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In North-eastern Nigeria Attacks and Abductions Have Become a Way of Life

FRIDAY FILE: The recent abduction of hundreds of school girls from their school hostel in Chibok, Borno in north-eastern Nigeria is not an isolated incident, but rather has become a way of life for communities in three north-eastern states in Nigeria.

In this week’s Friday File we speak to Janine Morna, Research Officer at Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict [i] about their recent research on violations against children in the conflict with Boko Haram in north-eastern Nigeria.

By Susan Tolmay

On April 14 over 200 young girls between the ages of 12 and 17 were abducted from their school hostel in Chibok, some escaped but about 200 girls remain missing. The Nigerian government was slow to act following the abductions, leading to protests in Nigeria and international outcry.

Boko Haram, roughly meaning “Western education is sinful” in Hausa, is a militant Islamist group in northeastern Nigeria, northern Cameroon and Niger. Founded in 2002, the group claims to work toward establishing a so-called pure Islamic state governed by their extreme understanding of sharia law. Boko Haram attacks on churches, girls’ schools, and police stations have escalated since 2009. Some argue Boko Haram is motivated more by ethnic cleansing than the spread of fundamentalist ideas. Regardless of motivations, the group appears to have successfully destabilized parts of the country, and the Nigerian government has declared a state of emergency in three northeastern states, Borno, Yobe and Adamawa.

AWID: Tell me about the research that Watchlist conducted on Boko Haram in Nigeria. What was the purpose, do you have some key findings/ points you can share?

Janine Morna (JM): Watchlist conducts research and advocacy on the impact of conflict on children, with a focus on so-called ‘grave violations’ – six violations identified by the UN as being violations of international law: killing and maiming, abduction, rape and sexual violence against children, denial of humanitarian assistance, recruitment and use of children and attacks on schools and hospitals. Having done research on grave violations in war contexts in several countries, the network felt it important to document and get more information about what has been happening in northeastern Nigeria. Until the kidnapping of the girls in Chibok, there has not been much documentation about what is happening in this part of the country and we saw this as an important opportunity to collect first hand testimony, as well as assess the humanitarian and government response.

While the research has only just been completed, the initial findings show that the full plethora of violations affect women and children in this region. It tells a harrowing story of abductions of young girls and women during attacks on their villages, from local transportation and from schools. Boys are also vulnerable as they are targeted for killing or forcibly recruited by armed groups.

AWID: The recent abduction of over 200 teenage girls from their hostel in northeastern Nigeria has caused a media frenzy, is this an isolated incident?

JM: The Chibok attack is unique in its scale, but it is definitely not unique to the area. Abductions have been going on in northeast Nigeria, for at least the last year and a half. We were fortunate to be able to speak to girls and women who had been abducted but managed to escape, so we heard stories about what it is like to be held captive. It is a scary reality, girls are forced to convert to Islam and marry insurgent members or face death, with several reports of girls being raped by other men in the camp as well. There are also stories about women being forced to participate in attacks, carrying bullets and raiding hospitals and even a case where a girl was asked to kill someone.

It is very hard to get information about the prevalence and scale of attacks in the region, which is why this research is so important. There is a lot of rumour and conjecture, but limited formal documentation or monitoring. But there have been significant attacks on schools, which have been fairly well documented and some of those attacks have been large in scale[ii].

AWID: What effect do such attacks, and the general attitude towards women and girls in the region, have on girls and their ability to attend school? What are the long-term effects of this?

JM: The people we spoke to have experienced incredibly high levels of trauma. Many schools in the region were proactively closed by the community because they felt that they could not have children attending school with this level of insecurity. So there is a situation in part of the country, where school attendance rates were low to start off with, and have now declined further because communities don’t feel safe sending their children to school. Many teachers have fled the areas because they are specifically targeted, school buildings and infrastructure are also targeted and destroyed. For the schools that do operate, parents, teachers and children are fearful about attending school. This could have serious impacts long after the conflict is over.

AWID: It appears that these attacks happen with impunity. Do you think this is so? Why? Could the Nigerian government and international community at large be doing more to prevent these kinds of attacks?

JM: There are staggering levels of impunity because few mechanisms exist to meaningfully monitor, report, and respond to violations in the northeast. Only a small number of emergencies services exist in the region, primarily because of the security risks. As a result, the system is completely stretched. People in the northeast rely on their extended families for support.

A lot more could be done to scale up support within the states of emergency. This includes increasing humanitarian services in these regions, strengthening school security through improved infrastructure and emergency preparedness plans, and developing systems to monitor and report violations.

The government and international community can also do a lot more to support people fleeing from the states of emergency. The displaced people and communities need better access to relief services, livelihood, and educational opportunities.

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[i] Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict is a network organization. The advisory board includes five human rights and humanitarian groups - Save The Children, Human Rights Watch, World Vision International, War Child, and The Norwegian Refugee Council.

[ii] "Nigeria school attack claims 42 lives".; "Nigeria College Attacked: At Least 40 Killed"..; "Maiduguri Blast Update: 31 dead, 50 injured, as angry youth attack ex-governor’s property, supporters"; "Nigeria's Boko Haram 'in village massacre'"; "Nigeria school attack: Fury at military over Yobe deaths"