Senior Deputy Director, Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies
The murderous group in Nigeria, known to the outside world as Boko Haram, has reportedly changed its name to the Islamic State’s West African Province after recently pledging allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). With the conferred legitimacy and internal consolidation associated with this client-patron relationship, it seems likely that the group is well positioned to remain an active threat to Nigeria and the most dangerous Islamist group in West Africa.
Many of Boko Haram’s most recent attacks make sense when you consider the group’s name means “western education is forbidden”. The group’s war on education has not gone unnoticed. Last week it carried out two attacks on educational institutions in the northeastern part of the country. Amnesty International has reported that the group, which now controls almost 20% of Nigeria, “oppose anything they see as being ‘influenced by the West’ including voting and secular education”.
As part of this larger repulsive reality, however, is the fact the group is also waging a direct war on youth. To this day over 1.5 million Nigerians have been internally displaced and forced from their homes because of Boko Haram; half of them are children.
In the much more media-documented conflict in Iraq and Syria, the world has been shocked by ISIS’ use of child soldiers—they have recently announced and glorified the death of their youngest combatant who was just 10 years old. Unfortunately, their Sub-Saharan affiliate has been emulating them. Boko Haram’s media arm, Al-Urwa al-Wuthqa, has released photos of kids being trained to use AK-47s. Experts believe children make up 40% of their approximate 10,000 strong force. While some children have been deployed to fight the Nigerian army, there is conclusive evidence that children as young as 8 have been drugged and used as suicide bombers against civilians.
Although the Nigerian army has historically been criticized for its ineffectiveness and corruption under former-President Goodluck Jonathan, there is some indication that the election of Muhammadu Buhari has catalyzed a more robust offensive against Boko Haram. Empowered by the military support of Niger, Chad and Cameroon, the Nigerian army last week successfully rescued hundreds of women and children who had been kidnapped by the group. While it is still unknown whether the female students taken from Chibok a year ago that launched the social media campaign #BringBackOurGirls were among them, what is known is that 214 of the 234 females rescued were visibly pregnant. UNICEF’s definition of child soldiers includes any minors who are used as “combatants, messengers, porters and cooks and for forced sexual services”.
From a legal and moral perspective, every aspect of Boko Haram’s violence in Nigeria and West Africa demands an international response to help national governments protect civilians from mass atrocity crimes. Under the Rome Statute, the recruitment and use of child soldiers is clearly defined as a war crime and arguably a crime against humanity.
As the world is focused on combating ISIS, not enough support has been directed to the African states fighting Boko Haram. While Canada and likeminded countries have been active in mobilizing resources to degrade ISIS in the parts of Iraq and Syria under its control, one wonders why not more has been done to combat its African cousin that is guilty of equal brutality and human rights abuses.
We must ask ourselves, as did Nigerian Nobel Prize winning author Wole Soyinka, whether we have become in some way complicit in “enabling (an) environment of impunity through the pronouncements of a school of external liberal observers, ever-ready to accept the inexcusable”?
Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram’s leader, has made clear the group intends to kill all Muslims who “follow democracy” and that he and his brothers in arms are waging a war “against Christians and democracy”. The plans he has for children in carrying out this war should leave no room for armchair foreign policy critics to advocate inaction.