SUNDAY SERMON – PREPARING NIGERIAN SOLDIERS TO ENGAGE CHILD SOLDIERS
Nigeria is fighting wars on a number of fronts these days. We have been fighting the ongoing global war on terrorism. On the home-front, we are combating Boko Haram in northern Nigeria; there is ongoing war against oil theft mafias in the Niger Delta; the battle against militia warlords is also in progress in several fronts across the country. The leaders of these wars on the other side have persistently featured child soldiers in their illegal, criminal campaigns against the country, thus posing serious operational challenges to our soldiers. Their activities are not only threatening the corporate existence of the country, but also posing severe danger for next generation.
Who is a child soldier?
A child soldier is anyone under the age of 18 who is part of any kind of regular or irregular armed force or armed group in any capacity. The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers explained that, “Child soldiers perform a range of tasks including participation in combat, laying of mines and explosives; scouting, spying, acting as decoys, couriers or guards; training drill or other preparations; logistics and support functions, portering, cooking and domestic labour; sexual slavery or other recruitment for sexual purposes”.
Child Soldier s: Alien to Pre-Colonial Nigerian Societies
The doctrine, or use of child soldiers was unknown in all the pre-colonial countries that were later knitted together to form Nigeria. When considering warfare in traditional Nigerian setting, children rarely come to mind. In real traditional Nigerian cultures, war is assumed to be a place for only the strong, brave, and willing, from which the young, the old, the infirm, women and the innocent are not only excluded but supposed to be afforded special protection. The exclusion of children from warfare held true in all Nigerian traditional cultures. In pre-colonial Nigerian tribal armies, the general practice was that the warriors normally joined four to five years after puberty. In the stateless countries of the Niger Delta, it was not until the ages of 18 and 21 that members were eligible for enrollment into the village regiments. Similarly, in pre-colonial Kano, only married men were conscripted, as those unmarried were considered too immature for such an important and honoured task as war.
The ranks and files of the pre-colonial Nigerian tribal armies known as “Akoda” and “Olopa” in Western Nigeria, “Dangary”, and “Yan Gardi” or “Yan Doka” in Northern Nigeria, and “Danduka” in Eastern Nigeria consisted mainly of adult soldiers who perform protective duties, served as messengers to the Kings in various capacities, in courts, palace, and while traveling. They also fought wars, defend their territories, and maintained internal security.
When the British arrived, there were no traces of child soldiers in these armies. They applauded both the legality and legitimacy of the constitution and composition of the local forces. In reaction, the British cherished their usefulness, encouraged their continued existence and recognized them as “enforcers” of local laws, “keepers” of peace and order, and “protectors” of Kings.
When children of lesser ages did serve in ancient Nigerian tribal armies, they typically did not serve in combats. Instead, they carried out more menial chores, such as herding cattle, bearing shield and mats for more senior warriors. There is no trace of traditional Nigerian tribes or ancient civilizations reliant on fighting forces made up of young boys and girls. This is a reflection of the general importance of age grades as traditional ruling structure long cherished in Nigeria. These social groupings determined by age cohorts cut across ties created by kinship and common residence thus enabling senior rulers and tribal elders to exercise control and maintain command over their younger and potentially unruly subjects. Throughout the thousands of years of tribal wars, children were never an integral, essential part of any military force in what becomes known as Nigeria today.
Also, the available weapons of war in pre-colonial Nigerian cultures did not favour child soldiers. For example, in the pre-colonial Eleme army known as “Ejε” only men of 20 years old and above were the choice men eligible to go to war, who could handle spear and shield.
Origin of Child Soldiers in Nigeria
History of the origin of child soldiers in West Africa in general and Nigeria in particular will be incomplete without mention of role of the British, the propagators of the doctrine in Nigeria. The British introduced the use of child soldiers in Nigeria. The establishment of the Boys Company of Nigeria (now Nigerian Military School), Zaria modeled after the Boys Wing of the British Army marked the genesis of child soldiers in Nigeria. Between its formation on May 20, 1954 and the abolition of direct absorption of child soldiers into the Nigerian Army in 2009, the Nigerian Military School (NMS), Zaria, which was established along with three others in the British West Africa colonies of the Gambia, Gold Coast (now Ghana), and Sierra-Leone, has turned out well over 3,000 child soldiers.
In a statement in Abuja on 15 September, 2011, the then Col. O. U. Abdul, Director of Army Information revealed that, “the Nigerian Military School, Zaria was established to in 1954 to meet up with the basic academic and manpower requirements of the Nigerian Army in the early days of Nigeria’s independence”. He admitted that “the administrative burden of managing the Nigerian Military School produced child soldiers was not only cumbersome but the system contravene the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and also falls below the relevant UN standards”. He announced that in 2009 the Nigerian Army abolished the direct absorption of child soldiers from the Nigerian Military School, Zaria into the Nigerian Army”, in line with the UN Convention on child soldiers.
Security Challenge of Child Soldiers in Nigeria
Over the years, child soldier has emerged a serious security challenge in Nigeria. During the Nigerian-Biafra War (NBW) child soldiers featured prominently on both sides; and it is estimated that not less than 100,000 child soldiers were killed in combat and another 150,000 were murdered by hunger. Child soldiers are also playing active roles in the ongoing crisis rocking the country. The child soldiers or child terrorists’ activities in various parts of modern Nigeria calls for proper training, equipping and support for our professional soldiers to deal with this dreadful change in contemporary warfare. Political and military leaders must begin to wrestle with the difficult dilemmas that our soldiers now face in the field rather than continuing to ignore them at greater costs. The onus is on our leaders, in government and the military to do all that they can to reverse the spread and end the terrible practice of using child soldiers/child terrorists.
With the rising of groups using child soldiers in Nigeria, our military forces, home and abroad, must prepare themselves for the task ahead. Our troops will have to put themselves in a situation where they face real and serious threats from insurgents whom they generally would prefer not to harm. Of course, they may be youngsters, but when combined with the increasing simplicity and lethality of modern small arms and light weapons, child soldiers often bring to bear a great deal of military threat.
Therefore, Nigerian soldiers must be prepared for the tough decisions that they will be confronted in order to avoid any confusion over Rules of Engagement (ROE) or the micro-second hesitations, because of shock at the composition of their foes or uncertainty on what to do when faced with a child soldier or child terrorist as young as 9 years of age, that can prove lethal. An effective, timely response will also take away some of the perceived advantages of the child soldier doctrine, making it less likely to be used.
Preparing the Military for Child Soldiers
Experiences have proved that there are a number of effective techniques to handle situations when professional soldiers are confronted by child soldiers or terrorists. These include:
There is urgent need for military commanders and policy-makers to develop official policies and effective solutions to counter the dilemmas that child soldiers raise rather than wishing the problem away.
The national intelligence apparatus must be overhauled to become attuned to the threat and ramifications of child soldiering. This is not only important in forecasting broad political and military events, but knowledge of the composition and structure of the adversary is also a critical factor in determining the best response. Intelligence should be sensitive to three aspects in particular. These are:
a. What methods of recruitment the insurgent utilizes.
b. The core use to which the child soldiers are put.
c. The average child soldier’s period of service.
Those using abduction techniques will be more prone to dissolving under shock than those with voluntary recruits or children who have been in service for many years or who joined based on ideological conviction.
3. Threat Recognition
Whenever troops deploy into an area known to have child soldiers or terrorists present, they must take added cautions to counter and keep the threat at a distance. Although all children are not threats and certainly should not be regarded as such, protection measures must include the possibility or even likelihood of child soldiers and terrorists. It is important to change the practices of letting children mingle among troops, and even putting children through the same scrutiny as adults at checkpoints.
4. Create Fear with Firepower
During engagement with child soldier forces, the best practice is to hold the threat at a distance and where possible, initial fire-for-shock is recommended. The goal is to maximize efficiency and prevent costly peripheral-fatalities by attempting to break up the child soldiers units, which often are not cohesive fighting forces. This forms part of a micro-level application of effects-concentrated warfare without the overwhelming dependence on high technology.
Demonstrative artillery and mortar fires, including the use of smoke, rolling barrages, which gives a sense of flow to the impending danger added with helicopter gunship passes have been proven especially effective in breaking up child soldiers’ forces.
5. Use Nonlethal Weapons
The use of nonlethal weaponry gives more options. However, be cautioned, because total annihilation of the enemy in these instances may actually backfire. The international community and human rights organizations are unpaid watchdogs of crimes against humanity. They cannot be bullied or bribed from monitoring and reporting how you fight your wars and manage your crisis. In this regard, whenever possible, military commanders and policy-makers should explore options for using nonlethal weaponry in situations that involve child soldiers or terrorists.
Armchair generals often ignorantly mock nonlethal weaponry, overlooking that it in no way eliminates the option of deadly force. Rather, its availability will provide our troops in the field with added choices and options. Nonlethal weaponry is a welcome alternative that may not only save lives on both sides but prove more effective to meeting operational goals. With the rising army of child soldiers and terrorists in Nigeria, the military need well over 50 nonlethal weapons kits to aid its internal security operations.
6. Identify and Pin Down the Leader
When forced into engagement with child soldier forces, professional soldiers should prioritize the targeting and elimination of any adult leaders if at all possible. Experience has revealed that their holds over the units are often the center of gravity, and units will dissolve if the adult leader is taken out of a position of control.
As forces seek to mop up resistance, they should focus their pursuit on the adult leaders that escape. Failure to do so allows the likely reconstitution of forces and return to conflict, as has become a recurrent theme in child soldiers’ fueled Boko Haram insurgency in Borno State.
7. Employ Psychological Operations
Psychological operations should be integrated into the overall efforts against local resistance including being specially designed for child soldier units. The primary goals should be to convince child soldiers to stop fighting, leave their units, and begin the process of rehabilitation and reintegration into society.
At the same time strategy should be developed to ensure that insurgents leaders know that their violations of the laws of war are being monitored and the dire consequences they will face in using child soldiers/terrorists.
Psychological operations should also seek to undercut any support for the use of child soldiers within the local community, by citing the great harms the practice is inflicting on the next generation; its contrast to local customs and norms; and the lack of honour in sending children out to fight adults’ wars.
8. Institute Follow-Up Procedures
The defeat of a child soldier-based insurgency does not just take place on the battlefield no matter how successful. Measures must be taken to welcome child soldier escapees and prisoners of war (POW) quickly, so as to dispel any myths on retribution and to induce others to leave the insurgency as well. This also entails preparations being made for securing child detainees, something the Nigerian military have had no doctrine or training for, even down to not having proper sized cuffs. Once soldiers have ensured that the child does not present a threat, any immediate needs of food, clothing and shelter should be provided for.
As soon as possible, the child soldier should be turned over to healthcare or non-governmental organization (NGO) professionals. The business of imprisoning juveniles is not the mission of the military and certainly not positive for the health of the military institution.
9. Protect Military Personnel
The military must also look to the health of its own personnel. Our military and political leaders must brace up to the fact that the protectors need protection. The vulnerability of our military and law enforcement officers and their families to targeting and attacks was brought to the fore with the recent massacre of over 100 officers in Nasarawa State and attacks on various military and police formations across the country with little or no resistance.
The military must be ready to deal with the psycho-social repercussions of engagement with child soldiers, for this is an added way that the use of child soldier puts professional soldiers at a disadvantage. Units that participated in the operations should be subjected to post conflict treatment and even individual counseling, otherwise the consequence of being forced to engage children may ultimately undermine unit cohesion and combat effectiveness.
10. Adopt Explain and Blame Strategy
Public affairs specialists and analysts should be prepared before hand for the unique repercussion of such engagements. In explaining the events and how children ended up being killed, they should stress the context under which they occurred and the overall operation’s importance. The public should also be sensitized that child soldiers or terrorists, although they are children, are just as lethal behind an assault rifle as adults. Importantly, public affairs specialists must seek to turn blame on where it should properly fall, on those leaders that not only illegally pulled children, indoctrinate them, drugged them into the military sphere but also send them out to execute their nefarious activities.