To Beat Boko Haram, Nigeria Must Craft a Future for Its Child Soldiers

Nigeria Soldiers parade during the inauguration of the new Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari, in Abuja , Nigeria, Friday, May 29, 2015.

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Nigeria Soldiers parade during the inauguration of the new Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari, in Abuja , Nigeria, Friday, May 29, 2015.

Boko Haram has anywhere between 7,000 and 10,000 regular fighters, and no military campaign against them can—or should—envisage killing them all.

Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari has just held an impromptu summit of regional leaders, to devise a new military campaign against Boko Haram, following up on his inaugural pledge to take the fight to the terrorist group. Such a rethinking is long overdue, but the leaders who met at Abuja airport must also start articulating a post-war scenario that allows many Boko Haram fighters to be reintegrated into society.

As I’ve argued before, a plan to rehabilitate former fighters is crucial to winning the war against militant groups. Boko Haram has anywhere between 7,000 and 10,000 regular fighters, and no military campaign against them can—or should—envisage killing them all. Nor can Nigeria and its neighbors incarcerate thousands of fighters.

More important, Boko Haram’s fighters don’t all deserve to be treated alike. Many are themselves victims of terror: child soldiers, abducted from their families and forced to join the ranks of the “holy” warriors. Although it is hard to know exactly how many, nongovernmental agencies estimate they number at least in the hundreds. (Some estimates suggest fully 40% of fighters are children.) The group has published videos of training camps where children, called the “Cubs of the Caliphate,” are trained to fight.

Daniel Eyre, a researcher on Nigeria for Amnesty International says, via e-mail, that abductions of boys is “regular,” and that “there appears to be a pattern of forced recruitment.” Add to this the many men who have been coerced to fight for Boko Haram, and the number may run into the thousands.

The role played by child soldiers in the Boko Haram ranks varies. Some of the “Cubs” have reportedly become enthusiastic killers, but for the most part they perform noncombat tasks, like guarding bases. Earlier this week, The Independent published the harrowing account of a Nigerian local chief who, along with his family, had for months been held captive by Boko Haram. The chief recalled that his guards were mostly boys: “Those holding us were no more than 14 or 15 years old—they had no say in what happened to us.” Soldiers from Chad recently rescued 43 child soldiers in the Nigerian town of Damasak: the kids made a run for it while the grown-ups around them were fighting.

What should be done about these kids? Speaking at a World Economic Forum panel I moderated in Cape Town last week, Nigerian human-rights activist Hafsat Abiola-Costello made a passionate, persuasive case that these reluctant fighters should be granted amnesty and brought back into the fold of the communities from which they were taken. (You can catch a video recording of entire conversation here; Abiola-Costello starts at the 09.02 mark.)

She pointed to the #BringBackOurGirls campaign that calls for the rescue of girls abducted by Boko Haram, adding: “We know that we have to rescue the girls: everyone is clear about this, and (Buhari) spoke about it in his inaugural speech. But we should also be very clear that we have to rescue the boys. Just because they have been used as soldiers, and not as sex slaves, it was not their doing—it was the choices made by the Boko Haram leaders.” While the leaders must face the full weight of the law, she said, the children should be treated with more compassion.

(Related: Boko Haram and Nigeria’s Army Are in a Human Rights Abuse Feedback Loop)

Yes, the #BringBackOurGirls campaign has had mixed results: those who have been rescued have hard time reentering society. But this only shows that a plan to reintegrate child soldiers must be comprehensive and well-funded—and that it should be informed by the experiences of the rescued girls.

And what of the grown-ups? Some of them deserve special consideration, too. Abiola-Costello pointed out that many rank-and-file fighters come from desperately poor communities, and only joined Boko Haram because it offered them a path out of poverty. “Boko Haram gives them money every month, a salary, a place to belong,” she said. “It’s a sign of a failure of government. That’s our failure, we must take responsibility for that.”

Obviously, it will be hard to tell the hardcore terrorists from the reluctant fighters. One way to find out, Abiola-Costello said, is to consult the communities that have ben terrorized by Boko Haram: “In the communities, people know who were the Boko Haram fundamentalists, who were abducted boys and girls, who were from Al Majari [Koranic schools]. ” The sooner Buhari and other leaders start that conversation, the smoother the transition will be.

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