provide psychosocial support to 650,000 children, including 12,000 unaccompanied and separated children.
The under-reported gender issue of abduction, forced child marriage and sexual gender-based violence in this crisis remains worrisome. Specific gender-focused counter-extremism strategies may be required to effectively deal with threats. A gender-focused protection strategy for the crisis in NE Nigeria is urgently needed with options on what could be done to put human rights up front. The upcoming international conference in Norway this month for Nigeria and Lake Chad region would be a good place to put this on the table.