When Janine Morna arrived in northern Nigeria in March to study child abductions by local militias, few outside the region had any idea of the scope of the problem.
That changed abruptly on the evening of April 14 - 15, when members of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram stormed a secondary school in the northeastern town of Chibok and captured some 300 teenage girls.
Suddenly, child kidnappings in northern Nigeria — which had concerned human rights researchers like Ms. Morna for years — were global front-page news. Around the world, nations pledged aid and counterterrorism assistance, while #BringBackOurGirls floated to the top of trending topics on Twitter. It gave many who live and work in the region hope that change was imminent.
“It was like night and day,” says Morna, whose research on human rights violations against children in northern Nigeria was released today in a report by the New York-based Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict. “Before Chibok, northern Nigeria was just a black hole in terms of information about abductions…. Suddenly, it was a wake up call — the world started to realize the scope of the problem.”
But if the Chibok kidnapping succeeded in drawing widespread attention to the grinding civil conflict in northern Nigeria, it also revealed the violence’s deep and tangled roots — and the long-term commitment needed to unsnarl them. Children have been particularly affected, not only in terms of kidnappings, but also through school closures and limited access to government services.
The Watchlist report calls on the Nigerian government to forcefully denounce child abductions and recruitment by militarized groups in the country's north. It also urges the government to collaborate more effectively with international organizations in order to ease the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the region.
“This case has been very frustrating for those of us who hoped an increase in international awareness would bring real change,” to Nigeria, says Martin Ewi, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa.
Boko Haram has made “lightning territorial gains,” according to the Nigeria Security Network, taking control of a key northeastern town of Bama this week. The militant group, which is fighting to establish an independent Islamic state in Nigeria's north, killed more than 2,000 civilians in the first half of 2014 alone, according to Human Rights Watch.
It has killed, injured, or abducted more than 400 students, teachers, and other civilians during attacks on some 200 Nigerian Schools since the beginning of 2012, Watchlist reports.
Global interventions, including an international conference hosted by French President François Hollande and attended by leaders from Europe, Africa, and the US, and including Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan, have so far failed to slow the fighting. Meanwhile, Boko Haram has basked in the glow of the widespread international media coverage.
“For Boko Haram, this is the best publicity they could ask for,” Mr. Ewi says. “We can see that their morale is increasing because of it.”
Over the last two years, the militant group — whose name loosely translates as “Western education is forbidden” — has made children and schools a deliberate target in its campaign.
A hovering threat of attacks has prompted local education officials to shutter hundreds of schools, with the Ministry of Education in the northern state of Borno estimating that there are now a quarter million school-age children out of the classroom due to conflict in that province alone. Boko Haram actions also threaten access to food, medical care, and other basic services in one of Nigeria’s poorest corners.
What’s more, children are routinely kidnapped and forced to work for both Boko Haram and the local militias that oppose the group. According to one estimate, nearly 2,000 children are currently working directly or indirectly for military groups in the region performing tasks from combat to cooking.
In all, Watchlist estimates that more than 3 million Nigerian children’s lives have been affected by the conflict.
"We need to look more systemically at the issues affecting these children," Morna says. "There needs to be first and foremost an appreciation for the scale and level of violence that people are experiencing" in northern Nigeria.