Stemming child soldier recruitment in Lake Chad Basin region

Armed groups recruit thousands of boys as fighters, but much can be done to address the crisis.

Not many details have emerged on the Islamic State West Africa Province’s (ISWAP) use of children in combat, with the focus being more on Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (JAS), the Bakura Doro-led Boko Haram faction. JAS is notorious for recruiting children, both girls and boys, as suicide bombers and combatants, resulting in thousands of deaths.

Between 2017 and 2019, the United Nations (UN) documented the recruitment and use of at least 1 385 children by Boko Haram. This included seven girls who were strapped with improvised explosive devices that they detonated at a military checkpoint, killing 100 people, including themselves.

The number of children recruited by both Boko Haram factions could be higher than the UN figure, given the lack of access in many areas where the groups operate. It is estimated that ISWAP alone may have at least 3 000 child soldiers, all boys, among its ranks. In February 2022, about 200 boys graduated from the group’s radicalisation programme.

One reason for the lack of details on ISWAP may be its purported hearts-and-minds strategy that portrays it as civilian-friendly. This is mostly a ruse, as reports of its attack on civilians abound. Another reason is perhaps the remoteness of its location on the fringes of Lake Chad Basin (LCB), with limited access making it difficult to form a good picture of what goes on there.

ISWAP’s recruitment could spread its influence to other parts of West Africa, the Sahel and beyond

As Africa’s leading Islamic State affiliate, ISWAP’s recruitment could go beyond LCB. ISWAP’s leader, Abu Musab al-Barnawi, is viewed as the Islamic State frontman in Africa. The group already has links with the Islamic State Sahel Province and Islamic State Central Africa Province. More recruitments, especially of young boys expected to serve for a long time, can enable ISWAP to spread its influence beyond the region to other parts of West Africa, the Sahel and beyond.   

Violation of children’s rights

The Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), backed by the African Union (AU), has led a regional military campaign against the two Boko Haram factions. In recent years, the MNJTF has led successful military operations in LCB that have returned displaced persons and facilitated the implementation of developmental projects and humanitarian services. An example was Operation Lake Sanity from March to August 2022. MNJTF operations have contributed largely to declining ISWAP influence, including its territorial expansion, notwithstanding its isolated successes with expansion outside Lake Chad islands.

ISWAP has sought child soldiers due to the loss of fighters to military operations. The group’s desperation is reflected in how it treats these children. During raids, many are abducted from their homes and communities in Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria. Some are taken under the pretence of enrolment into the Islamic Tsangaya education system predominant in the areas.

Institute for Security Studies (ISS) research cites a former fighter as claiming that ISWAP recruited more than 800 children from Niger in 2022. This suggests that the group may be working with recruiters trusted by the boys’ families to hand them over to a Quranic teacher.

At least five former fighters, commanders and instructors with whom the ISS spoke independently were at most 25 years old, with all but one recruited more than 10 years ago. Some were only with JAS, while others left with the breakaway group that formed ISWAP. One common feature is that they all passed through the tadrib (radicalisation programme at centres called Darul Quran).

In early 2022, ISWAP released a propaganda video of young boys undergoing combat training. Meant to drive recruitment, it showed young boys being well fed and taken care of. However, former soldiers said the reality was different, with life harder than portrayed in the video.

Given the loss of fighters to military operations, ISWAP has sought child soldiers

According to a former commander, training starts with building the children’s stamina and endurance by making them run a few kilometres on empty stomachs. Then they are introduced to combat training and rifle handling. A former child soldier stated that many children initially fear holding the rifle because of the weight.

Some cry, others shake while still others fall to the ground due to the weapon’s weight. Some instructors shout at the children, while some whip them for showing weakness. The youngsters gradually get used to it and start learning how to shoot.

Sometimes, to strike fear into a child, an instructor unexpectedly shoots at the ground between the child’s legs or by his side. According to the former instructor, this helps eliminate fear and makes the child brave. Sometimes, mistakes happen and a child is accidentally shot. Other times, a child passes out because of shock from the unexpected shooting.

Once they can shoot a rifle, they are deemed ready for the battlefield. Some show interest in being on the frontlines of battle while others, due to fear, prefer to remain at the back or not join. Sometimes a commander places the children in the front against their will and whips those showing fear or trying to retreat.

Given the risks associated with being a combatant, ISWAP commanders and fighters don’t forcibly recruit their own children. Their children are guided towards religious scholarship to become clerics or judges. But if the child chooses to become a fighter, he is allowed to do so and is trained, just treated differently from his counterparts.

Addressing the scourge

Since member states drive the AU and its Peace and Security Council (PSC) while perpetrators such as ISWAP are non-state armed groups, enforcing PSC frameworks may be challenging. Thus, the focus should be on preventing child recruitment and, more broadly on socio-economic and governance challenges that nurture non-state armed groups. The communique issued at the end of the 1101st PSC meeting on children affected by armed conflicts in Africa is important.

The PSC encourages inclusion of the six grave violations against children in armed conflict in member states’ school curricula to create and enhance awareness. In addition, it promotes research in the prevention of the phenomenon of child soldiers. These are significant because people in remote and border communities – where recruitments happen – may not be aware that ISWAP’s actions are violations. Awareness campaigns should include engaging with local community leaders, religious figures, youth and women’s groups and educators, given that recruitment occurs at community and family levels.

The PSC could invite Borno state officials to share lessons learnt regarding child recruitment by armed groups

Another approach could be deliberate military action to rescue children recruited by ISWAP and other armed groups. The MNJTF can play a significant role here because of its mandates, among them creating a safe and secure environment in Boko Haram-affected LCB regions. This can have as much effect as the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programmes that LCB has used to deplete Boko Haram’s fighting capacity.

Dedicated rehabilitation and reintegration programmes for former child soldiers should be considered. Such programmes should incorporate education, vocational training and psychosocial support to deal with trauma.

Borno, the worst-affected LCB state, has made progress from which other affected regions could benefit. In addition to signing the Child Rights Act into law, the state rehabilitated and reintegrated 6 503 children formerly associated with Boko Haram. Its pronounced focus on education has seen the building and rehabilitation of dozens of schools and the enrolment of children.

It also aims to keep children out of reach of groups such as Boko Haram. The PSC could invite Borno state officials to share lessons learnt with other member states afflicted by child recruitment by armed groups.

Addressing the causes of child soldier recruitment is equally important. Boko Haram’s recruitment strategy is built around poverty, lack of education and social marginalisation that dominate many affected communities, especially border communities, where limited state presence is more pronounced.

It is important that the PSC draws attention to this and requests detailed reports on what is being done in LCB to address it. An open session involving those at the coalface should also be considered at which the state of play and the role of policy-action could be assessed and rigorously debated.

Image: © Unmasking Boko Haram / ISWAP video screenshot

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