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The impact of explosive weapons on children in Nigeria

For more than a decade, Nigeria has been marked by an ongoing conflict with Boko Haram affiliated terror groups. Historically, the three states most affected by Boko Haram are Adamawa, Borno and Yobe, in the north-east of the country. Two Boko Haram factions operate in Nigeria: Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) and Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’adati wal-Jihad (JAS) – though the distinction is rarely made in English language media. Military operations by the Nigerian Security Forces and affiliated forces against Boko Haram have resulted in a reduction in the territory controlled by those armed groups. Nonetheless, according to the UN, Boko Haram continues to “pose a serious threat, leading to a protracted humanitarian crisis and widespread human rights violations, including the killing, maiming and abduction of children and sexual violence against them.”

Boko Haram’s reign of terror in the region saw it ranked as the world’s deadliest terrorist group in 2016, and Nigeria was classified the third most terrorised nation in 2017. The group’s preference of attacking ‘soft targets’ –i.e. civilians – through the use of suicide IEDs has a substantial impact on children in Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin. In fact, according to the latest UN Children and Armed Conflict report, 58% of the 405 child casualties attributed to Boko Haram were due to the use of suicide IEDs borne by civilians.

While Boko Haram factions were responsible for the vast majority of child casualties (1,133 or 79% between 2017 and 2019), 20% (280) of child casualties were perpetrated by Nigerian Security Forces. It should be noted that most of the casualties attributed to Nigerian Security Forces were related to a single, tragic incident in January 2017 when a Nigerian army air strike accidentally hit a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Rann, Borno State, leaving 134 children dead and 101 injured.

Impact on Children
Violence against girls
Boko Haram has gained a gruesome reputation for using women girls to carry out suicide attacks against civilians. This is only half true. Research from Crisis Group has revealed key differences in the operations of the two Boko Haram factions JAS and ISWAP: “Whereas JAS continued to stage raids to capture civilians and plunder their resources, terrorise crowded markets and mosques with suicide bombings, and conduct mass killings and abductions at roadblocks, ISWAP focused primarily on military targets as well as, to a lesser extent, civilian targets associated in one way or another with the state – eg, local officials, chiefs, vigilantes and suspected informers. While ISWAP, like JAS, would sometimes direct suicide bombers at military targets, unlike JAS, it did not send women or children on these suicide missions, and it does not attack civilian targets.”

The New York Times reported that more than 540 women and girls have been deployed or arrested as suicide bombers in Nigeria since June 2014. These women and children are being used as ‘instruments of violence’, mainly for strategic purposes; they have been able to pass checkpoints more easily and are less likely to be searched than boys or men, they can blend into a crowd, and most importantly, they increase the group’s media attention. 

The start of this horrific trend can be traced back to 14 April, 2014, when Boko Haram entered a government-run school in Chibok, Borno State. The group kidnapped 276 female students; 57 of whom were able to escape, leaving 219 young female students in the hands of the terrorists. Two months later, the group used its first reported female suicide bomber. The specific woman that executed this attack was not identified as one of the kidnapped girls, however, considering the significant increase of female suicide bombings in the following months, it is almost certain that some kidnapped students were used in these attacks.  

In recent years, a number of devastating attacks by children occurred in North-Eastern Nigeria. UNICEF suggests that 20% of the total suicide bombers are children and 75% of those are female. Although 53% of reports do not state the age of the attacker, media reporting still shows alarming levels of children carrying out these attacks, with 29% carried out by teenagers (13-19 years old) and 6% by those under the age of 13. It is almost certain that the 53% of cases where the age is unknown also include a significant amount of children. Furthermore, as of February 28 2018, in the entire Boko Haram area of operations, a recorded 469 female suicide bombers were deployed or arrested in 240 incidents. These incidents have caused over 4,200 casualties in Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon. 

The young women and girls used for suicide bombings are mostly coerced into participation through shaming tactics. Young girls that survived captivity have provided corroborating statements that, if they refused to have sex with or marry the combatants, they would be used as suicide bombers. Some girls reported getting drugged after they refused sexual interaction and waking up with a bomb strapped to their bodies, followed by instructions to attack civilian targets. If the girls are old enough to have children, they hide bombs under their hijabs pretending to carry a baby. However, because these tactics were soon known by security forces, the group evolved to a more horrific tactic of strapping actual babies to the women’s backs to conceal the explosives.  

If the girls are too young to properly carry out the instructions, the bomb will be detonated remotely by a third party. Moreover, besides the kidnapping of girls, some families even donate their daughters to Boko Haram. This is highly likely to be out of fear of targeted attacks. 

The ongoing use of young women and girls has raised a high level of paranoia amongst civilians and security forces. This, indirectly, increases the threat to other young girls in public. In 2015, a young girl wanted to pass a checkpoint and refused to be checked. The girl was, consequently, beaten to death by locals and set on fire afterwards because the locals believed she was wearing explosives underneath her head scarf. It later emerged that she wasn’t wearing any explosives and her refusal to be checked was because she was intimidated and scared.

The constant use of suicide bombers against public targets such as mosques, schools, markets and hospitals substantially increases the risk of children being impacted by the bombings. Boko Haram has specifically targeted schools in recent years, leaving a large number of children without access to education. In fact, children in Nigeria account for 5% of out-of-school children worldwide. The North-East of Nigeria, where the conflict has been most prominent, has the lowest literacy rates. According to Save the Children, Boko Haram has killed an estimated 2,259 school teachers and destroyed, damaged or looted more than 1,400 schools; consequently, more than 600,000 children have lost access to education. 

In addition to effects on education, explosive violence has had a significant negative impact on the healthcare services available in the North-East of Nigeria. The restricted access to humanitarian aid has created a major obstacle to treat children with blast injuries caused by IEDs. Next to the loss of limbs, facial injuries are the most common with children. These can be caused by picking up unexploded ordnances and possibly roadside IEDs. Research also shows that children in Nigeria are more likely to die from blast injuries than adults, due to the lack of blood transfusion protocols suited for children and the absence of tourniquets designed specifically for children to stop massive bleeding. Even when children survive blast injuries, Nigerian health facilities have very few resources to treat long-term disabilities. Furthermore, frequent attacks on IDPs have resulted in a reduced likelihood of survival, as access to healthcare is very limited and malnutrition amongst children in the region is extremely high.  

Boko Haram’s power in the region has decreased in comparison to the peak of their operations between 2014 and 2016. This is in part due to the split of the organisation in 2016 into JAS and ISWAP. Attacks against civilians using children have not stopped and will likely continue as a way to highlight JAS as a more radical faction. In 2018 and 2019, after the so-called downfall of Boko Haram, some severe attacks using children still occurred in the region, including the June 17 2018 suicide-bombing of an Eid-a Fitr celebration in North-East Nigeria, which involved six young girls; the age of the girls was estimated between seven and ten years old. On the same day in 2019, two girls and a boy carried out a suicide bombing at a video hall in Konduga Village, Borno State, killing at least 30 people and injuring 40.  

Despite statements by the Nigerian government announcing the ‘technical defeat’ of Boko Haram, affiliated groups have continued to carry out suicide bombings against civilian targets. According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), Boko Haram was still able to execute at least three IED attacks in the first two months of 2020. Therefore, one of the risks of announcing a ‘technical defeat’ is for Boko Haram to use more radical tactics in its IED attacks in order to increase media attention and relevance. Furthermore, the assumption of a defeated threat could negatively impact the amount of resources allocated to the area to assist in child healthcare, nutrition and education. 

For more research on the impact of explosive violence on children, please visit AOAV’s category page on this matter here.