“They Didn’t Know if I Was Alive or Dead”


Military Detention of Children for Suspected Boko Haram Involvement in Northeast Nigeria


 The Nigerian military has arrested and detained thousands of children, some as young as five, for suspected involvement with the armed Islamist group Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, which in Arabic means “people committed to the propagation of the Prophet’s teaching.” The group, more commonly known as Boko Haram, has engaged in a deadly insurgency against the Nigerian state since 2009. 

Government forces apprehend children they suspect of Boko Haram involvement in a variety of ways: during security sweeps, military operations, screening procedures outside of camps for internally displaced persons, and based on information provided by informants. In many cases, authorities arrest children with little or no evidence. One boy told Human Rights Watch he was arrested and detained for more than two years for allegedly selling yams to Boko Haram members. 

The military may hold children for short periods in local prisons or detention facilities, but eventually transfers most of the children to the Giwa military barracks in Maiduguri, the main military detention facility in Borno State. 

Children detained at Giwa barracks described squalid, severely overcrowded conditions. Confined in cells of about 10 by 10 meters with up to 300 other detainees, children said they were forced to sleep on their sides, packed tightly together in rows like “razorblades in a pack.” They suffered overwhelming heat, frequent hunger, and an overpowering stench from hundreds of detainees sharing a single open toilet. Many said they observed soldiers carrying dead bodies of other detainees from their cell or other cells. 

Some children are imprisoned for months; others for years. Few are ever charged with any crime. 

The United Nations (UN) reported that between January 2013 and March 2019, the Nigerian armed forces detained over 3,600 children, including 1,617 girls, for suspected involvement with non-state armed groups. In 2017 alone, they detained over 1,900 children. According to UN reports, the number of children detained in 2018 dropped significantly, although Nigerian authorities have consistently denied the UN access to military detention facilities to verify the actual number held. Human Rights Watch does not know the number of children currently detained by the Nigerian military. 

In June 2019, Human Rights Watch interviewed 32 children and youth who had been detained at Giwa barracks as children. In all of the cases investigated, the children’s detention appeared to be arbitrary. None of the 32 children interviewed said they were taken before a judge or appeared in court, as required by law. None were aware of any charges against them. Only one said he saw someone who he believed might have been a lawyer. 

To access the special report, click link https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/09/10/they-didnt-know-if-i-was-alive-or-dead/military-detention-children-suspected-boko