The Nigeria military on Monday in Maiduguri, Borno State, handed over to the the United Nations 184 child soldiers arrested while fighting on the side of Boko Haram insurgents.
The Theatre Commander, Operational Lafiya Dole, Nicholas Rogers, officiated the handing over at a brief ceremony held at the Maimalari Barracks of the 7 Division in Maiduguri.
Boko Haram has in the last nine years of its insurgency in North-east Nigeria engaged thousands of underage children as fighters.
Many of the children who were mostly coerced to pick up arms against the state were killed in fights with government forces.
According to the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF), more than 2000 children were engaged by Boko Haram in 2016 alone.
Between January 2013 and December 2016, Boko Haram maimed, killed or used as child soldiers 12,850 children, the agency said.
An estimated 2000 children have so far been released by the Nigerian Army to the Borno State Government and UNICEF.
There are currently about 7,000 children in the reintegration programme of the UNICEF, said Ibrahim Cesay, the agency’s senior child protection specialist, who represented the UN humanitarian coordinator, Edward Kallon.
The Theatre Commander, Mr Rogers, while handing over the 184 former child soldiers to the Borno State Government and UNICEF, said the children were rescued in various military operations around the North-east.
He said the handover of the children was in line with the policy directive of the Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai, which he said is in accordance with the international humanitarian laws concerning, arrest, interrogation and rehabilitation of suspects.
“In regard to the request of the UN humanitarian coordinator and pursuant to the commitment of the Nigerian Army, and Nigeria as a country to protect the rights of children affected by armed conflicts in all ramifications, the Chief of Army Staff has directed the release of 184 children who were associated with armed conflicts and have been in the custody of the Nigeria Army for sometimes,” he said.
“In this regard, the Chief of Army Staff wants the Nigerian Army to collaborate with all relevant stakeholders and support in the areas of conflict, particularly in working closely with the UNICEF in handling over children affected by the armed conflict in the northeast.
“It is hoped that all these released children will be given a comprehensive and all encompassing physical and psycho-social support they need before their reintegration into the larger society”.
The representative of the Borno State Government, Fanta Babashehu, who is the Commissioner for Women Affairs, thanked the Nigerian Army for rescuing the vulnerable children.
“This is not the first time we are receiving this kind of children who were rescued by the Nigerian Army during this insurgency,” she said.
She added that the state government will admit all the children into the state rehabilitation centre manned by UNICEF, where they will be given all the support and care to make them fit for rehabilitation and reunification with their families.
The UNICEF Representative in Nigeria, Muhammad Fall, said in an earlier statement that the “eight girls and 175 boys are first and foremost victims of the ongoing conflict and their release is an important step on their long road to recovery.”
“We will be working with the Borno State Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development and partners to provide the children with all the assistance they need. I also want to commend the action taken by the military and the authorities, it demonstrates a clear commitment to better protect children affected by the ongoing conflict.”
He said after having been held in administrative custody, the children will receive medical attention and psycho-social support before the process of reuniting them with their families and reintegrating them into society begins.
Though officials barred journalists from speaking with the children, some of them who spoke off record said they regretted their involvement in the Boko Harman fight after they spent some time in military custody.