The Boko Haram conflict and its escalation have caused death, destruction of lives and property, and resulted in massive displacement in North East Nigeria since 2009.
As the insurgency continues to ravage the North-Eastern region in Nigeria, its ripple effects are felt across the West African countries of Chad, Niger, and Cameroon. It has led to one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.
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The devastating impact of the calamity is seen in the displacement and alarming rates of malnutrition. Many unending issues plague the region. As the government, non-government organizations, and local actors continue to address the complexities, the problem remains perpetually the same in a perplexing manner.
The most affected according to reports are women and children. Also, an unquantifiable number of men and boys have been abducted or killed. Thousands, if not millions of children are experiencing distressing rates of malnutrition, lack of access to health care or education, and dealing with the devastating psychological effects in the aftermath of an eleven-year conflict. In many cases, the children are orphaned or separated from parents who have fled to different locations across Nigerian states and West African countries. According to UNICEF reports, 1.9 million people have been displaced by the Boko haram insurgency. The Borno State Government, in 2017, estimated 52,000 children have been orphaned. Numbers could be more.
And in the sandy streets of Maiduguri, many children wander around begging for alms with needy hands and dusty faces eyeing passers-by. All over the state capital, as cars pass by on newly tarred roads, children and young men hold sweets or biscuits in a wooden hand-held pack following people in cars around in a bid to find customers for their small businesses. Drivers zoom past the children sometimes in irritation or at other times giving naira notes in empathy.
Meanwhile, in camps for the internally displaced, many dishevelled children with sunken eyes and tattered clothes hover around aid workers while others are seen either chasing grasshoppers, playing, or farming with their parents in small subsistence style. They sometimes linger during food distributions or are the focus of interviews for research for countless institutions and organisations.
A handful of the children are in Islamic schools taught by scholars displaced from villages who are concerned about the impact of idleness and lack of “tarbiyya” on the minds of children. Children of the Christian faith are sometimes in shelters provided by generous pastors on church premises. They are also learning the teachings of the Bible.
And across the various markets in Maiduguri, small children are sighted working as errand boys and girls for traders. Similarly, other teenagers are often in mechanic workshops, tailoring shops, or at suya joints or caught sight of in the late hours of the nights in the well-lit streets continuing to roam with friends. There have been cases of abuse on street children.
A mass number of children who have been forcibly recruited into fighting for the terrorist groups are returning from captivity. The rescued children returning from these terrorist-occupied villages are also spotted in rehabilitation centres and military-controlled camps seemingly worn out and malnourished. The mental toll of the double bind of being a child and entangled in an armed group’s activity is evident. In the sprawling piece of land that houses the displaced, underaged girls are also sighted roaming around the tents. A multitude of these girls have a history of countless molestations, rape, and sexual slavery perpetrated by members of the terrorist groups. Additionally, increasing cases of sexual exploitation by men of the armed forces sent to protect the displaced persons have been recorded.
As millions are displaced across numerous states and countries, the disconnection and loss of family members without hope for reunification is another harsh reality. Thousands have no birth certificates, do not know the whereabouts of their families or cannot recollect or connect the dots of information about the past. There is a loss of culture as many children are being raised in refugee or internally displaced camps without renowned traditions of many ethnic groups. Concerned teachers and historians fear some children may never know their true cultural identity as many cultures could vanish if left untaught.
For now, it is crystal clear that the aftermath of the Boko Haram conflict has ushered in more than a decade of devastation beyond human comprehension. It is also obvious that there is a glaring problem; there are thousands of displaced and unaccompanied children across Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria, and West Africa in general. The emotional, educational and health toll on children continues to be overwhelming. Many organisations are faced with the dilemma of how to address the array of issues concerning orphaned and displaced children in Borno. Even as territories are reclaimed, famine is addressed, mega schools and hospitals are being rebuilt, military reshuffling continues to address insecurity, the question remains: How can this crisis be effectively addressed in all of its intricacies as regards children? What will the future look like for the thousands of unaccompanied minors in Borno state, North-East Nigeria, and neighbouring countries?