By Gabriel Ewepu
Why are you in Nigeria?
I came to Nigeria, specifically Maiduguri June this year because Human Rights Watch was alarmed. Reports that we have seen from United Nations, UN, about large numbers of children that are subjected to military detention because of suspected involvement with Boko Haram, in fact in 2017 the number put was that they were as many 1, 900 in military detention and that was the highest number of any country in the world.
This has been an unfortunate trend in recent years. In international law, it is very clear that children who have been affected by armed conflict need rehabilitation. But we have seen a number of countries including Nigeria subjecting children to military detention.
With the alleged detention of children are you saying the military is at fault?
Yes. It is a decision by the Nigerian authority by holding these children in military detention. We interviewed 32 children and youth at Giwa Barracks for a period of a few months to over three years. In fact, the youngest child we interviewed was 10 years old but when he was detained he was only five. Many of these children told us that they have been attacked by Boko Haram and when they fled their villages and encountered soldiers instead of receiving help and safety they were arrested as suspected Boko Haram members and sent to Giwa Barracks for detention.
Many of these children seem to be double-victimised. First, they were attacked by Boko Haram and they were detained by their own government. They stand with no evidence.
Have HRW approached the Nigerian Military for evidence that you are alleging they don’t have and any efforts made in reaching them?
We sent a letter to the Chief of Army Staff July this year; sharing our preliminary finding and asking for comment. We asked for the perspective on this issue, asked them for the number of children in detention, what their basis was for their detention, but today we have received no official reply.
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As you said, ‘No reply’ what is that signalling to HRW?
It is unfortunate. We preferred having a dialogue with the government. We did meet with the Minister of Defence on Monday to show our findings and recommendations. We have pointed out that we have seen progress on this issue; the number of children detained dropped quite significantly between 2017 and 2018, and there have been more 2000 children released. But we see some leadership from the Nigerian authorities and other aspects of the conflicts. For example demobilizing child soldiers, civilian joint task force, we are endorsing our commitment to protect schools from the conflicts, but we are also asking the Nigerian authorities to end military detention of children, sign and hand-over protocol so that any children apprehended can be transferred swiftly to civilian child protection authorities to get justice if they need.
What is your feeling about these children with the position you occupy?
It is very sad. The conditions they endured at Giwa Barracks are one of the worst systems I have encountered. They described severe overcrowding. Hundreds of children packed into a cell with no room to move, not even to roll over at night when they tried to sleep. At night some of the children said you can’t put one finger between one person and the next. They were packed like razor blades in a pack. It was extremely hot, no ventilation, detainees will faint from the heat. Some detainees died from the heat and poor conditions.
The children described missing their families and being denied any opportunity to call their parents, or to have their family members to come to visit. Many of said they have lost hope, and so they were afraid they will never be released but will die at Giwa Barracks. There was nothing for them to do; no formal education, recreation, rehabilitation, just sitting day after day, for months or even years. It is just a horrific experience for anyone let alone a child. Some of these children are astonishingly young.
The boys we interviewed said they will be typically seven or eight years old boys in their cells. As I mentioned one boy we interviewed said he was five years old. The women and girls cells were babies and toddlers they were being kept with their parents. It just sounded like a horrific environment.
From your interview with these children don’t you think they have links with the insurgents as claimed by the military, and did you find out from these children whether any child was used by the insurgents to carry out a suicide bombing on soft spots?
Several of the children we interviewed have been abducted by Boko Haram, and some of the girls, in particular, said they have been forced to marry Boko Haram commanders or soldiers. One girl in the interview she said she was instructed in three separate occasions to carry out a suicide bombing and that she is been sent to a village with a suicide bomb, but in each case she refused and she returned without being carrying out the operation. She refused to that even when she knows that she would be punished.
As I mentioned most of the children said they have been attacked in their villages and some said they have been asked to join Boko Haram but they refused, and those that did said they have been forced against their will. Truly we have no way to independently verify their accounts but what I would say is if the military has evidence they were actually fighters why they hold them without charge, why never bring that evidence forward to formally charge them with criminal offences. The cast majority have been released without any charge.
You know the Military is an organization that is secretive and don’t you think it is an intelligence report that you are demanding, which is against their principles and they don’t want to release it?
Certainly governments and military have the discretion to handle confidential intelligence. But citizens also have rights. In international law children, in particular, are supposed to be treated with special care. In international is clear that if children have participated as a fighter their primary priority is rehabilitation, and if there is a case they have committed criminal offences then they are entitled to judicial process in line with international juvenile justice standards, and indefinite detention under the condition that I have described are clear violation under international law and in many different respects.
Now that the military is not responding to HRW and you are making a demand that the Nigerian government should ensure the release of these children, rehabilitated, and reintegrated into the society, and if all of these fail what will be the next line of action of HRW?
Well, we are asking others to join us. In fact, the recommendations we are making don’t just come from us in Human Rights Watch. The United Nations Security Council has a working group and children in armed conflicts. In December 2017, they also recommended to Nigeria that they sign this hand-over protocol to release children and they expressed grave concerns about military detention in Nigeria.
Just in June, this year the United Nations Secretary-General himself in a public report called on Nigeria to release any children, to end military detention and sign handover protocol. So these are shared concerns by civil society and the United Nations. We hope the government will take this as constructive recommendations and ensure leadership by taking these steps.